Favorite Tracks: “BUZZCUT (featuring Danny Brown)”, “CHAIN ON (featuring JPEGMAFIA)”, “DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY”, “I’LL TAKE YOU ON (featuring Charlie Wilson)”
BROCKHAMPTON is a microcosm of their generation coming of age in modern America. The group announced themselves loudly (literally and figuratively, the mixes were explosive at times) across the three-volume SATURATION series in 2017, choosing to explicitly define themselves as a boy band. As de facto leader Kevin Abstract put it on “DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY,” he knew about NSYNC before Wu-Tang Clan, and the boy band angle doubled as a signal for nostalgia-seeking peers who grew up on the cusp of the internet age, experiencing an unprecedented rate of change to the fabric of everyday life. The group emerged as the result of a search for community, connection, and acceptance, forged online and brought into reality via three companion projects created while most of the group shared a house. In turn, SATURATION I-III were urgent and fresh, if a little disorganized due to the number of fingers in the pot. That sense of newness, camaraderie, and discovery is palpable in those albums, as they felt each other out creatively and revel in the feeling of belonging, pushing one another to be more expressive, mine feelings more deeply, and indulge every creative whim. The result is raw, fun, striking, and often disjointed, forming an unsteady-but-viable foundation upon which the group’s evolution could be constructed.
Fittingly, that post-SATURATION period led to the “innocence lost” moment every kid and every generation experiences. Leading rapper Ameer Vann was accused of sexual assault, and the group convulses, spitting out the tortured IRIDESENCE in the process of grappling with the sort of tangled, sick-to-your-stomach feeling that only someone you consider a trusted friend can cause with their mistakes. Gone now is the wide-eyed optimism that marked early interviews with the group, hopeful they could represent a community of belonging the members themselves hadn’t found before and so many others never find. GINGER later saw the band climbing out of that abyss, choosing to remain a collective and work together through the challenge that new knowledge and a less optimistic outlook presents. That learning process produced some excellent tracks and hinted at evolution to come, but still succumbed to some of the group’s earlier creative indulgences.
Finally we arrive at ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE, which feels like a page turned for the boy band, the product of a few years growing together, weathering storms internal and external. It is their most refined work to date, the project that best understands how to utilize their strengths as a collective. Strangely, the addition of more voices actually strengthens the focus, but critically these are external voices, which serve as an organizing principle. These tracks are also some of the group’s most restrained musically, seeing members demonstrate their improved rapping and singing, particularly with regard to hook construction. “COUNT ON ME,” “CHAIN ON,” and “I’LL TAKE YOU ON” all feature extremely sticky, earworm choruses, and the general melodic focus makes this a much more groovy BROCKHAMPTON project than the frenetic, maximalist production of past releases.
Don’t mistake refinement for a sanding of the edges that make the eclectic sound BROCKHAMPTON excels at work, however; there are still moments of searing social commentary from individuals who have lived and seen the racism and homophobia that pervades American life before it was thrust to the forefront last summer by George Floyd’s execution. The most affecting of these moments comes from Joba, who brings the collaborative, lighthearted first section of the album to a screeching halt on “THE LIGHT,” serving up an unsettling and deeply personal anecdote about dealing with his father’s suicide alongside the generational anguish that COVID’s exposure of our society’s massive failings wrought. It’s sobering and painful, but also serves as a mission statement for the album and for what feels like the future of the group.
In a way, it’s a return to the principles that the group was founded on: community and camaraderie in the face of uncertainty, alienation, and persecution, but through a more mature lens. It’s to seek the light, that remaining steadfast and amongst those you care for is worth the pain and struggle, a throughline established more effectively and clearly on ROADRUNNER more than any previous BROCKHAMPTON work. The PLUS PACK that dropped recently doesn’t bring much more to the table though. “PRESSURE/BOW WOW” sounds too much like “DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY” off the bat, “Sex” is, well, exactly what the title suggests, and the two versions of “JEREMIAH” are decent but don’t blow me away. As a complete package, though, I’m impressed and relieved by ROADRUNNER, and excited to see what this enormous collective can evolve into next.