Fear is an extremely difficult thing to evoke in a piece of art, in both the artist and the consumer. I don’t mean shock or disgust; those are relatively easy to grab from an audience. I’m talking about a palpable anxiety, or the abject terror of seeing inner dread materialized in the outer world. This is especially difficult to achieve in the realm of music, which is why what Danny Brown does on “Ain’t It Funny” from 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition is so impressive to witness. What’s even more impressive is that despite being a nightmare on wax, the song has a magnetic pull that keeps the listener coming back for more.
It’s hard to imagine this allure isn’t intentional. In his multi-decade career, a subject that Brown commonly broaches in his music is the highs and lows of a substance abuse-laden lifestyle, often combining both into the same album or song to astonishing effect. What “Ain’t It Funny” depicts is not only the weight of this lifestyle on an individual, but the unstoppable pull that keeps someone in the vortex of addiction long enough to see the last exit pass by in the rearview mirror.
It makes sense then that the opening of the song sounds like the audio equivalent of doing 150 down a night-time interstate. The only thing that could be construed as a melody here is the siren-like synthesizer blaring on top of a simple but pulsing bass and snare combo. It’s immediately as unnerving as it is gripping: You’re on edge but you still want to hear what happens next. Of course, not to be outdone in manic energy by the beat, Brown bursts through the door guns blazing.
It’s hard to latch on to anything Brown raps as his words fly by you at full speed, but it’s not hard to tell that it’s a terrifying picture that he’s painting, however impressionistic. As the synths bubble around him, Brown jumps from moment to moment, each tied to coke, pills, alcohol, or all of the above. His penchant for hyperbole is present here, describing piles of cocaine “just to sniff you need a ski life” and a “Mind skydive/Doing bumps in the cockpit”. Rather than fantasy, however, this is instead magic realism, and at the heart of every metaphor and wordplay is the truth of Brown’s experience.
At the center of this distorted reality is most famous manifestation of humanity’s inner demons: Satan himself. Brown ends the first and last verses with the same two lines, “The joke’s on you/But Satan’s the one laughing.” In the midst of drug-addled reverie and debauchery, Brown understands that he’s not the one who will be getting the last laugh. Through the mad dash to stave off the inner demons, they end up becoming the victor at the end of the race.
By the time the final verse comes, Brown admits that he is fully aware of this dynamic. In his maddened cadence, he says “Upcoming heavy traffic/Say you need to slow down/Cause you feel yourself crashing/Staring at the devil’s face/But you can’t stop laughing.” The end of this road has a clear and ultimate end, but the pattern is almost too set in stone to be deviated. Brown’s confession is enough to make your blood run cold: To know that our addictions can be so powerful and so destructive, yet so irrevocably tied to our inner being that death is preferable to the alternative.
This is where the true terror of “Ain’t It Funny” comes from. Yes, the instrumental is enough to make you anxious, but Danny Brown’s melding of his words into the horrific beat is what makes this song strike fear into your heart. The music is conjured by Brown’s mixture of pain and pleasure, and the nightmare that spawns is just as enticing as the addictions that fed it. This is a demon that resides in all of us, but Danny Brown has called out its true name in this song.