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Danny Brown’s Joyful Division


On “Atrocity Exhibition”, Brown delivers a refreshing blend of experimental and hardcore hip-hop that both challenges and rewards the listener. Since his last full-length release “Old”, Brown has transitioned from underground party starter to progressive hip-hop pioneer, a side he had hinted on during his early career, but had seemingly dropped in search of greater commercial attention.

However, it seems as though Brown has finally become satisfied with the size of his audience he gained through minor party anthems such as “25 Bucks” and “Grown Up”. As a result, he has chosen to release the record he had always wanted to make, in a similar fashion to Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” that followed the more commercially successful “Good Kid Maad City”.

Brown, a Detroit native, uses hip-hop as a means of coping with his personal struggles of addiction, depression and poverty. Before he became a rapper, Brown spent most of his early adulthood in and out of jail for drug-related felonies. He addresses these mishaps throughout his discography, perhaps in order to teach others about his experience.

“Atrocity Exhibition” is no exception, with Brown’s lyrical content and presentation becoming even more heavy and traumatic, pushing the listener to become both introspective and self-critical. The album title encapsulates the ambience of the record — derived from a Joy Division song and J.G. Ballard’s surreal story collection. Brown continually draws the connection throughout the record between his own experiences of pain, and those of Joy Division’s singer Ian Curtis many years ago.

Brown’s latest output is blatantly dark, just like any Joy Division cut would be, but he also finds interesting ways to explore a number of different genres, including jazz and even country. These music forms are especially prevalent on the first track “Downward Spiral,” which begins with a woozy bass line and a reverbed country guitar riff. The production finds a balance between Tom Waits-esque junkyard rock and Arca-style dystopian electronics, mostly thanks to Paul White, who produces 10 of Brown’s tracks.

“Downward Spiral’” can be seen as a direct nod to his previous album XXX’s opening track, where he rapped: “It’s the downward spiral, got me suicidal/But too scared to do it.”

Through his references to his past work, Brown makes “Atrocity Exhibition” a part of a larger whole, perhaps a bookend to an implied trilogy that starts with “XXX” and ends here. Brown also spits over and over again on “Downward Spiral” how he’s “gotta figure it out,” suggesting that this could be his final release, or certainly the final part of his present musical jigsaw.

Capping off the record is the track “Really Doe,” produced by Black Milk. Full of vibrant and ferocious guest vocals from Ab Soul, Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt, it is an unabashedly fun track and Sweatshirt’s unwavering delivery on the final verse gives the track a startling amount of intimacy. This track seems to succinctly define where Brown exists in the world of rap music today. Huge names like Lamar, Soul and Sweatshirt bring certain, powerful flows that contrast vividly alongside Brown’s unorthodox vocal delivery. However, this doesn’t intimidate Brown, in fact it elevates his delivery and signifies how he can truly role with rap’s finest.

“Atrocity Exhibition” is out now via Warp Records.

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