BROCKHAMPTON are a group with a dozen different definitions. Depending on who you talk to, they’re the ‘rap collective,’ the ‘gay ones,’ or ‘the greatest boyband in America.’ None of these, in whole or in part, are false; instead, they manifest differently depending on which angle you approach this 14-strong group from.
Think of them as a bubble: a Texas-born but now LA-based troupe of musicians who create energetic, deliciously discordant hip-hop, informed in different ways by the boys who make up their line-up. It makes sense that their latest record is named iridescence; the dictionary defines it as “a lustrous rainbow-like play of color… that tends to change [with] the angle of view,” which, unsurprisingly, is true of BROCKHAMPTON too.
Over the past two years, they’ve gone from making DIY hip-hop in the suburbs of America’s South to becoming the genre’s progressive and plucky contemporary faces, but it’s been a tumultuous summer for them. After climbing the rap ladder with the boisterous, party-ready tracks that shaped so much of the breakout Saturation trilogy, they hit a crisis point – namely, the revelation that member Ameer Vann had been hit with allegations of sexual abuse – that almost brought an end to their ascent to mainstream fame. But there’s a sense of self-repair and rediscovery that imbues the aftermath, and it’s apparent on every track of their fourth record.
iridescence is the product of 10 days spent holed up in London’s legendary Abbey Road studios: a pensive, grown-up, sonically erratic hip-hop album. It’s grounded by the sense that you’re listening to a group of men intent on clambering out of the wallows of sadness they’d found themselves in, and by the time the record swoops to a close some 50 minutes later, you get the impression that they’ve started to find their feet again.
Those expecting the same level of ebullience and cheekiness from BROCKHAMPTON based on their earlier work have their preconceptions shattered on the first track. “I’m in tandem with my curse, going manic since my birth/ See this canvas as I planned it, I’m commanding with my nerves,” Dom spits his feelings bare on “NEW ORLEANS,” a track inspired by Lil Wayne’s 2005 cut “Fireman,” while frontman Kevin Abstract and the band’s Abbey Road ally Jaden Smith share a chorus (“Tell the world, I ain’t scared of nothing/ Tell my boy, I want a crib in London”) that sees them calibrate their sense of worth from the top.
It’s become a joke within the group that the record is being lazily championed for its queer subtext (there’s a semi-psychedelic number sung by Kevin, “Something About Him,” that’s dedicated to his boyfriend) despite the fact Kevin’s the only gay guy in the group. In reality, for all of its short bursts of queer nods and traditional boyband-ish energy (Merlyn delivers one of the record’s highlight verses on the dub-doused chorus of “WHERE THE CASH AT?”), the turmoil and self discovery at the heart of iridescence is its real, most riveting quality.
Case in point is the remarkably formed “WEIGHT,” a song that ascends from orchestral strings into vintage British drum and bass without a bat of an eyelid, and yet still manages to hold on to its melancholic mood. It opens with Kevin’s already widely talked about verse on the pressures of heteronormativity growing up and the sudden thrust into the spotlight post-Ameer scandal, before the bass drops and Joba and Dom deliver some of their many stark revelations on the record. “I think the hardest part of love could be rebuilding the breaks,” the latter admits, on a verse which acts as the focal point of the record.
We’re taken to a similar territory on a handful of songs on the record’s second half. The acoustic guitar-led “SAN MARCOS” sounds like it could be cut from an early Oasis record, but it hearkens back to the simpler times the band spent in the Texas city they first called home. Things have changed, but the song harbors this strange and sad energy that places the wistfulness of yearning for the past with an appreciation of all the future has given them side by side.
Joba – who’s on particularly strong form here – delivers its most incisive and stark line about his battle with suicidal thoughts. “When you’re torn between reality, and a choice you could have made/ I should have made, they’re not the same. I’m not the same”, he confesses, before the London Community Gospel Choir carry the song out with a hopeful, repeated cry: “I want more out of life than this.”
That doesn’t mean that iridescence is all doom and gloom; the band’s love for a good flex is simply shrouded in murkier production than we’re used to. The aforementioned “WEIGHT” is followed by the brooding and equally brilliant “DISTRICT,” a soapy-fresh banger bathed in well-worn tropes like materialism and success that acts as a palate cleanser for its predecessor. Meanwhile “J’OUVERT,” the incensed second track from iridescence to drop mere moments before the full-length record, serves an equally invigorating purpose. Released alongside a video shot entirely in the album’s now ubiquitous thermal-cam style, it provides plenty of space for Joba, Matt Champion, and Merlyn to deliver their familiar, gut-punch brilliance.
Considering how successful they are now, it’s strange to think that the boys of BROCKHAMPTON were once lost kids in America desperate to achieve something; some suffering from depression, all yearning for an outlet. Look now: with a millions-strong fanbase, label support, and the pervasive eyes of the music industry scrutinizing their every move, the scene was set for America’s greatest boyband to lean in on their quirks and emotional idiosyncrasies – some undoubtedly hard to put on record – and create something that will lure in the average rap listener.
With the weight of the rap world on their shoulders now, BROCKHAMPTON know we’re listening. A record about the repercussions of fame and the pressures of expectation, iridescence thwarts the opportunity to sell out at every turn, delivering a major label debut that’s boundary-breaking, frank and achingly heartfelt. Hip hop feels greater with these men in it.
BROCKHAMPTON’s ‘iridescence’ is available to buy or stream. For more of our album reviews, head here.