In the years since the trailblazers of Odd Future distributed their music through Tumblr, many younger artists have used the social Web to find kindred creative spirits—both around the world and closer to home. The YBN hip-hop collective started in XBox Live group chats, and key members of the Bay Area group AG Club stumbled upon one another on Twitter. At the center of this movement is Brockhampton, a huge, perception-bending group with origins in Texas and branches as far off as Grenada and Belfast. The collective, conceived on a message board by its de-facto leader, the polymath Kevin Abstract, eventually ballooned to include more than a dozen rappers, singers, producers, and visual artists of various races, sexual orientations, and creative philosophies. The bohemian crew—which mixes Abstract’s high-school friends (JOBA, Merlyn Wood, and Matt Champion) with those he met online (bearface, Dom McLennon, Jabari Manwa, and Romil Hemnani)—set out to remake a pop paradigm, the boy band, in a way that reflected itself: multiracial, multinational, other.
It has largely succeeded: since 2014, Brockhampton has created fascinating composite songs that blow up rap into opera and reconfigure pop to be more representative of the sounds found online. The group members spent the early days of their collaboration living together, like a small fraternity, so as to more effectively build out their zany, mutating music. Brockhampton had enough of an impact that there are already other collectives made in its image, but its music often fell short of something holistic. Its members are in a class of young artists who are post-genre and who treat that fluidity as a means to communicate open-mindedness, but they’ve used that same fluidity as cover to distract from incongruity in their writing. The music they make is largely rap-based, but it pulls liberally from across the aesthetic spectrum, sometimes to its detriment. They have struggled to reconcile their diversity and extensive artistic interests—hip-hop, pop, indie rock, alternative R. & B., and beyond—with their need to assemble a synthesized creative work. Their previous album, “Ginger,” from 2019, found a maturing group fracturing into pieces. The members of Brockhampton scattered across Los Angeles, and their music grew more cluttered and chaotic.
The pandemic months drew them back together and far closer to their goal of creating an album that reflects their group identity while also being idiosyncratic. For a period of time, the core members were residing at Abstract’s house in Los Angeles, and they navigated the solitary period of the coronavirus lockdowns as a team. During the sessions that resulted in a quarantine series, “Technical Difficulties,” in which they released a slew of singles for free, without any pretense, Brockhampton members taught one another what Hemnani, one of the band’s producers, has described as an unspoken language.
“Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine,” which was released on April 9th, is the first of two proposed 2021 albums. The group was working on what Abstract described as “a pop album” (which presumably comes later), but it wanted to make something more rap-focussed first. The group members played jam sessions. They invited other rappers to join them. Most important, they lived near one another again as they were making this music. The coöperative environment produced the “rap-centered” album, Abstract told the Guardian, and it has some of their best music. Establishing a genre to work within likely helped. “Roadrunner” is orderly without sacrificing any of the personalities at play. The group maintains the ragtag spirit of the Brockhampton operation while putting greater emphasis on a sense of community. In the new music—recorded during the pandemic period, and in the wake of JOBA’s losing his father to suicide—they coalesce around tragedy. Working with a few like-minded oddballs and outsiders, Brockhampton strips its songs down with a rap-first approach, finally functioning as an efficient singular organism.
Just like the group’s chart-topping album “Iridescence,” from 2018, “Roadrunner” was mostly produced by committee, but its songs have more organized arrangements, and they deliver far bigger payoffs as a result. The music is still brimming with ideas but the restless energy has been replaced by a more streamlined sound, and the members don’t just take turns performing—they play off one another. Abstract once rapped, “I like the music blown out, that’s just my taste,” and a fondness for bigness and messiness is often represented in Brockhampton’s songs. Their beats are busy, blitzing, and sometimes even grating. The production often seems to presuppose that it’s better to grab the listener’s attention for the wrong reasons than not to do so at all. “Roadrunner,” though, reins in the excess. Even the little anecdotes and codas affixed to six-minute epics are understated and pleasing. With the Brockhampton songs now clear of clutter, there isn’t anything to distract from the group’s flashbacks and revelations.
Although past Brockhampton songs have always been confessional, they’ve rarely been direct. The verses would gesture vaguely at depressive episodes, but there was never much self-reflection. There are more explicit references to loss and to the terrors of COVID times on “Roadrunner,” and that openness bleeds into many of the other verses, which carry nostalgic and revealing vignettes. The two verses on “The Light” are inverted looks at faith: JOBA raps soberly about struggling to see salvation after his father’s death; meanwhile, Abstract raps animatedly about his ascent being a demonstration of God’s existence. Most of the songs on “Roadrunner” are about seeking security and trying to watch out for others, and, as the members rotate in and out of the lead position—their voices distinct yet snowballing into a greater force of momentum—it’s as if they are providing that same support for one another. On “Dear Lord,” as bearface seems to sing a prayer for JOBA, his voice layered like a digitized gospel choir, the album’s theme becomes clear: it is through the love of those closest to us that we connect to what is sacred.