Detroit rapper Danny Brown has seen hard times. He’s faced poverty, jail, addiction and depression, and he’s continued to be tagged as an outsider even after finally getting some recognition in his 30s. He is okay telling you about all this at length.
How you address such bleak topics when you’re known for delivering raunchy punchlines in a high, strangled voice that’s more Bobcat Goldthwait than Nas is an interesting conundrum.
On his 2013 LP Old, Brown attacked this problem through sheer scale of ambition, presenting 19 tracks of immaculately crafted beats that sound like the history and future of hip-hop engaged in hand-to-hand combat. He modulated his delivery from track to track to complement countless shifts in tone. He infused menace into party tracks like “Dip” and wit into darker tracks like “Clean Up.” Brown said he was taking inspiration from Radiohead, and that Old was his Kid A. Critics bought in and called Old a masterpiece. It sold decently.
When you’ve already put Kid A pressure on yourself, where do you go next? Judging by 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition, the answer is you completely fall apart. The beats sound like they’ve become self-aware, revolted, killed the producer and taken over the studio. Danny’s voice has deteriorated into fully strung-out Animaniac. By the time Kendrick pops up on “Really Doe” you want to beg him to help you escape this abandoned amusement park nightmare.
But Kendrick doesn’t help you, and two grueling tracks later you hit “Ain’t It Funny,” the ninth circle of Danny Brown hell. “Ain’t It Funny” is built on a dissonant two-chord horn sample from a composition by free jazz bandleader Carla Bley, which was hilariously released under Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason’s name (it was 1981 and one assumes the label thought that would help sales). “Ain’t It Funny” sounds upbeat compared to everything that precedes it, and I mean upbeat in the sense that your cortisol level is upbeat when someone pushes you into traffic.
Though it wasn’t released as a single, there’s a music video directed by Jonah Hill, of all people. The video attempts to lean into Brown’s nightmare clown tone by literally showing us what a sitcom-as-horror-movie would look like, but I think it’s a little too on-the-nose. Atrocity Exhibition is disturbing enough without visuals, ain’t it?