TW: Suicide, Depression, Anxiety
Since I first heard the infectious beats of BROCKHAMPTON’s inaugural “SATURATION” album in 2017, the group has been one of my favorite creative forces in modern music. The music world was “saturated,” for lack of a better word, by the group as they released three albums in 2017. There was a youthful sense of irreverence to their music that, when coupled with daring production and raw creativity, quickly amassed a huge online following.
BROCKHAMPTON was riding high into 2018 when domestic abuse allegations against member Ameer Vann resulted in his expulsion from the group and the cancellation of the group’s summer concert tour. The group went on to make an album later in 2018, with “iridescence” releasing to generally positive reviews, but the stormy clouds over the group dampened the fanfare somewhat. The group released the more introspective and pop-focused “GINGER” in 2019, still receiving positive reviews, but it was clear the trauma that had fractured the group in 2018, as well as their maturing process, had forever changed the music they made.
BROCKHAMPTON’s maturation process continues with their new album, “ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE,” which may be the most polished and cohesive project to come from the group yet. After not officially releasing any new music in 2020 other than an excellent remix of GINGER’s “SUGAR” with Dua Lipa, I was excited for the group’s new project, and it did not disappoint.
At the emotional core of ROADRUNNER is band member JOBA, whose father recently passed away. In an interview with The Guardian, JOBA opens up on the toll his father’s suicide took on him, speaking on the “depression, hopelessness, [and] darkness” that descended on him following the tragedy. This emotional context is what makes the tracks “THE LIGHT” and “THE LIGHT PT. 2” all the more affecting, as JOBA raps and sings of trauma, hope and perseverance. Gone are JOBA’s wacky verses of the "SATURATION" era, rather he comes through as a measured artist, commenting on his struggles and the need to embrace the light and hold onto life. It is truly an emotional and gutwrenching moment of vulnerability from a mature artist.
Despite all the sadness underlying some of the tracks, BROCKHAMPTON brings energy and fun throughout the album, yet the boisterous days of proclaiming themselves to be “the best boyband since One Direction” have long passed. The album’s lead single, “BUZZCUT” featuring Danny Brown starts the project off with an irreverent banger, but the production, while wild, is far more nuanced than earlier projects. Another striking differentiation between ROADRUNNER and earlier projects is the frequency of features, with the aforementioned Brown, A$APs Rocky and Ferg, JPEGMAFIA, Shawn Mendes and others appearing throughout the album. The large size of BROCKHAMPTON — 13 members — combined with the multitude of features could have felt chaotic, but the appearances of BROCKHAMPTON staples like Kevin Abstract, Merlyn Wood, Matt Champion and Dom McLennon differentiate themselves enough to be distinct.
Much of ROADRUNNER sees the group continue to blend their more traditional hip-hop with pop. In particular, “I’LL TAKE YOU ON” shines as a poppy tune with lovely harmonies. “OLD NEWS” featuring LA-based pop artist Baird is also striking for its angelic autotuned vocals on the chorus from band member Jabari Manwa.
My favorite track of the work is likely the G-funk inspired club banger ironically titled “DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY,” with its discussions of racism, homophobia and gun violence in America singing above a beat which modernizes G-funk into a more glitchy and addictive product. The beat crescendos through the track until the final chorus cathartically drops and synths warble in the outro. Immediately following, however, band member Bearface sings a nearly entirely a cappella tune with “DEAR LORD.” Where he might have made a guitar ballad celebrating the band’s togetherness during the SATURATION times, instead we see Bearface praying to God to help his friend (clearly JOBA) with his challenges, returning to the themes of light triumphing over darkness.
De facto band leader Kevin Abstract has said that this will be the band’s penultimate record, with the final one releasing later this year. If true (the band has threatened to stop making music before), I can only hope that the next album is as polished and mature as this one.
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