Brockhampton have been calling themselves a boy band for years; that term is central to their self-presentation. It’s an inside joke. It’s a way to set the group apart from every other rap collective. It’s a way for the group to encourage the personality-cults that have emerged around all the vastly different Brockhampton members, some of whom have achieved cult-heartthrob status. But there’s a moment on Iridescence, Brockhampton’s new album and major-label debut, where “boy band” finally becomes a way to describe Brockhampton’s music.
“Thug Life,” the second song on Iridescence, opens with gorgeously sunny piano-twinkles. Group leader Kevin Abstract, his voice pitched up into an artificial falsetto, sings full-throatedly. Underneath him, bearface, the mystery-cultivating and guitar-playing Belfast-born Brockhampton bloke, scats a straight-up pretty melody. A gospel choir eventually bursts out underneath them, filling the song up with a celebratory bubbling feeling. It’s ’90s R&B, turned sharp and optimistic, its hooks foregrounded. That’s the version of R&B that the boy bands of the late-’90s/early-’00s teenpop era were singing. So for a few brief moments, Brockhampton actually sound like a classic-era boy band. It’s a bold out-of-nowhere move, and it’s one of many on Iridescence.
Brockhampton came up on the strength of their goofily energetic self-shot music videos, which presented a fired-up young rap group powered by a very ’90s sense of boisterousness. The group’s three Saturation albums revealed something deeper and more versatile, as the group spent as much time on tortured self-reflection as they did on amped-up flexing. But as fun as they were, those albums were incomplete snapshots, missives from a group that was still figuring its voice out. On Iridescence, an album that absolutely explodes with ideas, they’ve figured it out.
The sheer number of styles on Iridescence is staggering. There are reflective, downbeat campfire singalongs. There’s churning, volcanic noise-rap. There’s shambling, starry-eyed bedroom-pop. There’s spacious, lost-in-feelings emo-rap. There are riotous, mosh-inducing chant-along anthems. Individual songs wriggle and squirm, switching up the beat from one verse to the next, never content to sit still. More than once, the songs explode into giddy and euphoric drum ‘n’ bass, a style I never expected to hear from a crew of kids who were barely born when that genre was having its buzzy car-commercial moment.
That musical schizophrenia suits this era of Brockhampton beautifully. There was conflict and darkness and doubt on last year’s Saturation troika, but those feelings were often drowned out by the raging energy, the overwhelming happiness of a group of kids getting ready to make something. The energy is still there, but it’s subsumed in the conflict and darkness and doubt. Iridescence is a heavy, soul-fucked album, an album written from a place of depression and fracture. And we have a pretty good idea why that might be.
Earlier this year, multiple women accused Ameer Vann, the coldly modulated rapper who worked in some ways as Brockhampton’s anchor, of sexual abuse. The other members of Brockhampton didn’t wait long before parting ways with Vann, issuing a statement that said, “We were lied to, and we’re sorry for not speaking up sooner.” This was the right thing for them to do, but of course it also sent them into a spiral of uncertainty. They scrapped the album that they’d been making. They cancelled a tour. At their Boston Calling Festival set, the members of the group all stood silent during Vann’s parts.
The members of Brockhampton famously met each other online, in a Kanye West fan forum. But the core of Brockhampton was a group of high school friends from Corpus Christi, Texas, and Vann was one of them. So these guys who were enjoying a meteoric rise, all living and working together in a rented Beverly Hills house, fired one of their oldest friends. The members of Brockhampton are not the real victims of Vann’s abuse, but that doesn’t mean it was easy for them. There’s a lingering bitterness on some of Iridescence. None of the members of the group mention Vann by name or get into the specifics of the situation. But Abstract, in particular, does vent about what it’s like to always see his name in print for shitty reasons: “Why the hell the BBC only writes about me when it comes down to controversy? / What about three CDs in one year with no label? / And we signed, and our story turned into a fucking fable?”
But Iridescence isn’t a concept album about Ameer Vann. It’s not a defensive jeremiad directed at the media, either. Its darkness is bigger and wider. And if the members of Brockhampton never really rap about that situation, it’s pretty much the only heavy thing they don’t address. Throughout, almost every member of the group does some serious soul-searching, rapping with admirable frankness about depression and anxiety and sexuality. Kevin Abstract, an openly gay man within the hyper-masculine rap music world, talks forthrightly about a failed teenage relationship that must’ve happened not that long ago: “She was mad cuz I never wanna show her off / And every time she took her bra off my dick would get soft / I thought I had a problem, kept my head inside a pillow screaming.” And he also offers up the solo track “Something About Him,” a warm and affectionate love song, its pronouns making a powerful statement.
Abstract might be the mastermind behind Brockhampton, but he’s not a dominant voice, the way that Tyler, The Creator is in Odd Future. Abstract’s voice disappears for entire songs at a time, lending to the idea that Brockhampton is a wild and tangled riot of different voices. And when he does show up, he likes to speed up his voice or treat it with different effects so that he never sounds like he’s just one person, thus adding to the album’s general chaos. He never lets himself become the star. Instead, Brockhampton remains an ensemble piece.
It helps that the different members of the group all have different styles. Matt Champion, for instance, is a somnambulant grunter, one who gets by on pure swagger. Champion is the only member of the group who never sounds convincingly stressed out. Even his confessions are really just humblebrags: “I’m afraid to share the bed, what if she want money later / Like she got laid off, uh, hit my lawyer for some paper.” Merlyn Wood, meanwhile, is a fired-up livewire in the Busta Rhymes/Mystikal/Elephant Man tradition. What he says matters less than his guttural electric-shock bark, though he does get off some lines: “What’s in your wallet? Dead whites in mine.”
Joba, maybe the most attention-grabbing guy in the group, has a hyperactive high-pitched splutter that would’ve made him right at home at a circa-2000 Scribble Jam battle: “Where the hell is your backbone, ducking me like Whack-A-Mole / Looking like an inflatable at a car show, a spectacle.” It’s a blast to hear a voice that theatrical and self-consciously strange within the context of a very-now rap group like Brockhampton. But Joba also has the potential to get even more uncomfortably real than anyone else in this overwhelmingly real group: “Suicidal thoughts, but I won’t do it / Take that how you want, it’s important I admit it.” Bearface, meanwhile, has a strained indie-rock mutter that seems like it should be working to convey depression, but he mostly talks about money and diamonds.
My favorite member of the group might be Dom McLennon, the tremendously gifted but unshowy Connecticut rapper who’s completely essential to the group dynamic. This album could easily go off the rails if it didn’t have this guy putting his head down, rapping with fluid and classical grace. McLennon is an active participant in the crew’s therapeutic bloodlettings: “Depression still an uninvited guest I’m always accepting / Can’t help but meet the feeling with a familiar embrace / When I know that it’ll kill me if I give it my brain.” And even his flexes come with layers of meaning: “Traded the noose they put around us for a Cuban link / So my ancestors can see me shining, tell me what you think.”
But even with all these different, divergent voices, Brockhampton always come across like a group, a single functional unit pushing themselves toward artistic transcendence. I can’t help but compare Brockhampton to the YBN Crew, another group of gifted young rappers who met each other online and who released their YBN: The Mixtape a week before Iridescence. I really like the YBN guys, especially YBN Cordrae, but they are still conventional circa-2018 rappers pushing for circa-2018 rap fame. Their mixtape has guest spots from Wiz Khalifa and Chris Brown and Machine Gun Kelly — all dispiritingly boring by-the-numbers decisions. Brockhampton, meanwhile, are out in Abbey Road, making layered and searching art-rap for what could turn out to be a mass audience.
Brockhampton could easily come off like the Bay Area’s SOB x RBE, a group where all the members are visibly itching to break out into their solo careers. (Last week, a week before SOB x RBE released their Gangin II album, group member Yhung T.O. announced his departure, which we could see coming a mile away.) Instead, fame and stress and pressure have brought Brockhampton closer together. What we hear on Iridescence is a tight and possibly codependent unit. It’s hard to picture any members of the group functioning apart from the rest of them.
Iridescence is a messy, disorienting album. Parts of it are sloppy. Parts of it are overwhelming. After multiple listens, some tracks reveal new levels of explosive beauty, while some remain harder and harder to listen to. But Brockhampton have achieved something here. They’ve adapted to their changing circumstances by getting harder and more honest and more adventurous and better. “I miss the old days, before the cosigns,” Abstract admits at one point. That’s sad. But it also shows that Brockhampton are going to keep venturing further and further out, no matter who might be paying attention.
1. Mach-Hommy – “Floorseats”
In the video, Mach-Hommy takes a date to sit courtside at an Atlanta Hawks game, and he keeps a silk Haitian-flag bandana tied over his face the entire time. So obviously it’s no small statement when I say that the song is worthy of the video.
2. Open Mike Eagle – “Relatable (peak OME)”
“I don’t wear a monocle / I don’t know which sequels are truly canonical / I’m sorry, don’t follow you.” “I fuck with millennials, cutting my cable, too / As soon as I’m able to.” Hazy Spotify-core beat. Trumpet solo. There is so much happening here, but the muchness does not compromise what a pleasure it is to hear.
3. Young Dolph – “Black Queen”
There is incredible strength and dignity in recording a pretty, affectionate tribute to the parents who almost destroyed your life by smoking crack before you were born. We should all try to be more like Dolph in our lives.
4. Drakeo The Ruler – “Touchin'” (Feat. Bandgang Javar & Slimmy B)
According to people following Drakeo The Ruler’s murder case, the great LA rap mutterer is likely to get out of jail and have his charges dropped soon. And while the idea of new Drakeo music is great, it’s pretty amazing that he still had something this nasty stashed in the vault.
5. Desto Dubb – “Bankteller” (Feat. 03 Greedo, Lil Pump, Lil Uzi Vert, & Smokepurpp)
These days, here’s how posse cuts get made: Rappers’ managers send files of verses to other rappers’ managers. Every once in a while, though, the rappers actually get together in the studio. You can tell.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
love that we can now add meek to the photographic lineage of "rappers looking overwhelmed by computers" pic.twitter.com/e7NFkNXsL3
— Hanif Abdurraqib (@NifMuhammad) September 20, 2018