Nothing gets music nerds butthurt faster than a band or artist reusing the name of a well-known song or album — except, maybe, when they do it so well that even the nerds aren’t allowed to bitch about it. Double Negative’s Daydreamnation, were it not one of the greatest hardcore records ever made, could have been a disaster. Boredoms, Negativland, Eric’s Trip, and Blonde Redhead survived because their sound advanced upon the bands that inspired their names. In the same vein, Danny Brown has given us Atrocity Exhibition, 46 minutes of music swinging from a delicate hinge of just four lines:
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.”
Because yeah, Danny Brown exists like a motherfucker, obviously. But for three years, since the release of 2013’s Old, he’s been at the mercy of critics requesting more material, more entertainment, more Danny, twisting. The album, as such, opens thus:
... Been in this room for three days
Think I’m hearing voices
... which should be enough to cement Danny’s titular precision and exactitude in the minds of those who felt the need to tweet “um that’s a Joy Division song” after he announced the record.
But unlike Joy Division’s Ian Curtis — who Donald Trump would probably say just couldn’t handle it — Danny is an uncooked Sylvia Plath, his heart and the beat arterially bragging, “I am, I am, I am.” He’s opting to figure out his role in the exhibition, rather than abandoning it along with this mortal coil, since he’s not sure the voices — those of the critics, the biters, the ticket-holders — are all that real, anyway.
His reality, and his sound on Atrocity Exhibition, is a pastiche of visual and sonic referents. An upbringing in Detroit and the stories that resulted from it feature heavily, especially on “Golddust,” which makes Danny sound like the world’s smartest dummy, driving the monster truck that is ghettotech straight into the proverbial wall of Death.
Likewise, “When It Rain,” the album’s first single, is “Bombs Over Baghdad” for the war-zoned City of Boom. Detroit’s financial crisis left the city with a cumulative deficit in the billions. Danny is wont to speak as a representative, which is especially important now that cities in crisis tend to be little more than a hot-button talking point for moneyed goons. Here, as on “25 Bucks” from Old, Danny paints a compelling picture of youth in Detroit without having to shout any of his tropes. Even the turn of phrase "D versus everybody" takes gum rubber to the line between Danny-the-dissident and Detroit, the kingdom he’s sworn to protect: When it rains, it pours, so you may as well get your ass on the floor and dance, as behooves an agitator.
Through the naming of things, Danny Brown has finally given Joy Division’s limp legacy the D it has so badly needed. Atrocity Exhibition is Danny Brown rescuing moldy Joy Division 12-inches from waterlogged milk crates beyond Thunderdome, then dirt-biking with Lori Petty through the back alleys of Hamtramck and over the Canadian border on a mission to find clean water and blunt wraps. Atrocity Exhibition is, despite the weight of the name, as sharp and rare and survival-oriented and free as Danny himself. There is certainly joy here. You just need to look closer.