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Courtesy of Warp Records

October 6, 2016

TEST SPIN: Danny Brown — Atrocity Exhibition

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Right off the bat, I want to let you know that I’m not going to review this new record, Atrocity Exhibition by the Detroit rapper Danny Brown, objectively. Danny Brown is my favorite rapper of all time, I’m disposed to review this record positively, and it’d be dishonest to pretend otherwise. I also want to let you know that even though Danny Brown is a great, great rapper, he’s also extremely transgressive and sometimes difficult to listen to; his music is so weird that it inspires obsessive love in some while alienating many more. Accordingly, Atrocity Exhibition is as uncompromising and bizarre as it is brilliant.

Danny raps in a nasal, high-pitched squeal that mimics the effects of stimulant abuse, and his music is dissonant, arrhythmic and stressful. His beats draw heavily from electronic music, with nods to alternative hip hop, classic boom-bap and industrial. His subject matter hasn’t changed since his breakthrough 2011 mixtape XXX: wild, drug-fueled partying mixed with his hellish experiences in inner-city Detroit. No one has rapped more extensively about drugs and pussy; the human vagina is to Danny as the bullfight was to Hemingway, and combined with his weirdo voice, the lyrics can be, um, offputting. A line like “slurp that pussy up just like lo mein,” from “Pneumonia,” vividly illustrates what I mean.

Nonetheless, Danny has mastered his craft, and he raps throughout Atrocity Exhibition with utter control, creativity and verve. Separate the experience of his flow from the meaning of his words and you’ll still find it endlessly entertaining. On “White Lines”, for instance, Danny raps in unison with twinkling background samples, while on “When It Rain” he carries the rhythm along without drums for most of the song, sustaining the beat verbally. On “Lost”, his flow seems perpendicular to the skewed, unpredictable beat, floating alongside it without ever quite landing. His subversive take on hip hop — Atrocity Exhibition sometimes sounds like rapping in Wonderland, or maybe just a really weird satire of Top-40 radio — is only possible because of his formal mastery of hip hop tropes. He can rap over just about anything, and does.

Danny’s art can be experienced as pulse-pounding club music and you don’t have to even listen to the lyrics to enjoy it that way. To really get him, though, you have to listen to his darker, more subdued stuff, which humanizes him and helps excuse his often distasteful subject matter. About half of Danny’s music is about crushing depression and poverty, and even the partying always comes with a cost — on “Downward Spiral,” he’s paranoid and alone, grinding his teeth from molly, and “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” takes him from school to the street to jail. These songs are in the tradition of his gritty stories on XXX and his 2013 followup Old about selling crack to pregnant whores (“Ain’t even had pads, stuff they panties with tissue!”), ripping the scrap metal out of abandoned houses, and watching his uncle burn his face with a crack pipe, and they serve as a counterweight to his shrill party music.

If all Danny rapped about was the hell of systemic poverty, he’d be an unlistenably earnest street preacher. If all he rapped about was orgies with crack whores, he’d be an obnoxious vulgarian. Appreciating Danny’s music requires reconciling the two halves of his art, using each one to defuse the other. The partying is an escape; the misery is made tolerable through pussy jokes. So to appreciate Danny’s music, you have to listen to the whole album, which in turn puts an upper limit on how popular he can ever get.

His genre-defying style fits nicely with his hip taste and artsy bent. Danny wears skinny jeans and leather jackets, and combined with his busted teeth, he looks more like an urban hipster than a rapper. Atrocity Exhibition is full of touches that will delight indie fans, from the Joy Division references (the term “atrocity exhibition” is from their 1980 album Closer, plus they’re sampled on “Golddust”) to the expressionist self-portrait on the cover to the abstract, complex quality of the music itself. If you’re the kind of person who likes reading album reviews, you’re Danny Brown’s target audience, and that shouldn’t undermine his authenticity among hip hop heads: his gritty lyrics are backed up by real life.

Atrocity Exhibition is a dark trip. “Ain’t It Funny” is so unhinged that it’s difficult to listen to, and the clanging gamelans on “Pneumonia” land like bottles breaking on the curb. But the album is fun and irreverent, too. “Dance In The Water”, with its gleeful background chants, is essentially a goofy dance song, and “Get Hi” is a blissed-out, stoned bright spot through the gloom. Danny’s lyrics, too, are so joyfully inventive that they often excuse themselves; here, I submit, “Mimosa for breakfast / With a thick hoe from Texas.”

This album tells the same story as Danny’s last two albums, XXX and Old, without significantly changing his sound. Maybe his painful, drug-addled upbringing is inescapable and he’s condemned to rap about it forever. Or maybe he only has one thing to say, and he’ll spend his career continuing to rephrase it. These are the kind of career musings that only matter if you already like his music, but nonetheless, it’s worth pointing out; Danny fans, you’ll find that Atrocity Exhibition is a well-crafted, expensive take on ideas he’s already made public. This, I guess, is slightly disappointing. But stream the album anyway; it’s a little better than Old, not quite XXX.

And if you haven’t already heard Danny’s music, I really have to urge you to give Atrocity Exhibition a chance and try to understand where he’s coming from and what he’s talking about. He’s an acquired taste, and he’s nothing I’d show my grandmother, but this is real art and deserves to be respected as such. Atrocity Exhibition’s flaws fade over time, and its virtues become more and more obvious. Spend some time with this one.

Max Van Zile is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mvanzile@cornellsun.com. 

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