It’s very rare that you get the feeling that you’re witnessing something special in music.
Many great albums come and go every year without making a significant mark and some artists manage to sustain a whole career with critical acclaim but little cultural impact. But there has been murmuring across the internet over the last month that suggests that something exciting is happening. That excitement has been brought about by Brockhampton, a self-proclaimed All American Boyband from Texas; not a ‘new’ group in any sense, but still complete unknowns to most of the world.
Last year, the hip-hop collective received some online attention for their entertaining but patchy mixtape All American Trash and the success of implicit group-leader Kevin Abstract’s ‘Empty’. It was clear that Brockhampton had talent and style but many of the group’s songs were unfocussed and sketch-like, examples of lightning-in-a-bottle creativity that needed direction. Even as late as April this year, it was hard to tell if the group would come good on their obvious talent or if they would fizzle out like many promising groups before them. However, that was all before Brockhampton started dropping singles over May from their first official album Saturation. In quick succession, the group dropped four singles that suggested that they had successfully corrected almost every fault with their early work. The songs were longer and more clearly structured, the hooks were catchier and more memorable, and each member was now more distinctive and technically proficient. On ‘Heat’, they re-captured the riotous energy of early Odd Future, on ‘Face’ they showcased a vulnerability that hip-hop often struggles with, and on ‘Gold’ and ‘Star’ the group delivered light-hearted bangers with an abundance of quotable one-liners.
On their own, each single would have won the group new fans but taken together, they brought about the possibility of a serious AOTY contender and suggestions that Brockhampton could cross-over to the mainstream. Having lived with Saturation for a few days, I’m not sure it’s quite as good as its singles suggested but it’s still an astonishing achievement nevertheless. Supposedly created in less than a month, the album manages to collect together many of the disparate trends in modern rap with a youthful perspective. Brockhampton are clearly disciples of Kanye West, showing a willingness to embrace an anything-goes attitude to rap music, and the early members of the group originally met on the fan-site Kanye To The. Throughout the album, the sounds and themes of records like 808s & Heartbreak and The College Dropout can be heard scattered through their songs. Perhaps most significantly, Brockhampton are disciples of Kanye’s vision through their willingness to embrace pop music. Firstly, there’s the band insistence on being called a boyband but also it’s important that the songs on Saturation are often led by big sincere hooks that many rappers would be uncomfortable with. The most clear comparison to Brockhampton, in terms of the group’s size and visual style, would be to Odd Future yet while the latter group gained notoriety by being aggressive and chaotic, Brockhampton’s vision is one of inclusivity. They represent a version of Odd Future that could have been possible if they were led by Frank Ocean, rather than Tyler the Creator.
In comparison with older hip-hop groups, they evoke a certain level of A Tribe Called Quest through how they’ve been able to establish hip-hop credentials alongside a surprisingly clean-cut image. Much like Tribe, they’re also a group that works as more than the sum of its part. The group’s clear friendship and chemistry shines through on every song on Saturation and lifts it at points when the song-writing standard falls slightly. While a group like Odd Future felt like a loose collective of extremely talented but separate artists, Brockhampton feels like a group that works most effectively when its members are all together. However, while we can look to the past to explain what makes them so special, they really don’t sound very much like those past artists at all. What makes them so exciting is that they are a group that seems to be able to represent the new generation of hip-hop fans.
Although it’s not particularly easy to work out the ages of Brockhampton’s members, Kevin Abstract turns 21 in July and it’s generally assumed that most of the group’s members are around that age as well. That means that the group would have been teenagers during the time of 808s & Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, not The College Dropout and Late Registration. Kevin Abstract and the other members of Brockhampton grew up during a time when hip-hop was well-established as a popular genre and becoming increasingly intertwined with pop and electronic music. As much as Odd Future are notable for their youth, it’s easy to forget that Tyler the Creator was born in 1991 and Frank Ocean was born in the 80s. The same goes for many of hip-hop’s other big players, like Kendrick Lamar, Drake and J Cole. While that difference in age may seem small, just 5 years in Tyler and Kevin Abstract’s case, it can have a profound effect on each artists’ attitude to music.
The members of Brockhampton grew up during a time when the boundaries of what was and wasn’t hip-hop were being broken down. The ‘death of hip-hop’ that supposedly took place during the mid-to-late 2000s was widely exaggerated and can be seen now as something of a rebirth. Hip-hop doesn’t sound like it did in the 1990s or the 80s ‘golden age’ and it never will again but in 2017 the genre has found itself in an incredibly healthy position, balancing independent and underground success stories with chart-topping superstars. Of the many acts that have released great records in recent years, Brockhampton feel like the most likely yet to unify a generation of hip-hop fans in a genre that is more diverse than ever before. Saturation might fall just short of AOTY contention but it’s not far off and with the prospect of a second album this year, the group are showing no signs that they’re running out of ideas. Brockhampton grew up listening to the generation that, for better or worse, changed hip-hop forever, now they sound like the group who are most ready to take in a new direction.
Words by Conrad Duncan