One Giant Leap for Boykind
At the end of 2017, when Hip-Pop collective Brockhampton announced that they had signed a $15 million deal with RCA Records, it capped off a meteoric year for the band. From June to December, to building critical acclaim, they had released the aptly named Saturation trilogy—three albums which absorb the listener through their unorthodox production and the charismatic performances of the group’s diverse members. If Brockhampton had often been compared to Odd Future, the short-lived Hip-Hop collective that had launched the careers of culture-shifting artists such as Frank Ocean, Tyler, the Creator, Syd, and Earl Sweatshirt, now they truly seemed to be the reincarnation of the collective — the supergroup that would carry out their legacy and infuse their eccentric energy into the mainstream.
At the same time, bandleader Kevin Abstract had a broader sense of the artists he wanted Brockhampton to be associated with: “When you mention Bieber, Lorde, or One Direction: I want to be on that list.” Brockhampton, he said repeatedly in interviews, was a boy band. Across 2017, many observers came around to his terms by acknowledging the group as such; Brockhampton had started to become its own force to be reckoned with, moving outside the shadow of Odd Future even as they were living up to that collective’s legacy. With media outlets starting to take notice, Brockhampton’s rapid upward trajectory showed no signs of slowing down.
However, 2018 didn’t initially go according to plan. One of the founding members and the face of the Saturation album artwork, Ameer Vann, was accused by several women on Twitter of sexual misconduct. The band parted ways with Ameer, canceled their tour, and returned to California to “regroup.”
A month later, in June 2018, Brockhampton made their television debut on The Tonight Show with their modified lineup, performing not only one of the most emotional songs on their new album, but one of the most evocative of their young, prolific career: “Tonya.” The members sat in a circle with their heads down and legs crossed, wailing in wild auto-tune about their struggles adapting to fame: “I be losin’ sleep thinkin’ about missed calls / And I think about if we lose it all.”
This is not uncharted territory for pop stars, especially the ones with whom Kevin & Co. want to be associated. One Direction sing about staying the same in the midst of their rapidly changing lifestyles in “Don’t Forget Where You Belong.” Justin Bieber laments the lofty expectations that come with being a celebrity in “I’ll Show You.” Yet unlike the pop icons that came before them, Brockhampton dives into the storm rather than weathering it and sailing on through. The members, who have stated their dream and desire to be pop stars, wallow in the pain of being separated from their friends, families, and themselves. But it doesn’t feel self-indulgent. They rap and sing about their experiences separately, but they drown in their sorrows together.
All fears of the band “selling out” after their major record deal were assuaged with this performance, then definitively put to rest with the release of Iridescence three months later. Kevin Abstract and company seemed to do the complete opposite of selling out: they doubled down and went all in. Instead of working with sought-after hitmakers and Grammy Award-winning writers, they stayed in-house and in the family. They fled to Abbey Road Studios for part of the process and Hawaii for the remainder of it. Instead of studying the evolution of other boy bands and Hip-Hop collectives before them, they looked to bands like Radiohead and Nirvana.
All of this culminated in the beautifully bizarre and mesmerizing mess of a project that is Iridescence—the most unpredictable major label debut in recent history, and certainly the strangest to rise to #1 on the Billboard 200, preceded by Carry Underwood and followed by Lil Wayne. The only other boy bands to accomplish this feat in 2018 were 5 Seconds of Summer, a group that fetishizes indie-pop to the point that it loses its excitement, and BTS, a K-pop outfit that, although infectiously fun, derivatively follows many of the trends found in mainstream radio. 5 Seconds of Summer and BTS embody what being a boy band is. With Iridescence, Brockhampton showed what a boy band can be.
The band made it clear on Saturation their affinities for both caffeinated-crazed club bangers and robotic chipmunk ballads. But on Iridescence, the band shifts between these modes at warp speed. The album opens in traditional Brockhampton fashion: ear-splitting and in-your-face. “New Orleans” is built upon a foundation of distorted kicks, fast hi-hats, stereo screaming, and a synthesized horn fluctuating between two notes, half a step apart from each other, creating constant dissonance (a compositional trance that producer Romil Hemnani also whips up in “Where the Cash At” and “Vivid”). The group is giving fans what initially drew many of them to their music, but with more vitality and conviction. Dom McLennon says it best at the start of his first verse: “Is you gon’ finish what you started?” Every member makes it clear with each of their verses that the listener is in for a wild ride, traveling through the rushing minds of these young men. Jaden Smith even joins Kevin Abstract for the final hook: “I been down too long, cousin, / Tell the world I ain’t scared of nothin’.” These are two young black men unashamed of their identities and calling the shots. They are changing the face of the American boy band and they are carrying that image with cool confidence.
“New Orleans” seamlessly shifts into the following interlude, ripping a page from the ’90s R&B handbook and coloring all over it. The sonics of “Thug Life” are surprising for its loaded title, as the song is bathed in major-seventh chords and dripping with sweet vocal runs. Bearface leads the London Community Gospel Choir in the tacit mantra of every boy band ever: “I gotta get that bag.” Before the listener can find a moment to find their footing, they are thrust into the grimy soundscape of “Berlin,” where the band employs elements of European electronic music and the backdrop of a wealthy metropolis to flaunt how far they have come. “Traded in that noose they put around us for a Cuban link,” Dom McLennon raps circles around the fleeting beat before comparing him and his crew to the most popular “boy band” in history: “Did some Beatles shit to kick off this September.”
In the interlude that follows, Kevin Abstract croons an effects-driven ode to his boyfriend over shimmering guitars and summery keys: “There’s something about him / I know I got to have it.” These lyrics may seem trivial or superficial upon first hearing, but their implications are great. On Saturation, Kevin has several potent verses about coming out and the hurt and hardships brought upon him being openly gay within the Hip-Hop community. Here, for a brief moment, Kevin is able to experience his queerness through the looseness of the instrumental and the freedom afforded to him through pitch-shifting and modulating his vocals. The song is also the only one in a major key on the entire album and is shaped around the I-IV chord progression, one of the most used in pop music today. The whole effect is a powerful one: by playing with the clichés of the popular love song, Kevin Abstract and company make it a more inclusive space to play in.
The album kicks back into high-gear with cross-dressing, Ghanaian-American member Merlyn Wood seizing the reins with full force. “Where the cash at? I used to ask that,” he shrieks in his uninterrupted, amped-up delivery, eliciting excitement in the listener. With the exception of Matt Champion providing a supporting verse, the entire group falls back, proving that sometimes the most effective way to hype up another member in a group is to let them be their own hype-man.
“Weight” wastes no time as well, opening with Kevin Abstract rapping about some of the moments he’s felt like a failure over a fluttering string section. He notes that he feels like “the worst in the boy band,” and shares a deeply vulnerable point where he blamed himself for his sexuality: “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.” Before the song switches into a frantic drum ’n’ bass beat, Kevin Abstract ensures the listener and himself that he “ain’t done” and that he “don’t wanna waste no more time,” maintaining the emotional thread that strings these unraveling songs together: endurance.
“District” demonstrates this perseverance in an unyielding track led by an ominous descending synthesizer motif and one thunderous kick drum on the start of every other bar. “Let me find my way out of this bitch,” Kevin Abstract raps, sounding like a cyborg clone of Rick Ross. All of the main members exchange verses on surviving depression and loneliness, but each of them is revitalized by the realization that they’re not alone, as Joba injects the track with his electric sadness: “Praise God, Hallelujah, I’m still depressed!”
Radiohead’s influence is made even more apparent in “Tape,” as the track interpolates the beat of their rhythmically elusive song “Videotape.” Brockhampton takes it a step further, featuring more variations in the manic syncopated rhythms. Not only are they pushing the boundaries of the boy band, they are nudging artists of all genres to lean closer into the weirdness and embrace it. “J’ouvert” furthers the eccentricity, as most of the aggressive beat is scored by filtered white noise. In the colorful world of Iridescence anything and everything can function and serve as a melody. A significant portion of “Honey” drives with a steady beat and a single arpeggiated bass note. Here, the strangeness stems from the simplicity. Expectations are immediately flipped on their head with a sudden shift to a half-time beat, sampling Beyoncé over wailing police sirens, as Kevin Abstract repeats, “a million reasons to get rich.” This moment proves, like all of the preceding ones, that Brockhampton has a million ways to express the richness of their experience.
“San Marcos” is easily the most emotional and empowering song on the album, and also the most unusual, as it does not contain most of the elements found in the previous tracks. It is a throwback to early alt-rock, but re-envisions it for the digital age: imagine if Kurt Cobain had access to auto-tune and Nirvana performed MTV Unplugged with MacBook Pros. The song is pared down to an electric guitar plucking a somber progression, subtle sighs from a cello, and, of course, heavy vocal modulation. Brockhampton is situating themselves between genres (rock and hip-hop) and time periods (the 1990s and the 2010s). Joba is given the final verse, where he reflects on his battle with suicidal thoughts and his inability to be a friend. Yet in spite of longing for a point before the present, he still takes comfort in the fact that he has been able to adapt under these conditions: “I know that I’m changing.”
The song concludes with a patient buildup of live instrumentation and a children’s choir singing in the distance, “I want more out of life than this / I want more.” In the midst of skyrocketing fame and newfound wealth, the group demands more out of art and life, even though their current status affords them the luxury of not having to do so. Everything they initially wanted is right in front of them in the present, yet Brockhampton still reaches towards the future. They might come up empty-handed in the minds of some, but that doesn’t change the fact that, by the end of the album, they have pushed themselves and the listener further out into the unknown.