Danny Brown and the Case of Suffering

“It is now almost impossible to be ourselves except on the world’s terms.”
– JG Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition, 19.

A blonde in rave gear has ripped off her neon pink bra and flung it on stage. It hits Danny Brown at the knee and he promptly kicks it off to the side – he is at work. He is busy laying out his verse, his bars climbing, racing toward the hook. His face is contorted, his chip-toothed mouth almost consuming the microphone. Brown slips out of this mounting intensity for only a moment, slowing as he raps ‘All these drugs up in me, it’s a miracle I ain’t mirror Kurt.’ It is a daunting wordplay that everyone seems to miss, or ignore, right before Danny slams into double-time. Bumping wildly to the beat, the crowd could not care less about the allusion to Cobain’s death. The year is 2013, and many of these young white faces are hyped up on drugs, too – oblivious, careless, and just here to have some fun. As the prerecorded Zelooperz hook finally rolls in, they mindlessly chant along: ‘Kush coma, I am in a kush coma.’ Cheers pour in from every corner of Irving Plaza, and on stage, Danny pauses to stare out at the crowd. A vacant look flits across his face. Is that sadness? Disappointment? It is gone almost as soon as it appeared, and before any zonked-out fans noticed, Danny is back to grinning his messy smile.

That was five years ago, back when Danny Brown was touring behind Old, a retrospective concept album. At 31, the Detroit rapper was grappling with an inescapable tension: how does one mediate the luxuries afforded to a seasoned rapper with the traumas of his past? Brown was no stranger to struggle; drug-abuse, past crime, and imprisonment weighed heavy on his mind. Still, he had made it. And here was that venomous survivor’s guilt, now undercutting his every move. Old showed us a man drowning under this pressure, self-medicating with an endless slew of drugs to hopelessly cope. Yet his destructive state was easy to miss. Brown fed into escapism – his own, though more likely that of his genre, of his audiences. An escapism where suffering could breed excitement, so long as it is framed under the guise of having a good time. Old did exactly that – pocked with infectious EDM beats, these tracks would go on to circulate at clubs, frat-parties, music festivals. Nothing but danceable, whacked-out fun. Danny Brown, with his disheveled hair and wheezy cackle, was something of a hip-hop clown. This would not last.

Atrocity Exhibition dropped in late 2016, and with it, a threshold burst open. It is a project almost entirely disinterested in our own enjoyment, blatantly depicting the pain once swept beneath Old’s bubbly rave synths. Instead, we are fully thrust into Danny Brown’s tormented reality. A precarious clangor of drums opens this album, a sunken guitar dips in – scattered notes floating, underwater. Then there is Danny’s voice, with its signature yowl, clambering for attention: “I'm sweating like I’m in a rave / Been in this room for 3 days / Think I’m hearing voices / Paranoid and think I’m seeing ghost-es.” We are on the come-down with him, verging off some drug-induced delirium on this opening track, ‘Downward Spiral.’ As strums continue to peal out, an irresponsible rhythm emerges: one that actively works against Brown, resisting any order. Somehow he holds onto this collapsing beat, one that only he seems capable of riding – some kind of rabid connection fuels him, where disarray makes sense to a strung-out mind.

It is the first taste of this album’s sonic nightmare –a thrashing, voyeuristic experience of Brown’s tortured mind. He lays it out bare this time around, his clever wordplay taking a backseat in lieu of clarity: “Everybody say, you got a lot to be proud of / Been high this whole time, don’t realize what I done,” going on later to say, “On death row, feel like I am.” We are bathed in futility, glimpsing into the hole that Danny Brown has seemingly dug for himself. His choked squawk pulls away from total nihilism, however. It builds on anxiety, an urgency, as the chorus whirls in and he muses, “I gotta figure it out.” There is a sudden, itching sense that something far more sinister is trickling through Brown’s downward spiral, something he has yet to unravel for us. Yes, there is that personal strain: his self-inflicted drug-abuse must be reconciled. There is something else, too – a cancer emanating forth, as radiating electric chords close the track.

It has something to do with us, and with the industry at large. There is a certain indictment in Danny’s voice, a tired exasperation that reaches beyond his self-dissatisfaction, the embodiment of I’m looking at you. It first finds its legs on blustering tracks like ‘Tell Me What I Don’t Know,’ where Brown drops to the old-school register characterized on earlier albums like XXX. It is almost a jarring departure from the devilish yap we already know, disrupting with its depth. An ominous, undulating drone sets the beat as Brown raps the first chorus, his voice cast in layers: “Tell me what I don't know / Last night homie got killed at the liquor store / Shot my nigga on the way to get a Swisher,” going on to echo “Tell me what I don’t know” fifteen times throughout the track. The song serves as an irritated nod at a younger generation of rappers that Brown has felt at odds with in the past: rappers who “are mimicking Detroit drug dealers,” but have no lived experience with that hustle (it is no wonder that the track stylistically reflects the grinding power of Detroit rap – an authoritative this is how it’s done.) Brown does concede, however, “It’s rap music. Everybody has to have their gimmick and their character.” Yet the issue remains in what these kids do with ‘hood tropes – they fail to frame them responsibly: “If you’re gonna tell them about getting high, tell them about the hangover too, you know, that’s all I’m saying,” he told Complex recently.

Danny Brown is fiercely protective of this message. It is no surprise, then, that Atrocity Exhibition is mostly a solo-project. There is a single posse cut on the record, ‘Really Doe,’ featuring Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar, and Earl Sweatshirt – a high-caliber update on the posse cut tradition, as Brown forgoes giving any space here to freshmen faces. In what might finally rival A$AP’s ‘1Train,’ ‘Really Doe’ goes on to mirror the earlier disdain of ‘Tell Me What I Don’t Know.’ Bouncy chimes loop over a snarling drum beat, and Brown jumps in, back with his shrill whine: “You niggas don’t even know / All that talk then no show / Cannot tell me nothin' / Show me somethin' I ain't seen before,” an open invitation that Kendrick, Earl, and Ab-Soul go on to extend. Danny Brown might suggest that they are the only crew who has the right – “We’re like the Four Horsemen.” And undeniably, their verses measure up. Delivering the sort of nasty, ripping bars that bring on an incidental grimace, ‘Really Doe’ produces a momentary, early reprieve from the larger chaos of Atrocity Exhibition.

You might think that the seething takedowns stop there. Though, it is not long before Danny Brown thrusts into a new manic high, sprawling into what remains perhaps the most terrifying listen on this album. A haunted funhouse of aural dimensions, ‘Ain’t It Funny’ is insistent in its horror. Blaring horns hold out for far too long, receding only to assault again. Danny’s voice whirls here at a dire level of frenzy, building a tension that will never be diffused. He springs onto the beat of the kick-and-snare, lyrics curving us – ‘Grinch bitch / Six sense / With a nose drip / Mind skydive / Sniffing bumps / In the cockpit.’ It is an impossible jumble of coked-out energy. Yet nothing is sloppy in the sense of lyrical non-sequiturs; instead, it is that incessant discord of noise undercutting Brown’s flow. It borders on torturous, that racing, paranoid synth – it is the stuff of asylums, and it is inescapable. Clinging to Brown’s voice for comfort is a challenge: it is suffused, tucked within the instrumentals. It takes multiple listens to grasp the calamity of what he is saying: ‘Upcoming heavy traffic / Say ya need to slow down / Cause you feel yourself crashing / Staring in the devil face / But ya can’t stop laughing.’ Later, a pre-hook flips the script: ‘Who ever would imagine / That joke’s on you / But Satan the one laughing.’ The cacophonous circuit, ear-grating as it is, begins to make an (albeit) uncomfortable sense here. Danny Brown seems to be wrecking his own party – a salacious sideshow his own fans demanded.

‘Ain’t it funny how it happens?” he asks them, repeated on a monstrous loop during the song’s hook. It is less a question than a pointed accusation, especially when followed by the prodding, “Ain’t it?’ Like the provocative force of ‘I gotta figure it out,’ off ‘Downward Spiral,’ this question is driven by some external violation. ‘Ain’t it funny how it happens?’ is charged with the sense that we already know how it – being Danny’s cycle of abuse – came to be. The question, then, has always been rhetorical. Nothing about this is funny. And so why would Danny Brown leave room for our sympathy, now? The chance for that was already spent, lost somewhere in 2013, in the mindless bliss of concert-going teenagers whose own drug-use came from an indulgent place of rebellious fun, and not the scathing weight of Blackness, of poverty. For Brown, it is ‘Inherited in our blood / It’s why we stuck in the mud –’ a longtime sentiment he has not escaped since XXX: ‘It's in my DNA, cause my pops like to get fucked up the same way,’ he suggested seven years ago.

Frustration breeds from this proximity. “People start getting caught up into this world,” he told YouTuber Antony Fantano recently, “they care more about my actual lifestyle than the actual music, so it started making me feel like a spectacle or something. Like, people was taking it for a joke and everybody expects to get around me and I’m just going to be happy and it’s all going to be hunky-dory and we gonna do drugs together and have a party. But that’s not what I’m about, you know?” This is a thought echoed on the album’s namesake, ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ by Joy Division. Ian Curtis’ animosity filters through the song’s opening lyrics: ‘Asylums with doors open wide / Where people had paid to see inside / For entertainment they watch his body twist / Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist.’’ At 36, Danny Brown finally sought to make it clear: he, too, exists. A man – not a puppet.

I realize now that what I saw in Danny’s eyes all those years ago – that fleeting, empty stare – was not a vacancy, at all: it was the start of this reckoning. A man who, acutely aware of his place in this industry, fell out of his clownish character for a moment because he was tired of performing it. Tired of the twisted fixation on fun that his audience projected onto him, a feedback loop where we fantasized about his enjoyment as a way of organizing our own. Something like masters of the dancing slave block, prodding, with the desire that a feigned happiness would ease our own anxieties surrounding suffering, surrounding torture. I do not say this lightly. No – Danny Brown now rejected his role in this altogether, one bathed in a legacy of subjugation. He would no longer allow us to fool ourselves, he would no longer play along. Atrocity Exhibition is a violent riot.

Still, there is the question of what that achieves. As the album’s squawking horns reach their raucous height on ‘Golddust,’ Brown crows, ‘Can you understand / What my life is about / Cause I think you don’t.” Could anyone, ever? He even explicitly asks us now to ‘Take a step inside / A mind so horrific / Images that I hide / Take look inside / Scare you for life.’ If the point is to share in some simulated soundscape of his unabashed suffering, Brown has certainly accomplished this. Yet it will only remain that – a simulation, a counterfeit experience that his listeners remain alienated from – perhaps as they should. It is not Brown’s responsibility to help us understand.

Meanwhile, though, this disconnect breeds its own disappointing cycle. Danny Brown still operates within a flawed industry, a flawed world – one where even the ugliness of his suffering is, somehow, marketable. We find ourselves fulfilling Brown’s original gripe, with published reviews entitled ‘Atrocity Exhibition is an Awesome, Bummed-Out Party,’ outlining the album as “the year’s most thrilling cry for help.” Here is an album so steeped in a man’s personal horrors –and now, even this twisted listen is a “party.” I am reminded suddenly of those grainy execution videos that circulate on social media, where we watch black body after black body plead with officers before being beaten, gunned down. What a strange idea that we circulate these clips, broadcast them on television screens during that evening’s news, reliving a desperate scene of torture for the masses. It is never enough to know that these injustices happen – there is that reinforcement of suffering, some sick thrill ensnared in the feigned understanding of a person’s pain. We remain willing participants, altogether breeding a sort of widespread indifference masked as concern.

Danny Brown, at least, is finding a way to move within this culture. Of Atrocity Exhibition, he says, “I just thought it was entertaining –” and he’s right – eighteen months after its release, I still find myself itching to listen through. Yes, because I crave his skill, his shamelessness, that squealing voice that sounds like nobody else in the game. Maybe, though, it is still his suffering that draws me back. This recognition makes me uneasy. It should make you uneasy, too.