When the self-styled ‘All American Boyband’ BROCKHAMPTON emerged from their Southern Californian commune, they did so with an unfettered freedom, ambition, and energy that cannot be coerced or manufactured. Born of a token enquiry from Kevin Abstract on KanyeToThe that would culminate in a collective known as Alive Since Forever, the Texan artist would soon dispense with the band alongside a chosen few co-conspirators in order to reassemble as the group they are today. Structured as less of a traditional musical unit and more of a hivemind of songwriters, producers and directors that coalesce upon the common goal of delivering multi-faceted artistry, their innate ability to amalgamate their disparate styles and influences while retaining a sense of cohesion is nigh unparalleled in hip-hop or any contemporary genre.
Championed as a voice for the disaffected, excluded and misaligned, BROCKHAMPTON’s 2016 debut mixtape All American Trash may have laid the groundwork for their diverse yet immediately accessible sound, but this early promise was compounded with the revelation that was their SATURATION trilogy. Released over the course of a whirlwind six-month span, these three bodies of work took them from burgeoning outliers to a phenomenon that hearkened back to the meteoric emergences of groups such as Bone Thugs N Harmony, Raider Klan, and OFWGKTA. From sold-out tours and a riotous Times Square performance to highly sought-after merch drops and much admiration of their prolific work ethic, it was to the surprise of no one when they soon found themselves positioned in the notoriously pragmatic sights of the major labels.
A mere ten days after their proposed new LP Team Effort had been unceremoniously shelved on the grounds that ‘God had told them to save the album for another time,’ the group announced that they’d inked a deal with RCA for a rumored $15 million. As this lucrative deal was the clear catalyst for Team Effort’s containment and with the allusion to ‘god’ registering as a thinly cloaked reference to the encroaching presence of a major record company in an artist’s career, the concept of BROCKHAMPTON losing the autonomy that had facilitated their immense output levels caused notable disconcertion among fans.
Offset by a sense of pride in how far they’d come since their formative stages, the trepidation that began to manifest on social media and in forums may have been fueled by the parables of prosperous careers that were derailed by label interference, but few could have anticipated the upheaval that would soon originate from within their very ranks.
In many ways, the poster boy for BROCKHAMPTON’s SATURATION era – on account of his immortalization on its artwork and his candid verses about his macabre, drug-ravaged past – was Ameer Vann. Allegations of sexual misconduct levied against him threatened to desecrate all that the group had built as he was expelled from their ranks. Although they ensured everyone that they had been lied to and wished they had acted sooner, it was clear that the decision had caused turmoil among the group and resulted in a series of disjointed and emotionally volatile performances over the course of a summer festival run.
A blow that some thought they could never recover from, each move that they’ve made in the wake of their major label acquisition and Ameer’s departure has been scrutinized ad nauseum as fans attempt to discern whether the BROCKHAMPTON they had come to adore would remain every bit as vital at this new plateau in their career. With the fickleness of the modern industry and the continually depleting attention spans of consumers, where the problem lies is whether BROCKHAMPTON could be dissuaded from their own path due to the added strain of appeasing a label or if they can prevent it from being a hindrance and simply use the PR machine and vast increase in budget to further their own vision for new record The Best Years Of Our Lives and all future projects.
From the evidence that’s been presented in the embryonic stages of the RCA era, one notable deviation from their tried and tested formula is a newfound penchant for collaboration. Where they had constructed practically every tenet of the SATURATION series in-house at their shared residence, both new tracks that have been unveiled since inking their six album deal have seen them enlist the services of external talents. Debuted live on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, the tender, piano-led “Tonya” refuted the ways of the past as they performed alongside Jazmine Sullivan, Ryan Beatty and serpentwithfeet, while the vibrant “1999 Wildfire,” their debut single on RCA, comes complete with introductory remarks courtesy of the legendary producer Jazze Pha.
Given the artists whose talents they’ve called upon, there is a pronounced duality as to whether this bodes well for the future of the group’s output. In the major label rap sphere, co-signs and hook-ups are embedded into the fabric of the industry, but ultimately veer in quality from the sublime to the inorganic and forced. For a group that have notoriously steered clear of collabs, the prospect of a label insisting upon them could be daunting but thus far, it looks as though they’ve handled it meticulously.
In the case of the featured artists on “Tonya,” Ryan Beatty is one of the few outsiders who had managed to infiltrate a BROCKHAMPTON record before their major label signing, turning in vocals on both “BLEACH” and “QUEER.” When it comes to liaising with Jazmine Sullivan and serpentwithfeet, their respective output is stylistically divergent in a similar manner to the group themselves, even as the latter’s debut album SOIL shares ideological ground with the messages of acceptance and liberated explorations of the LGBTQ+ community that Kevin Abstract regularly cites.
On the other hand, the inclusion of Jazze Pha is a bit more quizzical in nature but can be rationalized in one of two ways. As products of the mid to late ’90s, BROCKHAMPTON’s members would have been accruing their affinities for hip-hop in the mid-2000s, when “JazzePhizzle” was at his cultural zenith and thus this may be a simple case of wish fulfilment for its members. Otherwise, it would not be beyond the realms of imagination for the boyband to be firing a wry jab at the prevailing over-reliance on collaboration in mainstream hip-hop by tacking on this seemingly senseless feature.
Their newfound willingness to let other artists into their inner sanctum aside, another demonstrable shift in their sonic palette across these tracks is the increased prevalence of Bearface. Among the more elusive components of BROCKHAMPTON, the Belfast-born singer/songwriter has always been something of an anomaly when viewed in contrast to the hyperactivity and boisterousness of its other members. Employed sparingly throughout the course of the SATURATION trilogy, Bearface’s entrancing vocals really get their chance to shine in the concluding moment of each album with shimmering, fuzz pop-indebted songs such as “Waste,” “Summer,” and “Team.”
In light of how methodical and uniform his appearances have seemed up to this point, it came as a jarring yet pleasant surprise to see that he is at the forefront of both “Tonya” and “1999 WILDFIRE.” Naturally, this explicit shift has registered with fans and begs the question of how this reconfiguration has suddenly come to pass. From the standpoint of the label-wary cynic, it would be feasible that RCA may have had a hand in his embellished position due to Bearface’s style having more ‘upside potential’ or longevity as a potential breakout solo act than some of his more off-kilter and idiosyncratic comrades.
With that said, the concept that RCA would incite a reshuffle of their focus would fly in the face of Kevin’s assurance that their core dynamic would remain unchanged and intact. What’s more, it would be remiss of anyone to forego the glaring hole in their pool of vocalists in the form of Ameer Vann. Now that he’s no longer on-hand to juxtapose Merlyn’s madcap proclamations or Dom’s verbose lyrical exercises with his imposing bars, this leaves room for a change in approach, and the latest two tracks would suggest that their new direction is more accommodating to his contributions than much of the lauded SATURATION era.
Speaking of Ameer and how his dishonorable discharge from their ranks has irrevocably altered their career, the shift in focus that’s arrived may differ greatly from what we would’ve received had their two halted projects been unveiled to the public. Following on from Team Effort’s indefinite embargo due to alleged divine intervention, BROCKHAMPTON wasted little time in channelling their energy into a new LP entitled PUPPY.
During an uncharacteristic layoff from releasing new material, Kevin Abstract ventured on to his Instagram account and left fans in frenzied awe by previewing the record’s opening track “Ready For War.” Brash, combative and the site of some of their most wildly creative production to date courtesy of its sweeping orchestral flourishes, it came complete with stellar verses from Abstract, Dom Mclennon and the soon-to-be exiled Ameer. As was to be expected given his prevalence on each SATURATION LP, it appears that Vann was ingrained at the core of the record and his overarching presence has led to the album likely being confined to the archives after they publicly announced its delay.
When they appeared on Jimmy Fallon in order to promote an entirely new LP in Best Years Of Our Lives (or perhaps Pencil?), it was reasonable for their fanbase to presume that the label and group had opted to make a clean break and discard the work that had featured the controversial MC. However, a new development that has reaffirmed their commitment to going above and beyond in terms of delivering content indicates that it could still emerge in some form after all.
Announced via Kevin’s revelatory Twitter account, it was declared that the group would be curating their own Beats 1 radio show entitled ‘Things We Lost In The Fire’ and that it would act as a conduit for ‘new music all summer.’ Comprised of tracks from an eclectic pool of artists, interludes from the group’s cult hero Roberto, new remixes and three spins of the premiering “1999 WILDFIRE,” the first edition lived up to its word by providing never-before-heard studio material and has the potential to make for enthralling listening when you take their circumstances into account. Whether it was derived from Suzanne Bier’s 2007 film, Bastille’s 2013 single or something else entirely remains to be seen, but the show’s moniker could prove to be a telling indication of how this show will facilitate a steady stream of new music.
In BROCKHAMPTON’s case, the “fire” they’re referring to could in fact be the troubling allegations against Ameer and the resultant fallout that has left the group in disarray and with a wealth of material condemned to the side-lines. Given the fact that they could not only use the show as a launching pad for tracks from their new album but also to air unreleased content, it seems that the show may be a cunning compromise between BROCKHAMPTON and the label to serve as a vessel for reworked versions of tracks that had originated from PUPPY or Team Effort. By subverting from the standard rollout format, this would enable the group to disseminate as much music as they’d like to the world without infringing upon RCA’s promotional blueprint for their new studio album and throws back to those heady days where they were the sole masters of their own destiny.
Since the outset of their career, this vivacious spirit of independence and originality have been the attributes which have garnered them such a devout fanbase. Never wary about straying off into untrodden territory within hip-hop, there may be discernible and oft-cited influences at work, but they’re all infused into their sound as opposed to coming across as a blatant pastiche. Or at least that’s what fans believed to be the case until the release of their first single on RCA. In the wake of “1999 WILDFIRE,” there was a commonality in much of the critique and praise for the track and it all centred upon its perceived similarity to the sound of those beloved ATLiens, OutKast. As evidenced by a quick glance at their dedicated sub-Reddit, the notion that its sound liberally borrows from the repertoire of André 3000 and Big Boi seems to be of little concern to some, while others depict it as a warning of a staleness or lack of imagination in their song-writing since finding success.
Although its production may harbor tropes that could be attributed to the southern rap pioneers’ glory days, to focus on this as an indictment of BROCKHAMPTON tapering down their own sound would be to discredit its unique ambience and the lyrical content of the verses. Ever since he first made his unhinged presence felt on SATURATION’s opener “HEAT,” the producer, singer and rapper known as Joba has always been one of the most excitingly daring performers amid a group of distinct voices. While he may have been exposing a more solemn side of his personalities on “Tonya,” his turn on “1999 WILDFIRE” is as off-the-wall as any that you’re likely to hear on a single designated for mainstream radio as he delivers lines that have more bearing on a Dungeons & Dragons quest than anything grounded in the real world. When viewed in conjunction with Matt Champion’s unrefined and heartrending cries of “I don’t matter” on “Tonya,” it appears that the group’s longstanding commitment to deviation isn’t about to leave them purely due to a major label acquisition.
While there are enshrined stumbling blocks that come with shouldering the burden of major label expectation and a myriad of ways to be deterred from your preordained direction, it seems that the all-American boyband have made a concerted effort to evade their grasp. At a time of great interpersonal unrest when many would’ve wavered and surrendered their fate to the whim of higher ups, each move that BROCKHAMPTON have made since the signing and Ameer’s expulsion has been to further that shared goal of creating art which speaks to their personal yet intersected journeys. Should their clarity remain unobscured and their methods unchanged as Kevin has promised, there is no reason why the RCA platform should be anything less than a springboard to unprecedented heights for the group over the course of their deal’s duration.
Next, read everything we know so far about BROCKHAMPTON’s upcoming album ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ right here.
- Words: Robert Blair