1. Up front: this is the second best hip-hop album of 2016, and also in the year’s top 5. Which is mostly a surprise given how XXX grew off of me and Old never grew on me.
2. Also up front: “Really Doe,” the de facto centerpiece (it appears in the first third) of Atrocity Exhibition, is also a complete anomaly on that album. For one thing, it’s one of the few produced by someone not named Paul White (Black Milk instead). For another, it’s the only one that lasts more than 5 minutes – which is a pretty big difference considering most of the album clocks in at or under 3 minutes. And finally, it’s the only one featuring any guest rappers, at all – so they bring all of them into the fold into maybe the greatest posse cut of the decade. A few flaws: while Danny Brown’s exaggerated yelp lets him rhyme words that otherwise wouldn’t go together (“Schedules”; “Special flow”), the testicles-tentacle thing was something we figured out in Ms. Grossman’s grade 7 English class. Elsewhere, Ab-Soul’s flow starts off shakily, the weird way he invokes Aleister Crowley; the forced 2Pac reference that plain just doesn’t come off (“Employer tryna write me up, but now I’m a writer / With ambitions of a rider, and half the shit on my rider”) but it picks off immediately after that (“The Fanta’s for us, he Henny’s for the sluts”). And while Kendrick Lamar does his thing (from the lighter introduction to his verse to turn-of phrases like “I chewed the face off the laces / I moved the weight from the waitress”), it’s so surprising to say that he gets outshone by Earl Sweatshirt, who laces together a bunch of apocalyptic lines: “Disrespect will get you checked like the top of the month / I was liar as a kid so now I’m honest as fuck / And I never pass my mama no blunt” doesn’t even seem like they ought to follow one another, but in Earl’s hands, the pieces fit perfectly. And that’s without mentioning typical Earl observations “I just broke up with my bitch cause we ain’t argue enough” and his closing “I’m at your house like ‘Why you got your couch on my Chucks / motherfucker.’” Despite being younger than everyone else in the track, he’s the one I’d be most worried about in a brawl.
3. And it does a huge disservice to not mention Black Milk’s beat; originally worried he wouldn’t be able to juggle four rappers over 5 minutes, Black Milk provides a hypnotic, fast-paced keyboard line, with a bass violently squirming underneath. The key moment, however, is the woman screaming “FIRE” in the background after each second instance of Kendrick Lamar’s “They say I got the city on fire” in the chorus.
4. Pausing for a moment, here’s what Danny Brown said aboutMadvillainy, the obvious reference point (emphasis mine): “I never knew you could make an entire album without hooks and have it sound that good. He broke the rules of songwriting. That album broke rules to me. I’m all about that. That album showed me that music has no rules. Before that I thought you needed 16 bars and hooks to make a good song.”
Yet, that album succeeded because despite being devoid of hooks, it full of sounds you want to hear again (to paraphrase what Christgau said about another Madvillainy-influenced album). Brown takes that idea of sounds worth hearing (some of the best of the year, in fact) and adds hooks to them (some of the best of the year, in fact). Examples of sounds: the oozing atmosphere of opener “Downward Spiral” that transports you to where Brown is and how Brown feels (“I’m sweating like I’m in a rave / Been in this room for 3 days”), and the descending madness of the chorus as unnatural sounds swell up; discovering the best use of Kelela by using her voice as a texture on “From the Ground.” And both “From the Ground” and “Today” open with the mechanized blasts of industrial nightmares. Elsewhere, “When It Rain” opens with a fantastic counterpoint between two keyboards that’s just completely paved over for the chase scene where Danny Brown attempts to outrun his demons (sonically created by Paul White’s unrelenting bass and blippy keyboard line.)
5. Maybe the best example of both operating together is actually one of the album’s lesser tracks: “Dance in the Water,” whose club-ready choruses are bolstered by the indelible sample that Paul White uses, and whose verses feature a simply delightful bass-line.
6. It would be too easy to thank Paul White for all of that, partly because some of the tracks handled by others are equally good and also because, given how some of Paul White’s production for Open Mike Eagle’s Hella Personal Film Festival blended together, I’ve come to think that this album was only made possible given Danny Brown’s famous eclecticism (he’s the sort to namedrop Love and Radiohead in interviews, to fit naturally on an Avalanches comeback, to feature in a Bob Dylan video fifty years after the fact). On the other producers’ tracks: Petite Noir contributes a fantastic bass-line on “Rolling Stone”; Evian Christ’s “Pneumonia” sounds like the song is being fed through the conveyer belt of a toy factory where some of the machinery is on fire. And Playa Haze breaks up “Really Doe” and the combined tour de force of “Ain’t It Funny” and “Golddust” with the comparatively calmer and exotically-flavoured “Lost”,” thanks to the vocal sample that’s used as the main hook and cut up for the rest for the rest of the song.
7. Rapping-wise, Danny Brown sports some simply insane flows here: the way he matches with the clipped horns on the verses of “Ain’t It Funny” makes it one of the biggest head-rushes on the album (and those horns finally break free of their shackles for this massive-sounding interval for the choruses); the way he matches Andre 3000’s speed on “Today” (which quotes OutKast’s “B.O.B.”). A key moment on that one: the way the megaphone distorts his voice on the line “Cops killing niggas everyday like protocol,” drawing more of your attention to that line.
8. ”Get Hi” gets a lot of flak because of B-Real’s choruses, which are delivered in this ultra-sweet, almost childlike way. Which is, of course, the point: a child selling you on MJ like an advertisement (“Say you had a bad day / Want the stress to go away”) and Paul White adds to the effect by having the sounds underneath B-Real include a baby imitating the words “Get Hi” (something similar happens for the Alchemist-produced “White Lines”). Yes, the choruses are annoying, but they’re also at the same time, understandable, and well, powerful – it’s just an exaggerated version of Danny Brown’s character (the same one who yelled “Anxiety got the best of me / So popping them Xannies / Might need rehab / But to me, that shit pussy” on “Ain’t It Funny”). Yet, even the choruses aside, it’s hard to think the track is the weakest on the album: check out the hummed hymn underneath the soft fuzz – it’s the most gorgeous track on the album.
9. Two of the best hip-hop albums in the past two years reference Joy Division.