The best hip-hop album of 2016 has arrived.Warp, 2016
9.5 / 10
I have no idea how the untrained ear will process Atrocity Exhibition. There’s bound to be at least one person out there who picks this album up just because it has some buzz, without having listened to XXX or Old, the latter of which (on top of being a fantastic album in its own right) served to decode that no, really, Danny Brown is an artist depicting his drug habit, not a druggie pretending to be an artist. AE; however, sees Brown cut out almost all of the explicitly reflective material that clarifies his perspective and double down hard on the wildly experimental sound he explored on the more difficult sections of his previous two albums. This isn’t to say that those unfamiliar with Brown’s work shouldn’t check out Atrocity Exhibition—no way in Hell would I recommend someone not engage with one of the best albums of the year—but it might take you an extra spin or two to fall in love with AE.
Brown’s commitment to this sort of sound was a cause of concern for me. Atrocity Exhibition announces itself as something to be offended by, and such works usually bore me more than anything else. I trust Brown, but I felt that if this thing was going to work, it would need to be a sonic marvel to make up for the loss of naked introspection, which, as you might’ve guessed by the ludicrously high score above, is more or less what we get here. AE’s wild sound comes across as the acid-soaked love child of the psychedelic hip-hop of Edan’s Beauty and the Beat and the sharp-edged brutality explored by Billy Woods and his Backwoodz cohorts, if this sound has any true lineage at all. I struggle to think of a hip-hop song as gloriously mad as “Ain’t It Funny”, horns blaring and parts whirring and Brown somehow riding the beat like a bronco, or Alchemist’s “White Lines”, which sees Brown place his syllables over corresponding keyboards for its duration. This is an album whose chilliest moment, “Get Hi”, suggests a THC-induced cooldown while B-Real of Cypress Hill catches the hook. There’s some degree of irony to that AE’s primary producer, Paul White, worked on the more reflective moments of Old and XXX, but the closest Atrocity Exhibition gets to a dud is the raging “Goldust”, and even that can be argued as being a needed cooldown after “Ain’t It Funny”. That Brown not only isn’t blown out of the water by the sheer power of this sound but instead makes the psycho circus on display his personal playground should reinforce that he’s one of the best emcees working today. The standout line is “Lost”’s “I’m like Kubrick with two bricks and hoes on the strip”, but the later “I’m like Spielberg with ill words and hoes on the curb” might be more indicative of his playful yet masterful style on display here.
Still, I come back to wondering how the uninitiated might take all of this. The Earbuddy crew of five years ago didn’t take too well to XXX, processing it as just another drug-rap album that got some positive press. There’s surely going to be some who react to Atrocity Exhibition in much the same way, but I think this album stands a better chance of going over well with newcomers than XXX. It sounds better, for starters, and it features a more learned emcee. Time will tell which of Danny Brown’s albums will go down as his magnum opus, but I struggle to name another album as uniquely confrontational yet infectiously thrilling as Atrocity Exhibition.