The warning signs kept coming: Brown’s newly signed to Warp, champions of the savagely extreme and home to Aphex Twin and Brian Eno. This album is named after one of Joy Division’s bleakest tracks and its cover looks like something that might’ve adorned an unloved and unpleasantly mad release by some free-jazz-grunge outfit on Sub Pop circa 1993. ‘When It Rain’ and ‘Pneumonia’, the first two tracks released from ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, were exhilaratingly mental, but not exactly club- or radio-friendly. If those two noisy sods were the singles, just how brutally weird was the rest of the album going to be?
We needn’t have fretted, however. While ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ is easily the barmiest album to be released by a major rapper in 2016, it’s also the funnest – and often funniest. The production – from, among others, Paul White, The Alchemist and Warp labelmate Evian Christ – is left-of-centre but unfailingly funky, with everything from stoner-rock riffage (‘Golddust’) to dubby electronica (‘From The Ground’) in the mix, while the guests, including Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt and Kelela, all bring their unimpeachable A game. But the big draw, as ever, is Brown’s astonishing rapping, still every bit as startling as when he first broke through five-odd years ago.
The 35-year-old remains the most adaptable and unpredictable MC on the planet: cartoonishly nasal one moment, melancholy or ferocious the next. His jaw-dropping technical ability is married to his uniquely contradictory and problematic persona, best typified by the highbrow-meets-lowbrow opening line of ‘Lost’: “I’m like Kubrick with two bricks and hoes on the strip”. If you’re after some state-of-the-art rap at its freshest and most emotionally charged, right now it gets no better than this.