All around the world, there are groups of kids working on music. They’re developing their own aesthetics, their own secret languages, working on those things in isolation and coming up with whatever they can to keep each other entertained. They’re all trying to impress each other, to subtly compete with each other, and they’re bringing the best out of each other in the process. Most of them will stay in obscurity forever. We’ll never hear of them. Maybe, in your town right now, there’s one or two groups of kids like that, and maybe you’ll enthuse about them to your out-of-town friends, who will never check them out. It happens. It happens everywhere. But there’s something special about the moment that one of those groups bubbles up out of nowhere, catching our collective ear and suddenly, blessedly, reminding us what it’s like to be excited about something in music. I got that feeling the first time I heard grime — these London kids with thick accents rapping in clustered blurts over backfiring-drum-machine beats. I got it when I first encountered Odd Future, the Los Angeles skate rats rapping about chopping you into pieces and missing their fathers, building entire mythologies out of nothing. And I’m getting it right now with Brockhampton, the internet-reared LA-via-Texas crew who completely blindsided me with their “Gummy” video a couple of weeks ago.
“Gummy” is a wonder: all these kids sticking their heads out of a sunroof to rap giddily while cruising slowly down a suburban-looking Los Angeles street, their voices bouncing off of a restless, sunny, elastic beat. They’re all dressed in white shirts and black ties, and they’re telling some sort of halfassed bankrobber story. There’s an alpaca in there, for some reason. They’ve got the same sort of careening energy I remember in early-’90s West Coast groups like the Pharcyde and Souls Of Mischief, these supremely gifted young folks who seem to realize how lucky they were to find each other. They’ve got a whole aesthetic — lo-fi, low-budget, slapdash, silly, exuberant, uncontained. The rapping is unformed but impressive, less about imparting truths and more about these guys competing to see who can say the flyest shit. The rappers are really nothing like each other, so they aren’t working from the same blueprint, but they all fit together. Upon seeing it for the first time, my first thought was something like Holy shit. And my second thought was something like Is there more of this? And yes, there is more of this.
I was late to Brockhampton. They’ve been around for a few years, but they’ve really been kicking things into overdrive since 2017 began. The group is the brainchild of Kevin Abstract, a rapper/singer/producer polymath type who made some noise with his American Boyfriend solo album late last year. Abstract, just 20, envisioned Brockhampton as a sort of arts collective-slash-corporation, and it’s not just rappers. The group has 15 members, some of whom are producers or web designers or artists. Most of them are from Texas, but there are also members from Florida, Connecticut, Granada, Northern Ireland. (The FADER published a helpful comprehensive guide to the whole group last month.) Abstract calls them a “boy band,” which is pretty great. All the members are dudes, and they’re all in their early 20s. But beyond that, they cover a lot of ground. There are members of different races, members of different backgrounds. And while a lot of them knew each other in high school in Texas, they really came together on a Kanye West fan forum.
Abstract himself is queer, and on the new Brockhampton track “Junky,” he raps about queerness and homophobia with more force and clarity than I’ve ever heard from him or from any rapper: “Why you always rap about being gay? / Cuz not enough niggas rap and be gay / Where I come from, niggas get called faggot and killed / So I’ma get head from a nigga right here, and they could come cut my head off.” Having him around, at the front of this group, absolutely matters. (On that same song: “I do the most for the culture, nigga, just by existing.”) But he’s also great in a group context, careful to never overshadow the rest of the crew. Every rap crew has one guy who stands out as the immediate leader, the one pegged for crossover stardom. Abstract is different because he seems to be actively working to subvert that expectation, to not be that guy.
They’re working fast. Their Saturation album came out in June, and there’s already a sequel coming out next week. Since the year began, they’ve cranked out eight music videos, all directed by Abstract, all giddily fun pieces of filmmaking. They’ve got a formula for these things. Abstract shoots them in the middle of the day, on the same quiet suburban-looking street. Nobody tries to look cool. Everybody wears goofy costumes: facepaint, fat suits, propeller beanies, baby masks. Saturation itself is a fun and exciting but uneven album; there are stretches, especially toward the end, where the energy flags. But those videos, with their bold colors and their big personalities and their no-money inventiveness, are where the group really shines. And the songs that they’ve shared since the album came out are the best things they’ve done. So even if they’re a fully formed crew, they’re still getting better.
I’m still getting used to all the voices in the group, but it’s a rich tapestry. Abstract himself is cool and flexible, but he’s capable of getting as fired-up as any of them, and he’s also capable of transcendent moments like that first verse from “Junky.” Merlyn Wood, the one with the bleached hair, is a demonic human energy-bomb. Ameer Vann is the calm, unflappable one, the Jay Rock of the group. Dom McLennon is the most fluid rapper, the one who can bend his syllables into a Bone Thugs-type singsong. Matt Champion, the white guy with the enviable bone structure and the tragic Jerry Lewis haircut, can be clumsy sometimes, but he somehow raps with more confidence than any of them. Joba, the other white guy, is the wild card; he’s the one who might show up doing demonic metalcore screaming in the middle of a song. Individually, none of them is a great rapper — not yet, anyway. Together, they’re all something special. I can’t wait to hear what they do from here.
1. Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman – “Comfy”
I hope these guys keep making their erudite fucking-around Lice EPs forever. And on this song, over an Oh No beat, they don’t just sound like Iowa Writers’ Workshop kids kicking around their most tangled phrasing. They sound hard.
2. Westside Gunn & Mach-Hommy – “Macho On Coke”
“So much coke on the floor, we had to vacuum.” “The space-time continuum collapse.” Get well soon, Ric Flair.
3. milo – “magician (suture)”
The Wisconsin rapper milo just released who told you to think??!!?!?!?!, an excellent album of dense and convoluted insular rap music. You should really hear the whole thing, but this one is a great place to start.
4. Juicy J – “Flood Watch” (Feat. Offset)
He’s been making music for something like 25 years, and I don’t think Juicy J has ever rapped over melodramatic Elton John-esque pianos before. He should do it more often.
5. Flight & Quin Bookz – “Trap Nicca”
Flight, the first rapper on this, is Dre Harris, the 20-year-old who was severely beaten by white supremacists in a Charlottesville parking garage this weekend. I don’t know Harris personally, but I know people who know him. He works for the local school system; he’s an aide for kids in special education. People speak of him glowingly; apparently, he’s a great kid, warm and generous and good at his job. He put himself on the line this weekend to face evil, heavily armed invaders, and he was badly hurt for it. Anyway, he raps, too, and I think he’s pretty good.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
OT Genasis Crip walking to YG's "FDT" in front of the White House 😂 pic.twitter.com/b3qREGkb5o
— 808s & Car Shakes (@808sCarShakes) August 1, 2017