American Idol, The Voice, that BET show that had Sway as a judge—I’ve never trusted music talent competitions. I’m all for aspiring artists getting exposure, but I hate how these shows value proficiency over creativity—they’re about how well you can sing or rap in the technical sense, rather than what your music sounds like, which is all that really matters. I mean, can you imagine Young Thug or Lil Yachty even getting past the first round of one of these talent competitions?
BROCKHAMPTON is a rare exception to this rule. In 2015, the self-proclaimed “All-American Boyband,” whose multitalented roster includes Kevin Abstract, Matt Champion, JOBA, Ameer Vann and Rodney Tenor, won the VFILES LOUD! competition, earning themselves a singles deal with Fool’s Gold Records and a handsome video budget. The result of their prize was “Dirt,” which shattered any preconceived notions I had about both boybands and talent competitions.
Their VFILES LOUD! victory didn’t quite turn BROCKHAMPTON into overnight celebrities (word to Twista); instead, it felt more like a soft launch for one of the most unique groups around. Last year’s debut mixtape All-American Trash—full of heartache and humor, kinship and contemplation, teen angst and adventurous production—gave us a glimpse at just how many different sounds and styles these ragtags can squeeze into 38 minutes. If Pharrell, Kid Cudi and Frank Ocean blurred genres, BROCKHAMPTON synthesize these very influences into something even more indefinable.
“I want to make people confused, like, ‘Damn, I’ve not heard anybody like this in a rap song — like, ever before.’” — Merlyn Wood (DAZED)
BROCKHAMPTON’s diversity only begins with their music, though. The band’s lineup is like a snapshot of modern day America: black and white, natives and immigrants (bearface is from Ireland—or “not the America, the other parts,” as the group jokes on “Encino”), straight and gay. “We are what America actually is,” says Kevin Abstract, who bravely opened up about his sexuality on his 2016 solo album American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story. “We speak for people of color who have a hard time expressing themselves publicly.”
While Kevin has emerged as the pick of the litter (he recently landed his own TV show on VICELAND and is currently managed by Christian and Kelly Clancy, the power couple who shepherded Odd Future to superstardom), his solo success hasn’t slowed down BROCKHAMPTON’s momentum. Over the last few months, the band has been quietly rolling out records from their upcoming sophomore mixtape SATURATION, and it’s some of the most original and infectious stuff I’ve heard since Blonde.
BROCKHAMPTON kicked things off back in January with “CANNON,” which finds Kevin Abstract, Merlyn Wood, Dom McLennon and Ameer Vann trading some pretty bleak verses (“Most days I don’t wanna be me, shit,” admits Merlyn) over somber production that features an epic, funky worm synth. But like a ray of sunshine breaking through dark clouds, the song holds onto a sliver of hope: “One day I’mma get my bread up,” Kevin repeats on the hook. “CANNON” closes out with a woozy outro from bearface, echoing the kind of canny beat switch you’ll find on Because the Internet.
After a brief quiet spell, BROCKHAMPTON returned with a trifecta of new tunes this month. “FACE” is a tender love song highlighted by a gorgeous chorus from JOBA that nods to Carolina Liar, while “GOLD” is the closest thing to a straightforward rap song—all flossing and flexing over upbeat production. Each song comes with a stunning music video (directed by Kevin Abstract) and eye-catching artwork because this is a band who understands that presentation is just as important as the product itself.
The cream of BROCKHAMPTON’s recent releases, though, is “HEAT,” a punk-rap banger that’ll make you want to burn down your neighbor’s crib for calling the cops on your house party. It’s also the best showcase of the band’s individual qualities: Ameer’s cool, composed delivery, Merlyn Wood’s frenzied patois and JOBA’s head-banging, ear-splitting screams—all of which go blow-for-blow with the heavily distorted production. “I’ll break your neck so you can watch your back” is a fucking fantastic line.
Between “CANNON,” “FACE,” “GOLD” and “HEAT,” each new release is like unearthing a different side to the Rubik’s Cube of BROCKHAMPTON’s identity—except the whole point is that you don’t solve it. The contrast of depression and determination on “CANNON,” JOBA’s high-pitched crooning and Ameer’s deep-voiced raps on “FACE,” the mix of punk and patois on “HEAT”—this clash of sounds, styles and emotions is why BROCKHAMPTON is the most exciting group—let alone boyband—in hip-hop right now. If you can even pin them down to one genre.
Like the Warriors’ current playoff run, BROCKHAMPTON has yet to miss a step with these SATURATION singles. The mixtape arrives next month and is shaping up to be one of the best releases of 2017.