Making music is a lot like taking a history class. To know what to do next, you have to go back and see what worked before. Finding inspiration in your favorite works is how its worked since the beginning. Artists look back in time to take everything from subtle cues on direction to complete theft of a sound. So if studying your elders is the class; the mumble rappers are asleep in the back row, the Weeknd is getting straight A’s and still worrying about failing, and Danny Brown has a 35 page thesis paper on New York City from the late 70s to the mid 80s.
We knew Danny has an eclectic taste in music, just check his Spotify playlist or his top 25 albums of all time. So when he said he took inspiration from artists like Joy Division, Talking Heads, and System of a Down, it wasn’t a surprise. This isn’t the first time anyone has taken inspiration from these genres or these artists in particular. But when most people say they’re taking inspiration from a genre they don’t make music in, they mean that they they’re using the sound as a template to make experimental and eccentric sounds catchy. The music doesn’t sound like the artist, it’s more from a songwriting perspective how they want to make their next set of tracks.
The difference with Danny is that he did decide to use the sound and then he had the sounds made into rap beats and ripped damn near every single track. Some people have called this the best Post-Punk album of the year, and it’s hard to argue with that considering that this is as much an album rooted in rock music as it is rap, electronic, and experimental music in general. He himself called it “prog hop” which really characterizes that this album does not sit in a current genre. He fused two sounds that have not been fully put together before and made a new genre. If you didn’t believe he was serious about going down as one of the most influential rappers of all time, you almost have no choice now.
Besides changing the sound of his music, he’s also changed the direction he’s been taking on his past two albums. The vinyl-friendly Side A/Side B formula is completely gone. There is no clear distinction on where the serious songs end and the bangers begin. His calmer delivery has also nearly disappeared and his wild voice has only gotten more raw and pained. This is one, clear, straight shot listen of Danny at his worst presented as his best.
But that’s not to say Danny has changed completely. While the bangers have gotten darker, they still exist and hit harder than ever. “Pneumonia” is a paper stacking anthem complete with Schoolboy Q adlibs, horror-movie haunting cymbals and beating drums warped to gunshots leading into the chorus. “Dance in the Water” feeds African tribal music through a burnt out 8 track as Danny reflects on the dangers of a drugged out lifestyle. “When it Rains” is a freakish piece of techno and “Ain’t it Funny” is like Bad Brains crashing through a jazz ensemble while Danny flows over a horn section way smoother than anyone ever should of. These tracks aren’t going to have people begging Danny to get to Tomorrowland or soundtrack your local frat party, but they still could turn up parties more than any new wave, art rock or post–punk tracks have ever dared to. The classic, ridiculous Danny lines are not lost either, such as on “Lost” where you can hear him name drop both Stanley Kubrick and Asa Akira. And while absent more than ever, “From the Ground” is a reminder of how well Danny’s quiet side carries the classic message of self reflection in rap. Today showcases Danny throwing a new spin on his flow bouncing between Lupe Fiasco and Andre 3000.
While he might be playing with his favorite artist’s music he was too scared too before, Danny never forgets that his love of rap that got him here in the first place. With the help of indie come-ups like Paul White, who crafted a whopping 10 of the 15 tracks here, and seasoned veterans like Alchemist and Black Milk, Danny finally makes his claim as an artist. He’s not coming for “the throne” or trying to have “that song” that keeps him in your memory as a relic from the time period. This is an album from a musician at an artistic peak. It’s the rare kind of material the potential to be looked back at 40 years from now as a focal point of “classic” music. Whether or not that’s the case only time will tell, but what can be told immediately is that Danny has never sounded more confident that he’ll go down as a legend. His albums always end as cliffhangers spiraling out of control where our main character gives it all and still wonders if it was enough to earn the respect he deserves. Atrocity Exhibition may not be him finding peace with his life, but it is him walking away with the solace that he put it all out there for a reason.