Lately, I’ve been infatuated with the concept of narrative. More obviously, how a musician uses his/her medium to tell a story—but more specifically, the arc of a narrative, and how each project becomes a puzzle piece in that arc.
Kevin Abstract’s newest release, American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story, fits squarely within my obsession. The fearless Texas-bred artist uses narrative and aesthetic to guide the album, an autobiographical tale striped with socio-political commentary, harsh realities, and long sought-after truths.
But it isn’t something we expected after his ambitious 2014 debut MTV1987, which—though tinged with pop melodies—is, at its core, a rap album. At the time, we didn’t realize that MTV1987 would ultimately become the springboard for American Boyfriend.
American Boyfriend both is and isn’t a rap album: That is to say, it’s rooted in hip-hop, but flourishes through pop, R&B and grunge. Indeed, it is quite apropos of music’s current inclination for genre-blending. Throughout its 16 tracks, we’re given flashes of these genres, fixed by Abstract’s awakening: An exploration of self; a sexual coming-of-age.
Standout Tracks (Other than excellent singles “Echo,” “Empty,” “Yellow” and “Miserable America”)
“Tattoo” is entirely cinematic. Amid a symphonic wave of strings, drums and background vocals, we hear Abstract dealing with a string of disappointments: He’s criticized for quitting his job, his dad calls him hopeless, he doesn’t feel a closeness with his friends, he’s offered superficial apologies. At the end of the song, the line, “Say it’s okay when it’s not,” repeats, first by him and then a female vocalist. While Abstract searches for intimacy from his father, from his friends, and from a significant other, he also longs to fit in.
Abstract buries little mantras throughout the album, repeating phrases that aid him in coming to terms with reality. While on “Tattoo,” he reiterates the lyrics “Say it’s okay when it’s not,” on “Papercut,” he continually recites, “I take everything for what it is / And never try to change it." If “Tattoo” is about remaining wishful, then “Papercut” is about accepting your circumstances, and given his situation, he decides to remain protective of himself.
“I Do (End Credits)”
While raps are littered throughout American Boyfriend, “I Do” is decidedly the most hip-hop-driven song. As the last track, it brings the album full circle, reminding the listener of Abstract’s origins—that this is still a rap album. In a manipulated, squeaky voice, he raps, “I ain’t sorry about shit / This is exactly who I’m supposed to be / Motherfucker, this is me.” Abstract is fearless and forthcoming: He is no longer trying to hide.
In a piece I wrote on Abstract’s song “Miserable America”—the last American Boyfriend single he released before the album—I penned, “Abstract reminds me a lot of Frank Ocean, whose evolution into his own sexuality took time, and who, through his music, has become a mouthpiece for LGBTQIA community.”
Like Ocean, Abstract’s sexual identity is framed by hip-hop—and like Ocean, Abstract has broken out of that genre. He too has poised himself as a mouthpiece and employed American Boyfriend as a continuation of his own personal arc. Abstract’s upcoming release might very well be twofold: While it will definitively propel his narrative forward, it also has the ability to challenge rap’s heteronormativity and homophobia.
Kevin Abstract's 'American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story' is scheduled to hit digital retailers and streaming services on Friday, November 18.
By Tara Mahadevan. Follow her on Twitter.