“On death row, feel like I am…”
For Danny Brown, all is lost.
Atrocity Exhibition is the most heartbreaking record in a minute. It begins, quite literally and awash in scuzz, with the “Downward Spiral,” an ongoing theme in Danny’s work since 2011’s seminal XXX. Herein: Danny, on a coke binge, contracting STDs, allowing his own exploitation, in a clown car, a circus show, the atrocity exhibition; this idea that Ballard and then Curtis put forth years ago, and Brown somehow has the intuition to put back in the forefront of our minds at this present time.
The freak show that is mankind, abusers and the abused, all captured by the legion of recording devices that are now on the streets, in everyone’s room, in every nook and corner of our society, that are the all-seeing filters through which we now view anything and everything. Streaming, Instagrammed, Tweeted, cheap—discussed glibly and then linked. Our lives are now parceled to us as entertainment, distraction from current ills and dawning ruin. The ills and the ruin, themselves, packaged back to us as amusement—our subscribed stimuli and our words and actions writhing themselves into a gruesome ouroboros. In the face of endless injustice, selfishness, and wrongs, “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” is Danny’s litany.
Danny uses this feedback loop as mirror and haunting personal slide show, leering sadly at his present and his past (the future unknown, but indubitably wrecked). The cover of Atrocity Exhibition is like a bad video recording crossing signals with an x-ray. Danny invites us, in his self-exploitation, to go deeper while staying on that same surface level, to superimpose the two. It’s how Atrocity Exhibition can be a record that’s essentially all about trauma propagating debasement, loneliness, disintegration (“Riding around with the windows up / Smoking like it’s ten of us / Just me in the back seat”) … and yet feel so fire, knock so hard, bang its way into your headspace. What this accomplishes isn’t just impressive, but chilling. We want the flesh but we want the guts, too, it reveals. We’ve become the most ravenous of cannibals. “Merci, Danny, for giving us what we ordered,” we lip-smack as we tuck our napkins in, and “bon appetit” Danny seems to nod back, grinning with dead eyes, splayed out upon our plates.
“Even if she fuck me / I still know life a bitch / Bought a nightmare, sold a dream…”
Danny lives his life by self-destructing (“Pneumonia”), then self-medicating (“Get Hi”), walking a tight rope of both fearing death and consuming it—depicted with devastating clarity on the certifiable “White Lines”. The nine-song stretch of the opener on through “Pneumonia” is fierce and flawless, sonic and verbal slaughter. It builds from setting the stage with dystopic bangers (none bang-ier than the twinkling, churning epic that is posse cut “Really Doe”) to inverting into its absolutely gutter middle section, “Lost” through “Pneumonia” showing Brown chomping, choking down his excess—then regurgitating, feasting again. The beats seem queasy at the sight. “Ain’t It Funny” is the record’s simultaneous peak and valley. It sounds sickly triumphant, like it knows it is celebrating its own demise, as Danny slays, slays, slays …
“Nose bleeds red carpets / But it just blends in / Snappin’ pictures / Feeling my chest sunk in.”
The record becomes random and fractured after “Pneumonia,” replete with rave, trap, boom-bap, and the best Wiz Khalifa song ever in “Get Hi,” bouncing between them all with no semblance of sense, since Danny seems to take a sudden turn and intentionally rejects the idea of trying to craft a masterpiece that’s hermetic. For the listener, this can be off-putting. But for Danny Brown, it’s real. There is no such thing as “picking up the pieces” of his life or identity or artistry. He lets them lay where they fall, broken, bound to the ground by hell’s gravity. Every song is punched through and hung upon the same bitter through-line. Even directional molly-popper “Dance in the Water” confounds, as its most impossible-to-follow command is the one that Danny emphasizes and repeats: “Dance in the water / and not get wet.” A strange ache enters the party.
Musically, the record remains audacious and unhinged throughout, but it would be as wrong to claim this is something new as it would be to try to contextualize this record or Danny in terms of other records or rappers. Because Atrocity Exhibition, like Danny, is something wholly singular, but it is always speaking in languages we’re familiar with, for it needs us to feel it. Primarily, it’s speaking the language of rap and the language of pain. It’s on closer “Hell For It” that Danny pulls back the curtains one last time. It’s like an encore of him alone at a keyboard, spitting bars with a serene acceptance of his lot. The creases in his face soften. He tells himself that he’s “the greatest alive.” He tells us that this was all for us.
“I lived through that shit / so you don’t have to go through it / Stepping stones in my life / Hot coals / Walk with me / Listen when I speak / Every time talk with me / Couple screws loose / You don’t want to start / with me.”
All is not lost for you and me, or at least that’s what Danny prays. He’s sending us singing telegrams from the living underworld, warnings. The fire that is this record isn’t just a visceral thing, it belongs to perdition. The tears that Danny cries aren’t just self-pitying, they’re benevolent (even as he’s “wishing that it rain” to mask them). How can a rap record this goddamn hard also be so intent on leaving us behind in the hands of grace, pushing us up as it falls? Danny seals his fate to keep the ice from cracking underneath us. We watch him sink as the ground turns glass, for us to watch the exhibit. The life that he never really glamorized, well, on Atrocity Exhibition he embraces it to betray it.
“Holy Spirit / When I look / I cannot see / reflection in the mirror / Broke bread with the Judas / and I think I see it clearer.”
To paraphrase Hamlet, the play’s the thing that captures our conscience. The ferocity of Danny Brown’s nasty art should repulse us, but instead it draws us in and owns us because of the way in which he delivers it—for our entertainment. More than that, it’s ugliness as beatitude, poetry of filth. Because of this, we Danny Brown fans care more about Danny than we even care about a lot of people that we actually know. We see Danny’s humanity, we hear his illness, we fear for his future, and we nod our heads to these beats and his irrepressible flow, laugh-crying at his punchlines. Because he lets us. If only we could have the same level of empathy for everyone without needing the exhibition, maybe atrocities would cease.
But that would not be the “cold, cold world” that Danny knows, that he details for us in lurid rhyme. So we need the atrocity exhibition to make us feel past the numbness, and we need it to numb ourselves when we can’t let ourselves feel the pain closest to us. But most of all, we need it to know something of what Danny knows, so that we won’t be forsaken like him. We need it to purge us from what makes us like him, to keep from getting caught in the loop that Danny’s fed and feeding, as the serpent eats its tail. We need something to be destroyed and for that to be shown to us, in order for us to have eyes that see, ears that hear.
This is why the world needed a Judas. This is why we need Danny Brown.
His truth is marching on; it’s the downward spiral.