As he moved deeper into his own psychosis, whose onset he had recognized during his year at the hospital, he welcomed this journey into a familiar land, zones of twilight. At dawn, after driving all night, they reached the suburbs of Hell– The Atrocity Exhibition, J.G Ballard, 1970.
Staring at the devils face but you can’t stop laughing- Atrocity Exhibition, Danny Brown, 2016.
Danny Brown’s latest album is the work of debauched 2016 Dante, clinically detailing the levels of his personal hell. It’s production is not so much futuristic as beamed in from some parallel universe where the bombs dropped long ago. In Atrocity Exhibition, we hear the diary of a decadent recluse holed up in the suburbs around the decaying city of Detroit- phone off the hook but still ringing, residue on mirrors. His voice and lyrics range from resigned to hysterical. On the incredible ‘Tell Me What I Don’t Know’, he is a steely witness to the human cost of the drug game. On other tracks, he is a high-pitched maniac lost in a horror house of hallucinations and waking nightmares. He delivers the most coldly hilarious line about celebrity life I’ve ever heard- ‘nosebleeds on red carpet, but the colour just blends in’, and sicko life advice like ‘ the one thing I’ve learnt is don’t nod off with your motherfucking cigarette burning.’ The album would be morbid if it didn’t sound so invigorating. The moment when the beat drops on ‘When it Rain’, the psychedelic guitars which blaze through ‘Dance In The Water.’ The manic creativity on this album is reminiscent of peak Outkast, who Brown explicitly quotes on ‘Today’. But whereas Andre 3000 and Big Boi moved in a universe lit by warmth and spirituality, he speaks from a perspective leached of hope. This is a winter album, which sounds like walking down the wrong alleyway, in the wrong city. Pain and pleasures are indistinguishable in this frigid depressive landscape.
The phrase ‘cold world’ appears throughout the album. In the past other hip hop artists have used this as a shorthand for the chilling effect of poverty, despair and deprivation. The haunting ‘Cold World’ on GZA’s Liquid Swordz, the entirety of Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein (‘it’s a cold world out there… tell me about it sometimes I feel a little frosty myself’).
But Brown looks further across the Atlantic to find inspiration for his personal ice age. The title itself links Brown into an unexpected circuit of British eccentrics. It was first used in a book of the same age by the great writer J.G Ballard. For Ballard, the exhibition was the media landscape created during the Cold War, in which the horrors of nuclear annihilation and the Vietnam War comfortably existed alongside Hollywood stars and advertising billboards. In 1980, it was repurposed as the opening song of Joy Division’s second and final album Closer. Over drums that sound like a Satanic choir, singer Ian Curtis invites you to a world with ‘mass murder on a scale you’ve never seen.’ Two months before the album was released, Curtis had committed suicide. In the years since this tragic end, the band’s stature has only grown, its music retaining an elemental power transcending the time it was made. As cultural theorist Mark Fisher suggests, the band drew a sense of foreboding from the era it was made (1977-80). A time when politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan pioneered the shift towards an increasingly unequal and brutal neoliberal capitalism. We live in the ruins of this counterrevolution, a world where high levels of economic stress incubate chronic rates of depression, substance abuse, alienation and despair. The exact same personal effects which Brown confronts with such raw honesty. And the rabbit hole runs even deeper. The original American edition of Ballard’s book was pulped by its’ publishers because of a section called ‘Why I want to Fuck Ronald Regan.’ Some year’s later pranksters handed this out at the Republican Party convention, presenting it as the work of some deranged think tank. The Reagan administration’s right wing economic doctrines and shady foreign policy both helped to dramatically increase poverty in America while helping to flood cities with hard drugs. Born in 1981, Danny Brown has had a first-hand seat at the intensification of urban poverty. Today’s atrocities exhibitions are captured on live stream and retweeted rather than caught on tape, but the historical thread is there.
One final overlap- on his last fatal night in Manchester, Curtis was listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, itself a cold electronic album about the twilight life of a trouble Detroit star. As Ballard put it later notes about The Atrocity Exhibition ‘deep assignments run through all our lives. There are no coincidences.’
This background only adds to the appreciation of Brown’s masterpiece. It’s determination and focus is almost heroic, and makes the one percenter whining of Kayne or Drake sound like grocery lists by comparison. This is sound of one man laughing into the abyss, a ‘living nightmare which most of us share.’