The Texas-born, California-raised collective has come through with their strongest major label release thus far.
Originally published on 4/11/21.
In the past four years, few artists have been more fun to follow than BROCKHAMPTON. The once self-professed “boy band” has consistently been one of the most electrifying acts to make it big in a long time. Thirteen strong, the collective is made up of rappers, singers, producers, graphic designers, web developers, and photographers – every one of them essential to the group. Many of BROCKHAMPTON’s members originally met on a Kanye West forum, and after some time they eventually decided to move into a house together to do nothing but make music, a move that would prove to be incredibly fruitful creatively. (The group name comes from the street that de facto leader Kevin Abstract grew up on.)
Ever since discovering them in early 2017, BROCKHAMPTON has always stuck out to me not only for their excellent music, but their seemingly boundless creativity and cohesion as a collective. The very first song I heard from them was their single “HEAT,” an explosive piece of hardcore hip-hop with lumbering drums, distorted bass, menacing guitars, and energetic performances from all involved. (I remember how the music video, like all their others at the time, hadn’t even cracked 100k views yet, and now it’s reached well over five million at the time of writing this. It really has been a privilege to watch such a talented, little-known group get so popular.) For me, it was love at first listen; I became a fan on the spot. I started listening to their music almost obsessively, eagerly awaiting any new releases.
It turned out 2017 was the perfect year to enter the BROCKHAMPTON fandom, as the group would release three albums, each one better than the last. All three of them showcased excellent, pop-influenced, melodic production, as well as the undeniable talent and charisma of all the group’s vocalists. The cheeky, low-budget music videos certainly helped to establish their fun, do-it-yourself aesthetic. The SATURATION trilogy remains not only one of modern independent music’s most impressive undertakings (the first record was created in three weeks), but also a free-spirited document of a bunch of dudes coming together to make music. That was another part of their initial appeal, even as their profile swiftly rose: this was just a big group of guys who moved into the same house together to follow their passion on their own terms. (Comparisons to Odd Future are inevitable, but BROCKHAMPTON’s output as a collective has overall been much stronger than the former’s.)
BROCKHAMPTON’s music spread like wildfire, and it became abundantly clear that these young men had struck gold. In 2018, the group signed a deal with RCA Records, performed on Fallon, recorded their album iridescence at Abbey Road Studios and topped the Billboard 200 with that very same album. However, this skyrocket to mainstream success was tempered by the departure of prominent member Ameer Vann in May of that year after allegations of sexual misconduct emerged against him. The loss of Vann left the remaining members shaken and feeling betrayed, almost resulting in the group breaking up. Naturally, these feelings bled into iridescence, an album that, despite its flaws, largely felt like a natural evolution from the SATURATION days. 2019’s GINGER took an even more mature and emotional turn, mostly eschewing bass-heavy bangers in favor of introspective lyricism and melodic R&B. Now, after being forced by the pandemic to forgo touring and quarantine themselves, BROCKHAMPTON have finally returned with their brand new album ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE – and it’s their best since the SATURATION era.
From the very first listen, ROADRUNNER stands out as BROCKHAMPTON’S most sonically diverse release yet, and arguably their best-produced as well. A trap-influenced pop-rap banger with an irresistible whistle melody (“COUNT ON ME”). A wonderful, smile-inducing hip-hop instrumental adorned with punchy percussion, sweet piano chords, and weaving strings (“WHEN I BALL”). A minor-key guitar ballad that explodes into a major-key rock opera-esque finale (“WHAT’S THE OCCASION?”). A simple, rickety loop of restrained drums, plucked guitar, and foundational bass (“CHAIN ON”). Much of it is punctuated by a healthy amount of distortion, particularly on the kick drums; a new approach in the collective’s production style, and one that easily makes ROADRUNNER the loudest BROCKHAMPTON album ever.
Lyrically, ROADRUNNER may be BROCKHAMPTON’s most formidable record thus far. While there is the usual base-level mix of braggadocio and introspection, the overall impact here is stronger than ever. This is due in no small part to member Joba; on two separate tracks here he delivers heartbreaking verses about his father’s recent suicide. (The second of these verses is actually what closes the album out, leaving everything on an extremely somber note.) Every bit of Joba’s trauma and sadness is laid out onto tape; it’s genuinely difficult to listen to, and it’s easily the most heart-wrenching material on a BROCKHAMPTON project to date. Elsewhere all the other members bring their typical A-game – if anything, the lyrics are a cut above those on past albums – and ROADRUNNER is all the better for it.
The performances here are superb, as to be expected from a BROCKHAMPTON project. Kevin Abstract yet again showcases his penchant for writing catchy, sticky hooks and clever lyrics. Dom McLennon continues to stand tall as the group’s best rapper. Matt Champion’s laconic delivery once again reveals itself to have a surprising amount of emotional range. Merlyn Wood’s unique voice remains a staple of the group’s output, whether he’s calmly reminiscing or gleefully throwing caution to the wind. Joba’s status persists as the wild card of the group, doing everything from singing to rapping to producing. But on ROADRUNNER, there’s a refreshing amount of surprises. Vocalist Bearface gets his first honest-to-God rap verse, and producer Jabari Manwa tries his hand at (autotuned) singing with stellar results, contributing one of the album’s best hooks on “WINDOWS.”
And it’s not just the group members that shine on ROADRUNNER. Rapper Danny Brown makes a giant splash on opening track “BUZZCUT,” contributing a killer verse over one of the album’s finest instrumentals. Noise rap auteur JPEGMAFIA slides flawlessly into place on “CHAIN ON,” a track that sees him spitting top-notch bars over a sample loop. (Fingers crossed we get more of this freestyle approach on future Peggy material, as it works wonders here.) Elsewhere, A$AP Rocky and A$AP Ferg contribute to “BANKROLL,” the former handling the (somewhat ominous) pre-chorus and the latter starting the track strong with an energetic set of bars. And little-known emcee SoGone SoFlexy’s rough voice fits perfectly on “COUNT ON ME” and “WINDOWS,” adding a great deal of personality to both tracks; something tells me this guy is going places.
However, there are some noticeable blemishes on ROADRUNNER. While the album does mark a new sonic approach for BROCKHAMPTON, occasionally the distortion and compression become downright overbearing. Nowhere is this more apparent than on “DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY,” whose hook is almost painfully loud and threatens to totally swallow up everything else in the mix. The hook itself feels underwritten, too, a rare oversight on Abstract’s part. And the pervasive loudness of the album makes it all the more confusing that the gorgeous final act of “WINDOWS” is mixed so quietly, making it lose some of its impact.
Elsewhere, “I’LL TAKE YOU ON” sticks out as the weakest track to me; while there’s nothing wrong with the instrumental, the overall structure isn’t terribly interesting, and the refrain of “Open up your heart and I’ll give in to you / Until you recognize that I’m into you” is kind of corny. It doesn’t help that the supremely talented Charlie Wilson is sadly underutilized here. And while Wood’s contributions on ROADRUNNER are impressive overall – he does spit some killer verses – I wish he had more of a presence on the album. His wild delivery is sorely missed here, causing some of his appearances to get lost in the fog.
Nevertheless, ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE is yet another thoroughly enjoyable, emotionally heavy, endlessly creative release from the substantial collective. It serves as an improvement over iridescence and GINGER; it brings back the overall cohesion the former lacked and the bangers that were arguably too scant on the latter. The album also delivers BROCKHAMPTON’s most emotionally resonant material to date, and the lyricism is stronger than ever. The instrumentals are catchy, detailed, and incredibly fun to listen to. But more than anything, the album sounds like the group is genuinely enjoying their popularity for the first time in years. Thus, ROADRUNNER not only marks a stylistic evolution for BROCKHAMPTON, but also something of a return to form. The youthful exuberance of the SATURATION era – back when they were just making music in a small house – has returned, and now they’re finally able to apply it to their meteoric rise to fame. Recently Kevin Abstract took to Twitter to announce that BROCKHAMPTON will only be releasing one more album after this one – he also said SATURATION III would be their last release, so take what he says with a grain of salt. But if ROADRUNNER is indeed the group’s penultimate record, I’m incredibly happy to see them going out on such a high note.
Listen to ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE on Apple Music or Spotify below.