"If you were a fan of my music before, you're in for a treat," says hip-hop wild child Danny Brown. "Like the title says, it's an atrocity exhibition. That's one thing people are fascinated with. They like watching car crashes, you know? You know it's not right for you to be entertained by this — but you still are."
Brown punctuates this thought with a mischievous laugh. Following his 2013 album, Old, the Detroit rapper has returned poised to cause a commotion.
Inspired by a Joy Division song of the same name, Brown's fourth studio album, Atrocity Exhibition, is delightfully chaotic. Sonically, it plays like an epic temper tantrum: the percussion is disrespectful, the songs are lawless in structure and Brown's animated vocals and brash lyrics fit perfectly amidst the cacophony. It's delectably ugly, the type of album you would get after pumping Dennis the Menace full of sugar (or drugs) and locking him in a studio.
Save for some tantalizing guest appearances, Brown has been mostly quiet since Old. Taking three years off between albums is risky in this era of microwaveable hip-hop, where fans are used to a constant stream of instant, steady exposure to their favourite artists. But Brown insists his latest effort is the kind of project that can only come with time.
"I think what keeps me excited is just always challenging myself and pushing myself forward. Like, me trying to make something better than what I did previously. Stuff like that takes time," says Brown. When asked if the gap between records makes him nervous at all, he replies: "If anything, it makes me more comfortable. I was able to sit with the music for a long time. It was able to give me more confidence than just making something in two weeks and throwing it into the world. You gotta take breaks. Let it build back up. Miss it. Then come back."
After releasing Old and his breakout album, XXX, on indie label Fool's Gold, this June, Brown announced that his upcoming project would be released on England's Warp Records. Home to hip-hop and electronic outliers like Flying Lotus and L.A.'s Kelela (one of Exhibition's guests), Brown describes Warp as the perfect place to further develop himself creatively.
"I'm honoured to be with a label that's been around for so long, that has the legacy they have. [They] push creativity more than anything else. I just feel confident with them," says Brown. "Fool's Gold is still the family, but now it's like, I get a bigger budget. So now stuff that I had as ideas, I can make happen."
This includes recruiting a roster of collaborators that would make any hip-hop fan salivate — like Ab-Soul, Earl Sweatshirt and Kendrick Lamar on the same song — and the freedom to indulge in a smorgasbord of obscure samples, which Rolling Stone reports cost a whopping $70,000 to clear.
"Last time, I had to replay a lot of [samples] and when you replay, the record loses a little something. I didn't want to do that with this album."
Brown approaches every aspect of Exhibition with this same level of care. Throughout the record, he bobs and weaves around haphazard percussion with a dexterity that not many of his peers can match. He plays with his voice, at times employing his signature manic squeak, like on lead single "When It Rain" or the chaotic "Ain't It Funny," a spirited tale of substance abuse that manages to connote "just say no to drugs" without preachy finger-wagging.
On other tracks, his vocals are more sombre and resonant, like on the dark yet inspirational "From the Ground." As usual, he combines styles and genres to create a sound that can't be easily defined. The catchy chorus on "Pneumonia" has a strong Southern feel that could easily belong to, say, Migos. But the eerie bass and anarchic drums on this Evian Christ production bring to mind the garage/grime stylings of the UK's Dizzee Rascal.
All of the elements on the album combine to create a fresh, distinctive sound that is undeniably Danny Brown. He's comfortable enough in his abilities to push boundaries and experiment, but in a way that remains true to the sound fans have grown to love — gifts that taking one's time and thinking things through bestow. Despite his attention to detail though, Brown insists that he's far from a perfectionist.
"I'm kinda sloppy in every aspect," he says. "I like my music a little sloppy too. I don't want it to be too perfect, over-produced or over-mixed. I always try to go more with feeling than trying to be perfect."
Although deliberately imperfect, Exhibition just might be Brown at his best. Artistically, he possesses the sophistication and confidence of a practiced expert, but he's still retained the enthusiasm and ingenuity of a newcomer. To avoid falling into a creative rut, Brown allowed himself to step back and enjoy art not as a competitor, but as a fan. He cites simple inspirations for the album, like the Joy Division record that birthed its title as well as his favourite childhood albums, like Raekwon's classic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Earlier albums from Björk, music from Talking Heads and a healthy dose of Quentin Tarantino movies were also among Brown's muses. Despite past critical acclaim, Brown has a refreshing humility that motivates him to top his previous projects.
"[I] watch a lot of documentaries and listen to old music and just get inspired by people's stories," says Brown of his musical influences. "And I know I'm making history like them too! It makes me go put that much more effort into it."
Whether you're a longtime fan of his, or a passerby just curious to witness the atrocity, prepare yourself for an energetic, fun and decidedly unparalleled experience. Brown prides himself on making progressive and forward-thinking hip-hop, and Atrocity Exhibition delivers. It's a sound you won't get anywhere else — and Brown likes it this way.
"Originality is my number one thing," he says. "I'm not trying to do nothing nobody else did. I'm not trying to be in no trends. When you've got your own lane, it's a smoother ride."