The tug-of-war between cleaning up and maintaining the rockstar lifestyle is absent.
We expect rap to tell certain familiar stories. We expect to hear about struggle, and we want to hear about artists surmounting it. But what if an artist can't get out of their own way? Are they still deserving of the same adulation as those who escaped?
Danny Brown's career continuously asks this question. XXX, the rapper's introduction to the masses, framed him as a guy cognizant not only of his brilliance ("Pac Blood") but also of the systemic challenges that made it near-impossible for that brilliance to shine through the cracks. Masking his broader focus alongside songs about partying and different methods of oral sex, he explored the way lifelong exposure to hard drugs and the deindustrialization of Detroit has made it easier to succumb to addiction. His two-sided follow up, Old, positioned him in the middle of a crisis, where on one side the horrid scenes of the past inform him that he should chill on the substances ("Torture") and on the other, partying and continued use help mute those thoughts—but with little success. With his latest album, Atrocity Exhibition, the tug-of-war between cleaning up and maintaining the rockstar lifestyle is absent as Brown takes ownership of his problems. But taking ownership doesn't mean there's easy resolution: Instead, he's riding the wave to a likely demise over which he has no real control.
"Everybody's saying you've got a lot to be proud of," Brown raps on the album's first song, "Downward Spiral," but he quickly sets out to disabuse us of the notion. On "Golddust," he puts the bittersweet reality of his celebrity turning into a spectacle at the forefront and describes how people give him free drugs, effectively inspiring him to continue abusing. It raises the question of consumers' responsibility in assisting our treasured artists' turbulent lifestyles. In this current pill-popping era in rap, there seems to be an emerging antibiosis between listeners and performers where our desire to see artists abuse themselves for our entertainment not only limits the capacity for empathy but, in turn, encourages them to continue digging themselves into psychological and physical holes. Isaiah Rashad's The Sun's Tirade largely details how his addiction nearly led to him being dropped by TDE; Travis Scott, Future (who has claimed to not do as many drugs as he raps about), and others tend to speak on drugs more positively, leading impressionable admirers to follow suit. Danny Brown, who has expressed his disapproval of artists promoting drugs they don't actually use, walks the line of recreation versus abuse better than most.
That walk leads Brown to a continuous face-off with his own mortality throughout the album. On "Rolling Stone," with a proper melancholy hook from South African singer Petite Noir, he realizes that even with short-lived victories, life will, like clockwork, turn him upside down again. "Today" suggests that reveling in the present is his best bet because if it isn't for police shooting black people in the street, it's the people devoid of opportunity in your own neighborhood out to get you. So fuck it. At other times, he pleads for prayer, admitting that there's no telling how he'll end up at the rate he's going.
All of these sentiments come full circle on the album's most transparent track, "Ain't It Funny." Through a barrage of short horn burps, funky synths, and pulsating drums, Brown grapples with the irony that drugs, though an almost-sure cause of an early death, might be the only thing that make life worthwhile. He raps "Broke serving fiends / Got rich became an addict," painting the ugly cycle that early exposure to drugs can create, or as he theorizes here, the addiction could be passed down genetically. It's also here where he confirms what the rest of the album infers: Although he needs help, he thinks it's "pussy" to actually go get it. Songs like this have become his signature. He's a master at dressing up cries for help with mind-twisting production and crazed vocal inflections that can distract from the point, a musical expression of the lived impulse to deal with his problem by further submerging himself in it.
Brown's pure ability with wordplay, voice control, and beat selection takes no backseat to thematic quality of Atrocity Exhibition, though. He holds his own in a sparring between himself, Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, and Ab-Soul on "Really Doe." His playful imagery and word choice are sharp, as he uses words like "chemicals" instead of drugs and "tentacle" to describe his dick. He released the album through English electronic and experimental powerhouse Warp, a pairing that seems to have helped satisfy his appetite for otherworldly production, particularly sounds influenced by techno born in his hometown. "Dance in the Water" feels like a much needed break away from introspection, where backing chants, rattles, and bass induce a shaking-off-the-demons body movement. In start-stop fashion he asks "Ain't no water, how a flower gon' grow? Ain't no change, then how we gon' change?" on the deconstructed saxophone and drum-laden single "When It Rains." Much of the production here, while dealing with dark confessional content, help paint a vivid picture of a frantic, almost hyperventilating state Brown needs to be in to get out his demons.
Atrocity Exhibition expresses a bleakness that Brown hasn't seemed to feel before. Where XXX and Old illustrated a struggle to hopefully get clean, using his past to activate urgency, Atrocity places Danny Brown in the bed he has laid for himself. He has a problem and that's just that. No indication of trying to get help. No sign of slowing down. Whatever happens just happens. Everywhere, he's showing the painful reality that financial and social ascension cannot save you from the traumas of being molded in a failed system. In some cases, these successes can even worsen the blow. So, how are you to deal with it?
Illustration by Adam Mignanelli
Lawrence Burney is a Staff Writer at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter