Danny Brown's first Warp release is named after a Joy Division song inspired by writer J.G. Ballard's collection of the same title. "Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown," one of the chapters in the Ballard book, would have been just as apt an inscription on an album that looks more like a mid-'80s 12" designed by Neville Brody than anything classified as hip-hop. Old comrade Paul White produces two-thirds of the tracks, lending gnarled, sometimes clanging and blasting rhythms that complement Brown's elevated levels of dread and anxiety and slightly reduced amount of vulgar mischief. Brown spends most of his time looking darkly inward. In that berserk yet lucid high pitch, he raps about being more desperate to score than his clients: "Slice your tomato if you owe us for the lettuce/Runnin' through the D sorta like Jerome Bettis." He depicts himself as a vice-addled, teeth-grinding paranoiac with no soul or hope, and that summarizes only the first three cuts. The outward-looking material is just as biting. In "Today," the track that most exemplifies the album's title, Brown pithily specifies observed struggles and atrocities -- hustling to pay for diapers, the dodging of bullets from murderous civilians and authority, the prison-industrial complex -- as he references OutKast. No such dread is in "Dance in the Water," the album's only true break from the hellscapes. Over the brawling tribal Pulsallama rhythm that it takes to dance to what he has to live through, Brown paraphrases Parliament's "Aqua Boogie" as he outlines a new workout plan -- minus a proposition, one technically clean enough to be applied by youngsters. Guest appearances are kept to a judicious few. Kendrick Lamar provides a verse and the hook on "Really Doe," a knocking Black Milk production that also features Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt. Brown's meeting with Cypress Hill's B-Real is expectedly pinched and faded. Most symbiotic is "From the Ground Up," decaying funk with Kelela in dreamlike Janet Jackson mode. Even with its outside input, Atrocity Exhibition is Danny Brown at his least diluted, almost unrelentingly grim and completely engrossing. ~ Andy Kellman
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