“We want to make a summer album. Feel-good. Not too sad and like, ‘Oh, our life sucks,’ just more like, ‘Just enjoy what’s in front of you.'”
That was Brockhampton leader Kevin Abstract, talking to playwright Jeremy O. Harris for GQ a couple of months ago. If that’s what Abstract was going for with Ginger, the new Brockhampton album, then he failed. He failed miserably. Instead, Ginger might work as an opposite kind of landmark: A high-profile major-label rap record that delves deeply and pointedly into depression, into its causes and effects and byproducts and resonances.
Consider “No Halo,” the opening track from Ginger. All six Brockhampton vocalists take turns on “No Halo,” singing and rapping over fluttering acoustic guitars and a sleepy, murmured refrain from guest Deb Never. And every last one of them has something to say about some kind of crisis, internal or otherwise. Dom McLennon, on self-medication: “Used to fight all my night terrors, now I smoke through the dreams / Depression put me into places where I’m stuck in the seams.” Joba, on faith and related anxieties: “Went church for the hell of it, stumbled in drunk as shit / Been going through it again / Been talking to myself, wondering who I am.” Merlyn Wood, usually a riotous fire-thrower: “Do I matter? I’m ecstatic, I’m depressed / More like God’s special mess, never had no halo.” “I’m sure I’ll find it,” Matt Champion half-sings along with Deb Never. He doesn’t sound sure at all.
“No Halo” gets at what’s quietly radical about Brockhampton. There have been many, many rap songs like “No Halo” over the years — dark-night-of-the-soul question-everything rap songs, songs about doubt and fear and uncertainty. But those songs usually come from individual rappers, not entire teeming collectives. And they’re usually buried near the end of an album or a mixtape, not put on display right up front. “No Halo” comes off as a statement of intent, a scattered and intense self-examination that’s coming from six different dudes at once.
Maybe it’s helpful to think of Ginger as a group-therapy session — as a whole crew of damaged young men finding some strength from learning to rely on each other. The image on the album’s cover is two men hugging. The Brockhampton members say that the album came into being after a series of weekly group therapy sessions led by, no shit, Shia LaBeouf, another person currently trying to figure out how to turn his own personal traumas into mass-culture art. (Honey Boy looks good!)
The members of Brockhampton still seem to be reeling from suddenly severing ties with longtime group member Ameer Vann, who’d been good friends with many of them since childhood. Brockhampton ended ties with Vann last year, after he was accused of sexual abuses, something that played heavily into their 2018 major-label debut Iridescence. It’s clear from Ginger that they’re still all processing it; Dom McClennon, for example, spends his “Dearly Departed” verse focusing on the story where, at least according to McClennon, Vann set up one of his friends to be robbed. When you rely so completely on your friends, betrayal cuts deep.
When most of us first met Brockhampton a few years ago, the thing that jumped out was the chaotic one-for-all energy — all these young guys frantically leaping all over each other, silliness and creativity just bursting out of them. They reminded me of old-man touchstones like the Pharcyde or Souls Of Mischief, those smartass early-’90s skate-rat collectives who seemed to radiate promise. Maybe that’s why RCA dumped so much money to sign them — and maybe that, in turn, is why Abstract seems so apologetic every time he talks about the group’s deal. But after Ameer Vann, that version of Brockhampton is over. It’s not coming back. Every once in a while, we hear distant echoes of it, like on the pretty-great Ginger leadoff single “I Been Born Again,” or in variously absurdly goofy flexes from resident cutup Matt Champion: “Man, this shit bump like a belly when it’s pregnant.” But Brockhampton are clearly a group of nervous, jangled young men. And on Ginger, their anxiety manifests itself over and over.
Part of that is stylistic. Brockhampton became a group on a Kanye West fan messageboard, so it only follows that the members of the group would be aesthetically adventurous, sometimes to their own detriment. Ginger veers wildly from one musical direction to the next: Psychedelic dirge-rock into skittery video-game bleep-bloop into mournful computer-soul. They tend to function as their own self-directed ecosystem, but on Ginger, they hand entire songs over to rappers from outside the group: One to London flame-hurler Slowthai, another to new voice Victor Roberts, a guy who they met online and who turns in his first rap verse ever. That verse shows up on the album’s final track, helpfully titled “Victor Roberts,” and it’s a story-song about the moment when his family was almost torn apart because he let another kid stash some contraband at his house. On a Brockhampton album, even the outside guests are working through some stuff.
And that’s why Brockhampton matter. It’s not that they’re the first people to rap about depression. Scarface has been doing that since before any of the members of Brockhampton were born. It’s that Brockhampton present depression, and mental health in general, as a driving force behind the group. You can hear the lingering effects of trauma in pretty much every great rap album ever made. But usually, that’s been subtext. Brockhampton turn it into the central text, the focus. That’s been happening more and more lately. Young rap stars like Lil Uzi Vert or the late XXXTentacion have foregrounded therapy-talk within rap, erasing any stigma it might’ve had. Brockhampton are part of that context, but they take it to another level. There’s barely any shit-talk on Ginger. The members of the group are working through too many things to flex too hard.
Ginger is a messy, unfocused album, and I don’t think I’ll return to it too often. I like focus and directness and simplicity; they’re some of the qualities that drew me to rap music in the first place, a million years ago. The proggy feelings-wallow sensibility of recent Brockhampton records leaves me cold. And yet I’m glad it exists. I hope people get what they need from it.
1. Kevin Gates – “Double Dutch (In Amsterdam Witt It)”
Pi’erre Bourne has ascended to the top of the rap-producer rankings without making too many beats for rappers who can actually rap, so maybe that’s why Gates sounds like he’s ripping a hole in the universe on this one.
2. Shoreline Mafia – “Fell In Love”
The bad news: This isn’t a real Shoreline Mafia song; it’s a solo showcase for group member Fenix Flexin. The good news: It goes hard anyway. Apparently, Shoreline Mafia’s anarchic charisma still comes through when the guys from the group are working on their own. That’s a good sign.
3. Nito NB – “Fighting Force”
British rap music is great because you get to hear people talking about “I don’t do shit for the bobbies.”
4. Lil Loaded – “6locc 6a6y”
NLE Choppa is 16 years old, and he is already more influential than you or I will ever be. Welcome to our new post-“Shotta Flow” reality.
5. G Perico – “Big Raccs” (Feat. Sonny Digital)
Sonny Digital, long one of the leading Atlanta trap beatmakers, seems very excited to be making some version of old-school West Coast G-rap. I would be, too!
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
This video was so powerful that it killed David Koch https://t.co/ks2eEnSCA1
— CEO of Trey Burke Hive (@trillbrodude) August 23, 2019