The same debates have been happening in rap music for decades and they generally revolve around opinions of what does and does not constitute “real” hip hop and whether or not the new generation is producing talentless trash compared to what was being created by generations of the past. In the late-80s to mid-90s gangster rap received plenty of harsh criticism from various directions, while these days, ‘mumble” rappers are a major target. It’s basically a clash between the “You young bucks all sound the same, don’t appreciate the art form, and have no respect for lyrics, let alone the history of the craft” mentality and the “Get out of the way old man, recognize that your time has past and allow us our own era” response. Both sides have valid points, but while everyone argues about whether or not the Lil Yachtys and 21 Savages of the world are “ruining” rap, or if a former Canadian teen soap star is using a ghost writer or not, there are still artists out there who don’t seem to be concerned at all with the more superficial hype, determined only on making the most forward thinking and innovative work they’re capable of. At the forefront of thiscategory is Danny Brown, an artist who seems focused strictly on his own personal development and evolution above all else. It’s an approach which offers something new and refreshing, actually propelling forward the genre at large, rather than recycling old tropes and formulas, or ignoring the actual craft behind the art form in favor of marketability and base entertainment value. But, when you have a personality that potent, there’s really no need to work on fabricating a new one.
When the Detroit rapper dropped his latest album, Atrocity Exhibition, last year through UK electronic powerhouse, Warp Records, it received it’s share of acclaim, but the same left-field approach that earned him praise from a number of critics also pushed it into unique territory where many consumers may have had trouble connecting with it, or found it too inaccessible. I’ve even heard people dismiss its appeal to novelty and/or reduce its content to nothing more than the generic “drugs n bitches” hip hop cliches. The truth of the matter is that even the name of the album — borrowed from the title of a Joy Division song — is a reference to the idea of being a self-destructive spectacle for the benefit of the entertainment of others. In early interviews promoting the album, Danny clearly stated that he felt a moral obligation to address the flip-side of that lifestyle of reckless living and self medication, which is already so prevalent in the culture; to present the harsh reality of the comedown and related emotional turmoil. The claim that the rapper’s trademark nasally vocal delivery is the only thing that separates Atrocity Exhibition from any typical hip hop release based around fucking and partying is further dismantled by the fact that, whether novice listeners are aware of this or not, Brown is one of the most versatile emcees working today. By drastically shifting both his cadence and tone at will in such ways that he often comes across sounding like a completely different vocalist, there can be an extended delay before recognizing that it’s actually him on some tracks rather than somebody completely different providing a feature. Then there’s the compelling selection of beats on the LP which are so structurally unorthodox that it’s hard to imagine anyone else being able to spit a coherent verse over them, let alone riding them as effortlessly as Brown continues to demonstrate regardless of how/where they shift and distort.
Aside from the lyric video for “Really Doe,” the other three videos that have come out of Atrocity Exhibition thus far have been visceral masterpieces, rivaling the high concept approach of the tracks that they represent. Delivered through a grainy glitched-out VHS aesthetic and peppered with aggressive footwork-heavy jit dancing, “When It Rain” features DB rapping over a 1968 sample from electronic pioneer, Delia Derbyshire, of the BBC Radiophonic workshop. Utilizing some brilliant wordplay, the cut is packed with deep Detroit references and double-meanings based around underground house parties playing juke and ghettotech that people would throw and attend as an outlet to escape their violent, collapsing communities. “Pneumonia,” — a reference to being “sick” lyrically, as well as continuing to thrive in an unhealthy routine and chemically induced haze — has a dark, graphic video consisting of Danny being violently dragged and jerked around like a marionette strung up on chains. If any song truly embodies the Atrocity Exhibition concept, though, it’s “Aint It Funny,” with it’s Jonah Hill-directed video which parodies a sitcom filmed in front of a live studio audience, reflecting the idea of Danny‘s self destruction being on display as entertainment, rather than being acknowledged as a genuine and potentially serious issue.
Now Danny has a brand new video for the standout track “Lost” and it is described in the press release as “referenc[ing] many of the hyper-stylized films and videos from the turn of the 21st century, capturing the frenetic energy of Danny Brown’s sound in a black and white opus for the maximalist masses.” Content-wise, the footage features naked women processing crack cocaine in the kitchen New Jack City-style, but the lyrics seem to hold multiple meanings, as so many of those in Brown‘s songs do. While there are definitely clear references to cooking up rock and “water whipping” it in the track, a comparison seems to be drawn between slanging drugs and pushing his current musical/artistic product. “Staying in the kitchen,” hustling to stay on point and moving the product is used as an apt analogy for putting in the hours in the studio to stay ahead and remain on top of his game releasing quality material and supporting his lifestyle. Meanwhile, he makes nods toward continuing to participate in otherwise detrimental and hedonistic aspects of his lifestyle, which he is coasting on and have almost woven themselves into part of the process that he’s become reliant on to produce. By the end of the song, he introduces an additional factor adding to his pressure to produce and succeed; his ability to maintain a platform to uplift younger artists, allowing them to pursue creative endeavors as an alternative to falling into the sort of activities that once found Brown incarcerated himself.
Overall, “Lost” is yet another audio and visual triumph from one of the most exciting artists working today in any medium. Check it out below.