BROCKHAMPTON make music that helps confused young people make sense of who they are, with member Joba’s previous proclamation of “I’m bad at growing up” essentially serving as the group’s mission statement and bottling the kind of ambivalence one of their teenage fans might feel as they transition into an adult.
The existence of the 13-member, non-heteronormative group, which likes to market itself as the most diverse boyband on the planet, feels important: BROCKHAMPTON are creating a safe space - where being hard is just as important as being soft - for young people to share their feelings.
Yet the idea of BROCKHAMPTON is sometimes a lot more radical than their actual music, which can feel like a lot of emotions, but not necessarily a lot of direction. To some, that rough around the edges, DIY pop rap sound is what gives the group their edge, but to others it can be jarring to listen to, and the group’s songs don’t always feel like fully formed ideas. There’s a nagging sense that after four albums, it’s about time they showed a much clearer evolution in their sound.
It’s been a difficult period for the group, who were forced to kick out their most technically gifted rapper, Ameer Vann, after allegations of sexual misconduct. But after taking a short break following this controversy, all the signs have pointed to the group’s fifth album, GINGER, being much more focused and marking real artistic growth. In an interview with GQ, the group’s honorary leader Kevin Abstract said GINGER would be a “feel-good summer album” that had a much more positive outlook on life, and this critic was excited to see BROCKHAMPTON do something fresh.
Unfortunately the final product doesn’t quite live up to the billing, with GINGER feeling like a confused, disjointed record, from a group that’s full of great ideas without the follow-through to fully realize them.
That laid back summery sound is certainly prevalent on catchy chilled acoustic rap songs like “SUGAR” and “ST. PERCY”, but there’s an odd juxtaposition between the easy going sonics and the dark message that punctuates them. On the former song, Dom McLennon, who raps: “This is not supposed to be a way of livin’ / turned my temple down into a prison”, sounds terminally depressed, while the track’s hook, which is all about isolation, is completely at odds with the track’s light, airy sound.
Meanwhile, the goofy, experimental bass line of “ST PERCY” and its inspired, quintessentially summertime sample of D-Flexx’s “Only God Knows” should inspire fun, larger-than-life verses; it’s basically a good opportunity for BROCKHAMPTON to mirror a group like Pharcyde. So why is it that each member of the group sounds lethargic and, dare I say, a little bored?
The production, handled by members Jabari Manwa and Romil Hemnani, is consistently fantastic and nails Abstract’s brief for a serotonin-heavy scorcher of an album, but the message is completely at odds with this sound; it feels like no one is steering the vocal performances so they add up to a consistent whole. The hiccupping hi-hats and THC-sticky synths of "LOVE ME FOR LIFE" are fascinating, but the stoner raps of Kevin Abstract, the pop vocals of Joba, the hyper animated punk growls of Merilyn Wood and the XXXTentacion-esque emo harmonizing of Bearface don’t all belong on the same song. It’s like each member of the group is recording for a different track and no one has jumped in and said it might be a good idea for everybody to stick to one consistent theme or aesthetic.
Sure, some will argue this kind of unpredictable versatility is what makes BROCKHAMPTON so interesting, but it also sounds like a group unable to create a cohesive idea — Abstract’s comments to GQ don’t really sync with the record his group has delivered. The great boy bands, whether that’s the Backstreet Boys or NSYNC, had structure and hooks that made you feel alive, but BROCKHAMPTON have neither on GINGER. If they insist on being referred to as a boyband, then they should at least get the fundamentals right.
At its core, GINGER, which has two men hugging on its cover, is an album about processing feelings. The mournful anthem “NO HALO” sees Merilyn Wood powerfully rap about being depressed and struggling to make it out of bed, and the song, and its message of it being okay to go through a difficult patch, will strike a chord with anyone who has been down in the dumps. It’s undeniably powerful, but nothing we haven’t heard from BROCKHAMPTON before.
“BOY BYE” is much more interesting, with its niche sample of Iranian singer Dariush’s up tempo deep cut “Ejazeh” inspiring each member to talk that shit and actually sound like they’re not each looking in opposite directions, but working together towards one shared goal. It’s hard to disagree when Matt Champion boasts: “Man, this shit bump like a belly when it's pregnant (Mhm)”, but it’s just a shame this more fun sound wasn’t more prominent throughout the album. If it was, then Abstract’s promise of a feel good summer album, might just have been delivered.
When the most interesting moment on your album is a cocky cameo from unpredictable UK rapper slowthai ("HEAVEN BELONGS TO YOU"), who thrillingly raps about having a “war in my head like the Middle East”, it’s probably a sign that your core sound is starting to grate. This isn’t a bad album from BROCKHAMPTON, but it’s not a particularly great one either. At this point in their reign, the group needed to show more growth, and GINGER sounds a lot less focused than the far superior SATURATION trilogy. It’s fair to say the group, following Vann’s departure, now sounds a lot less assured. Perhaps for album number six they need an executive producer to come in and make sure things are a lot tighter and that the group is reading from the same script. Spending more than a year creating it might be the difference between BROCKHAMPTON becoming irritating or reaching the next level.