The power of Kevin Abstract‘s artistry lies in its unmitigated sense of rawness. The gifted MC not only has a knack for storytelling, but a talent for transmuting conceptually complex emotions and ideas into vivid, visceral life. His memories and nostalgia come bared with sharp teeth and cut deep; “Where I come from, niggas get called ‘faggot’ and killed/ So I’ma get head from a nigga right here/ And they can come and cut my head off” he venomously rapped on his group BROCKHAMPTON‘s 2017 track “JUNKY.”
As the de facto frontman of pop’s postmodern deconstruction of the boy band, Abstract’s time in the public spotlight has thus far been dictated in terms of his relationship to his cadre of musical cohorts. While his earlier solo efforts received ripplings of attention, it was hard to accept that the subdued songwriter of those projects was the ringleader of BROCKHAMPTON, someone whose appeal emerged in fits and starts and was often subject to getting lost in the shuffle of his group, a Hydra-like entity that draws the listener’s attention every which way. He may not have been the standout MC of the bunch, or the most immediately memorable vocalist, but he clearly had the vision and the ambition – both within his own work and in the scope of the group as a whole.
ARIZONA BABY is the climax of a years-long process of this vision and ambition maturing into a glorious artistic whole. It is exceptionally great; a confessional, envelope-pushing record that is rich with musicality. It is also the best Abstract has ever sounded by any measure – his rapping, singing, songwriting, and general sense of purpose are all in top form. But perhaps most importantly, it is a razor-sharp reminder that Abstract is indeed a generational talent, a point we have been vaguely aware of during BROCKHAMPTON’s fiery ascent to the peak of pop culture, but one we can now see with renewed clarity as he takes center stage.
“Big Wheels” is among the more jarring openers to a rap album in recent memory. Synth drones and crisp, skittering snares adorn a stunningly frank set of bars, the likes of which are without comparison in Abstract’s peers. Admitting that he “got rich way too fast” and feeling “a lot of guilt inside me” is already a deep emotional dive for the first 60 seconds of a record, but things only get more intense from there: “My niggas back home ain’t proud of me/ They think I’m a bitch, just queerbaitin’/ Quit bein’ a bitch and quit hatin'” he spits, going on to proudly proclaim himself a “power bottom” into “cum chasin.”
Even measured against proper queercore projects, this is one hell of a bold way to kick off a record. That it is the opening to a mainstream pop/rap crossover underscores just how transgressive this album is. There of course have been a host of vital MCs who have incorporated queer identity into the framework of hip-hop, a genre that has not always been so receptive to it. But as opposed to artists like Mykki Blanco or Le1f who brought a culture of queer subversion from the underground to the masses, Kevin Abstract seems to be approaching it from the opposite direction; presenting his authentic queer experience from a platform of major exposure. As a queer person, it is utterly exhilarating to hear my lingo – particularly the filthier elements – rapped with such vibrant nonchalance.
Indeed, far more than Abstract’s previous solo outings with such indicative titles as American Boyfriend, ARIZONA BABY is first and foremost an earnest, bleeding-heart document of the young, male queer experience. The album functions best when it leans in to this element via the abundance of painfully illustrative lyrics. “My boyfriend more than an angel, it’s a miracle he stuck by me,” he reflects on the devastating reflection of loneliness “Corpus Christi,” while “American Problem” transports us to Abstract’s childhood of internalized shame: “I was a flaming faggot, that’s what the principal called me/ Not to my face, but I felt / When I was stuck in his office.”
It’s powerful stuff, but it wouldn’t be half as affecting were it not for the sparkling songcraft at work here. “Peach” and “Georgia” are immediate standouts, but every melodic hook on ARIZONA BABY is more polished and more memorable than any of Abstract’s recent projects, making for the most engaging overall listen since at least BROCKHAMPTON’s SATURATION II. And thanks to the clear influence of master producer Jack Antonoff, each of these tracks flourish and undulate with the refined touches of live instrumentation; the brassy horns that pepper “Joyride” are warm and effusive, while the carefree guitar strums that color “Baby Boy” punctuate the mournful sense that something is missing so evocatively expressed in the chorus.
ARIZONA BABY closes with “Boyer,” a classic BROCKHAMPTON-style banger that clocks in at just under two minutes. In that short span of time, on a seemingly joyous beat, Abstract spews a fountain of anxiety; about his susceptibility to police brutality, depression and subsequent reluctance to seek therapy, and the fear of being abandoned by loved ones. The chorus implores us that we “cannot run forever,” these things will eventually catch up to us and we will learn from them. In crafting an album of such openness and honesty, Kevin Abstract may not have tamed his demons, but he has left an invaluable road map for so many others out there trying to tame their own.