Unlike other cities, Detroit’s hip-hop community lacks homogeneity. In the late ’90s and early ’00s, J Dilla molded the Soulquarian soundscapes of Erykah Badu, Common, and the Roots through his idiosyncratic soul samples and iconic bass lines. Following on his heels was Eminem, one of the most popular emcees of all time, repping his neighborhood of 8 Mile in the heart of Detroit whilst serving up plate after plate of hip-hop hilarity, domestic violence and insanity all in equal measure. And while Eminem is still enormously popular, his reign at the top of the Detroit rap game is coming to an end. So who’s left to pick up the mantle? It is none other than Danny Brown.
Ever since making his solo debut splash with The Hybrid, Danny Brown’s music has progressively gotten darker and filthier almost to the point of excess, and it’s easy to see why. As a young child who grew up in the decaying urban jungle, he witnessed the more primal side of humanity — especially when in combination with hallucinogenic drugs. His music therefore serves not only as a reflection of his own life but as a mirror into a city long past its Golden Age, where a person’s only reprieve from the slums is to reflect on the cultural and industrial greatness that once was.
This, in effect, is what defines Brown’s latest album Atrocity Exhibition.
“Really Doe”, the last single to drop from the album, was produced by fellow Detroiter Black Milk, and the song perfectly encapsulates the gritty rot hidden in every crevice of the city. A posse cut between Brown, Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt — all who could arguably claim the throne as the rawest emcee out right now — the track covers everything from smoking weed to murdering people to having sex with a girl in a car with 24-inch rims. It is a gaudy display of wealth and relaxation juxtaposed with the harsh realities of growing up in Detroit, leaving its ultimate impact as memorable as the song’s hook.
As with its predecessors Old and XXX, Atrocity Exhibition contains moments of reflection and nuance is one is willing to look for them. Over druggy basslines like on “Downward Spiral”, manic vocal samples on “Lost”, and woozy piano melodies on “White Lines” and “Pnemonia”, Brown remembers his youthful, idiotic debauchery with drugs and recognizes how much it negatively impacted his life in the process. His unmelodic and goofy vocals match the sentiments found in his lyrics, while his wobbling flow mimics a drunkard’s walk down a lonely city street. Before Atrocity Exhibition, Danny had the lyrical content but sometimes failed to complement it with interesting production and flows. Now, however, everything’s fit perfectly into place like the most horrific yet engrossing jigsaw puzzle imaginable.
If Atrocity Exhibition truly is a mosaic of jagged musical pieces though, then “Get Hi” does not fit. While the song’s title matches its lyrical content, Paul White’s production feels too airy and content to be on an album as dark and disgusting as this one. No matter what subject matter is being discussed, Atrocity Exhibition remains coherent and cohesive because Brown maintains the same atmosphere and tone throughout. And although doing so does make this album much more fulfilling as a whole, it also places tighter restrictions on each individual track, and “Get Hi” simply does not seem to work within the confines of this record, no matter how good of a song it is.
Just like ScHoolboy Q’s newest album Blank Face LP, Atrocity Exhibition is Danny Brown’s greatest musical achievement thus far because the Detroit native not only elevated his lyricism, but also complimented said lyricism with atmospheric production and distinct flows that accentuate everything he’s saying. As an album, it is both as lovably outrageous as Danny Brown, but also as menacing and impenetrable as his city is. Ultimately, it is this duality that makes Atrocity Exhibition the masterpiece it is.