Brockhampton, now with more beat change-ups and multi-genre excursions! Not much else has changed though.
Whenever a rap collective starts picking up buzz online, it's emblematic of a specific moment or demographic. Odd Future brought shock value and guerrilla tactics to a generation that hadn't yet experienced those in real-time; A$AP Mob had the impeccably-curated, post-regional aesthetics of early 2010s Tumblr; Pro Era courted backpackers and boom-bappers who felt like they were born too late. Compared to their forebears, Brockhampton's existence offers the most timely and universal promises: harmony of race and sexual orientation in an era so defined by divides, eclecticism in the streaming age, and jack-of-all-trades multimedia mastery in a time when millennials have to create new (and often multiple) professionals roles to stay afloat.
Odd Future are the closest comparison, but that throughline made more sense back when Brockhampton were opening Saturation I with a song that contained the lyrics, "I love to watch 'em squirm, I love when bitches bleed." In the ensuing six months, the self-described "boyband" have more closely resembled the post-Odd Future diaspora of the present day. Lo-fi aggression is tempered by experimentation and honesty, mental health issues are freely discussed, and the queer members don't cloak their sexual identities with unexplained homophobia. It's all very precocious and mature for a group of dudes in their early 20s, and again, it speaks to a generation that's increasingly gender nonconforming and experiencing unprecedented levels of depression. Tyler started off using rape jokes and onstage antics to mask his insecurity and anger at his father; Kevin Abstract skipped right ahead to Flower Boy's tactic of frank disclosure.
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Brockhampton's progression thus far isn't exactly a collapsed version of Odd Future's— they began in a far more honest place and are still miles short of the groundbreaking places Tyler, Earl, Syd, and especially Frank Ocean have taken their music— but from Saturation I to II, they were able to step up their poignance while retaining their youthfulness. The blunt swagger rap of "Star" and open-hearted psych-R&B of "Swim" both ceded ground to create a hybrid, to the point where the hardest tracks on II were titled "Queer" and "Sweet" and contained lyrics about camaraderie, heartbreak, and struggling to make it. It was there that the ideal Brockhampton formula emerged: charismatic, personality-driven verses bookended by more universal (and catchy) singsong hooks.
On the group's third self-titled release of the year, they add a few bells and whistles in the composition department. III's beats pull from a much wider array of genres and, due to frequent change-ups and fragmented sections, feel more alive. This is no longer a project that solely consists of a bunch of buddies hopping on a couple of 8 bar loops and letting them ride out while doing the heavy lifting with their vibrant personalities. Rollicking opener "Boogie" announces this with a sledgehammer through the wall in the form of a skronky saxophone and an "It Takes Two" siren, the end result being a N*E*R*D homage that's N*E*R*Dier than anything on N*E*R*D's new album.
Musically, the operating principle of III echoes a sentiment expressed by Abstract on I's "Trip": "Today I'mma be whoever I wanna be." Musically omnivorous icons like Pharrell, Tyler, and The Gorillaz spring to mind when songs start randomly incorporating elements of jazz ("Johnny"), indie pop ("Hottie"), IDM, and pysch rock ("Sister/Nation"). That last song, a six minute, multi-part epic, is the most ambitious thing Brockhampton's ever attempted, and its execution is a bitesized illustration of III's strengths and weaknesses. Yes, it does show intriguing experimentation and reveal the group's advances in songwriting and composition, but it sometimes feels like they're rapping Brockhampton songs over beats randomly culled from their favorite records. Here's the Aphex Twin part, here's the Tame Impala part. With more deft and skillful curation, this is an approach that could work well, but for a group whose strong suit is personality and palpable chemistry, this karaoke/mashup vibe waters down what was a more sculpted whole on II.
Cohesiveness is always an evasive quality for any collective comprised of many creative voices, but Brockhampton came very close on II by offering a unified vision of brotherhood and checking on your people, that seemed strengthened, rather than weakened, when delivered by a wide range of vocalists. As an interlude notes on III, they're "still talking about the same shit" this time— the come up, depression, navigating relationships, entrepreneurial spirits, wistful desires to grow up— and with the combined effects of thematic repetition and loss of stylistic grounding, it doesn't land as gracefully this time.
The most soul-stirring joints still shine through, as they did on the similarly uneven I. The jazzy one-two punch of "Johnny" and "Liquid" is among the finest work in Brockhampton's catalog, and the similarly low-key "Bleach" finds a whopping eight vocalists clicking on all cylinders. The common thread? None of those songs seem hellbent on walloping you over the head with their eclecticism. They simply catch a vibe and let it flow. Don't worry, they're still weird and unpredictable— for instance, the closing minute of "Bleach" that builds up from sparse guitar plucks into a wall of feedback then breaks into the light with a breathtaking coda from bearface. It feels effortless in contrast with about half of III that feels more calculated than anything from Brockhampton's past.
III was originally announced as Brockhampton's "last studio album" but before it could even be released, the group announced another one, Group Effort, slated to arrive next year. As much as I dig the majority of what crew's been able to do when they put their many heads together, I kind of wish III was their last posse album, at least for the forseeable future. It takes what really started on I— that is, seamless, ego-less collaboration— to its logical endpoint, which is unbridled eclecticism. How do you democratically combine a dozen artists' myriad ideas? Throw 'em all in!
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In the case of every other rap collective I listed in the intro, the group projects have never lived up to the strongest solo outings. This is collective-specific. The individual members of groups like Migos or Rae Sremmurd would struggle without the symbiosis of their partners, but when a loose crew includes singers, producers, rappers, DJs, visual artists, etc., it's hard to link up for a profound unifying statement that lasts longer than the "Oldie" video. As it stands, Brockhampton have a made a few albums that trounce The OF Tape, Lord$ Never Worry, and The Secc$ TaP.E., and that's a feat that shouldn't go unnoticed. But imagine if guys like Ameer Vann, bearface, and Dom McLennon started putting out solo EPs with production and features from others under the Brockhampton umbrella. We'd finally get to know whose vision is whose, and get the full stories that have only appeared in fragmented form on the Saturation series. This trilogy is good-to-great, but I think its lasting legacy could be that of a breeding ground for solo stars who are still finding their own footing.