Welcome to Basement Dwelling, where I review new records that should be on your musical radar. What sets Basement Dwelling apart from other music review columns is that these are all albums that are currently residing in my record collection. No promo copy was given, no stream was listened to. Instead, a physical copy of an album was purchased before I listened to it. Don’t think of me as a critic, but as a music obsessive looking to open a dialogue about some of the best tunes that are currently being released.
Let’s head down to the basement and listen to Atrocity Exhibition by Danny Brown…
“This is the way…step inside.” Words uttered by the legendary front man of post-punk forefathers Joy Division on “Atrocity Exhibition” (named after the J.G. Ballard novel), the first track off of their album Closer. Closer would be the last album to be released from Joy Division, as front man Ian Curtis tragically committed suicide in 1980 just preceding the album’s release.
Joy Division, J.G. Ballard, and post-punk aren’t exactly the first examples that come to mind for influences on a hip-hop record. But then again, in Danny Brown’s case, when has he ever been what one would deem a “typical” emcee? Here, the Atrocity Exhibition you’re stepping into is the Molly and Jameson-addled, clinically depressive brain of Danny Brown — and what a glorious mess it is. If there’s anyone in rap music that could use Ballard’s writing as a metaphor for their art, it’s Brown, who coincidentally is also the Ian Curtis of modern hip-hop.
Brown was propelled to the forefront of the rap scene with 2011’s XXX — a raunchy, perfect piece of hip-hop that came after a stint in jail. Between this and and a couple early releases from Brown, it’s hard for there to not be notice drawn to his eccentric, eclectic style. Everything from his nasally, high-pitched delivery to his choice of beats and producers stands out. His albums are versatile, being able to gracefully switch from cloud rap to trap bangers at the drop of a dime, all the while delivering some of the most effective and addictive rap music so far this decade.
Brown’s follow-up record, 2013’s Old, stepped away from the introspection and game-changing musicality in lieu of party anthems, but there’s still plenty to love with it because, well, it’s just a damn great album. And now we’re at Atrocity Exhibition, an album that strays even further from the stylistic path set by his last two records, but is still a record that could be made by no one other than Brown.
In Atrocity Exhibition, you get all of the elements that have drawn so many to Danny Brown, but it comes in off-colored, warped package. Atrocity Exhibition may be the most polished and inviting experiential hip-hop record you’ll hear this year. You get the elements of abrasiveness and high-concept weirdness that acts like Death Grips or Shabazz Palaces would deliver, but in much easier-to-digest tunes.
You immediately get the sense that Atrocity is covering new ground for Brown even from the intro track “Downward Spiral,” clearly in its near desert rock/drone-inspired beat. This makes for a super compelling and haunting way to begin the album. Another stylistic shift we see Brown undertake is with the dub-reggae inspired “Rolling Stone.” It’s a great change of pace to hear Brown rapping over this style of music — one that I’m surprised hadn’t happened sooner. And side note: It’s so great to hear singer Petite Noir featured on this track.
If in reading this article you start thinking to yourself, “Atrocity Exhibition is just a record of introspection and experimentation,” then hold up — a majority of the track-listing on this record are actually some of Brown’s catchiest and most fun songs to date. “Ain’t It Funny” pummels with a driving, loud bass blast of a beat coupled with clever wordplay that spits out of Brown’s mouth like molten hot lava.
“Really Doe” is a catchy as hell posse track that has Brown in tow with a supporting cast of features including Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, and Ab-Soul. “Dance In the Water” is a song that is impossible to not want to dance along to. The track impressively shows off what Brown was talking about when he said this record was inspired by The Talking Heads and Joy Division. The track displays a tribal drum beat and a bass grove that sounds like it could have been heard on The Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. It’s really a testament to how crafty of an artist Brown is in the fact that he can use an off-kilter instrumental like that and somehow turn it out into an all out banger.
In a year that’s spawned a lot of interesting and thought-provoking, yet accessible rap records, Atrocity Exhibition stands at the forefront. This is the way….step inside.
Final Feelings On The Record: Loved It
— Dan Fiorio, Music Blogger