What Is BROCKHAMPTON Trying to Tell Us?

[TW: This article includes discussion of rape and abuse, and quotes song lyrics suggestive of those themes.]

I fell in love with BROCKHAMPTON the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.

It all started during a dorm-room party. The languorous, sun-soaked beat of super-hit “BLEACH” caressed my ears, and Ryan Beatty’s velvety falsetto reverberated in my head long after the Spotify queue had moved on. I whipped out my phone and noted down the song for future reference. Junior-year finals rolled around a few weeks later, and I worked through BROCKHAMPTON’s entire discography as I settled in for a 12-hour shift in the dining hall, furiously illustrating a mini children’s book for my education class. I was enamored, fascinated by the band’s range, both from song to song and from singer to singer. Matt Champion’s meltingly tender croons against the psychedelic soundscape of “PALACE” gave way to the harsh instrumentals of “HEAT,” and to Ameer Vann’s alarming yet cleanly articulated opening verse—“I love to watch ’em squirm, I love when bitches bleed/If she’s sucking on the barrel, you can’t hear her scream.”

That March, a Reddit user going by “esskizzle” posted on the BROCKHAMPTON subreddit—essentially a massive forum for fans of the millennial boyband—expressing her concerns about Vann’s lyrics normalizing rape and abuse. She wrote that, while “degrading words for women like bitches and hoes…are more forgivable than other things” in rap and hip-hop, she was disturbed by the lack of public discourse on Vann’s overtly violent sentiments, and particularly by the silence on the part of his bandmates. On May 27, Vann—facing allegations of abuse and sexual misconduct from multiple women—was removed from the group. “We were lied to, and we’re sorry for not speaking up sooner,” BROCKHAMPTON told fans via a solemn statement on Twitter. “We do not tolerate abuse of any kind.” Over a year later, the top comment on esskizzle’s Reddit post reads simply: “Damn sis, you had a point.”

In the aftermath of the breakup, and out of respect for survivors of sexual assault, BROCKHAMPTON canceled the remainder of their tour dates and pushed back the release of their fifth album. By this time, I was diving down nightly music-video rabbit holes, differentiating between members based on the cadence of their verses, relishing in the discovery of the deep cuts (“FOLLOW,” for example, is inexplicably and tragically absent on Spotify, so I failed to discover it until I took to YouTube). I was in it for the long haul, but BROCKHAMPTON insisted on teasing me. They dropped their first tantalizing music video at the beginning of July 2018 in the form of “1999 WILDFIRE,” a chilled-out banger brimming with confusing yet occasionally sexy close-ups of lips and teeth, including those of the elusive Bearface (f.k.a. Ciarán McDonald), whose balladic verse eases the track toward its conclusion.

A week later, the enigmatic caption on “1998 TRUMAN,” which reads “I ran all the way home to give this to you.,” mirrored my mad dash to my laptop as soon as I got home from work. “TRUMAN” blew me away with its flawless array of firsts: Rather than Kevin Abstract on the hook as usual, BROCKHAMPTON blesses us with a hyped-up, bugged-out Merlyn Wood, known for his legendary verse on “SWEET” (“Don’t call me stupid/That ain’t the way my name’s pronounced!”). On the first verse, JOBA (f.k.a. Russell Boring, although he’s anything but), nothing short of electric as always, debuts a floppy fuschia coiffure as he spits game and rolls around on top of a sedan; did I mention the running theme of “confusing yet sexy”? Three minutes in, vibrant hues and undulations dissolve into gauzy footage of an abandoned boxing ring, and Bearface closes out the track again with a drawn-out, slowed-down ballad that frankly left me bored and irritated. I forgave him. I queued “TRUMAN” on repeat as I drove to work every morning, hitting skip without fail at the three-minute mark.

“BROCKHAMPTON dropped another music video,” came the text from my boyfriend a week later, but my Pavlovian reaction was tempered by his disappointing review. It was barely a song, he said, and might actually be a practical joke. I wanted to believe, but my ride-or-die boyband was making it difficult: “1997 DIANA” opens with a chorus of children’s voices counting down from five, and closes with Romil Hemnani literally screaming into the camera while shaking it violently. In between is a sort of coked-out, sexless orgy in a high-school locker room. A sweat-slick, strung-out Champion wheels precariously in front of a game of tug-of-war and burps into the viewer’s face; even the typically composed Dom McLennon rolls back his eyes and tugs on his cheeks as if possessed. Throughout, the mayhem is augmented by a grating tone-shifted chorus—“N***** talk shit, talk a whole lot of shit/Need to quit talkin’ shit and give us more, more.”

On the whole, I was unsure what to make of this, but BROCKHAMPTON gave me plenty of time to mull it over, as they disappeared from YouTube and didn’t return to drop new tracks until September. Circa “DIANA,” their fifth LP was expected to go by “The Best Years Of Our Lives.” As the follow-up to the wildly popular “SATURATION” trilogy of 2017, the album had big shoes to fill in terms of its merit and cohesion as a self-contained product. I scrolled back through the band’s discography, studying the three album covers that had grown emblematic of their meteoric rise: Ameer’s disembodied head, painted blue and wearing the LP’s title as a burglar’s bandana; Ameer in a van, leering out from beneath his bucket hat; Ameer drenched in blue again, donning a sultry glare. The band’s challenge, I realized, was locating their sound in the post-Vann era. BROCKHAMPTON’s appeal lies largely in the distinct styles—lyrical, vocal and sartorial—of its rappers, and each one brings a unique flair. For Vann, it was an old-school, gangsta-rap sensibility, dipping into sex, drugs (both dealing and doing) and gang affiliation with a winking hint of ironic distance. “I just wanna feel on your booty,” he smiles on the iconic track “GOLD,” recumbent beneath the camera, fluidly reaching out his bejeweled fingers to squeeze invisible flesh. “Grab a camcorder, we could make it a movie/Bring a friend with you if you like how I do it/Gold chain swingin’ and she like how I shoot it.” It’s sleazy, sure, but at that time—to our blissfully ignorant ears—he pulled it off.

After “DIANA,” swirling rumors of “The Best Years of Our Lives” were replaced with talk of “Puppy.” When the prodigal album dropped, it was called “iridescence,” and its cover featured an arrestingly vibrant thermal image of an anonymous, bald and massively pregnant figure. The actual contents of the LP were equally off-putting. I wish I could offer a nuanced analysis, but—after multiple listens and a live concert—“iridescence” still strikes me as a disjointed, noisy jumble. Each track is weighed down by a plethora of oddities and gimmicks. Some come across well, as in the case of “FABRIC”: The catchy (if bizarre) opening strains of “Take it all/or leave it,” delivered in a pulsating feminine timbre, introduce a series of verses that peak with Bearface’s surprisingly affecting, computerized sulk—“Why the fuck would you share this shit with these people?/I don’t know these people, I don’t know you either, no more/I’m at war with myself/Every time I see this shit I wanna kill myself.” “WHERE THE CASH AT” and “BERLIN,” too, are pricks of at-least-slightly-catchy brightness in a swamp of indistinguishable, indecipherable muttering and clanging, but the overall message of the album is clear: BROCKHAMPTON has lost its way.

The etymology, or at least my theory of it, is straightforward. “WILDFIRE,” “TRUMAN” and “DIANA” were intended to be the centerpieces of a new album inspired by the 1990s, or “The Best Years of Our Lives”—the irony being that most of BROCKHAMPTON’s members were barely even sentient in the ’90s. The lo-fi aesthetic and old-school lyricism of their first four LPs evoke a retro vibe that captures the happy, hazy memories of their birth decade. But with the allegations against Vann and his subsequent (and rightful) expulsion, the group was unceremoniously thrust into the reality of the #MeToo moment. No longer able to cocoon itself in a cozy blanket of nostalgia, BROCKHAMPTON overcorrected, becoming over-modernized and just plain overwrought. The three ’90s-themed singles fell by the wayside, their faded, Polaroid-esque covers replaced by the technocratic imagery and infuriatingly stylish uncapitalization of “iridescence.” In rushed the 21st century, bowling over a boyband that was unprepared to deal with it, unable to sublimate the cultural complexities particular to the Trump era into an effective, coherent or even thought-provoking product.

The very term “boyband” recalls an entity lost to a different age. Writing for the New Yorker, Carrie Battan describes a “type of pre-fab, pretty-boy pop that dominated in the late nineties and early aughts, with groups like the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync”—exactly the aesthetic at which BROCKHAMPTON has historically poked affectionate fun. Variously dubbed “the internet’s first boy band,” “a new generation of boyband” and “a hip-hop anti-collective All-American Boyband,” the group’s focus was always on redefinition and organic imperfection rather than reiteration. BROCKHAMPTON rejected the overstimulating visual aesthetic that so often panders to the Gen-Z attention span while also embracing the capabilities of the digital age: After all, the catalyst for their formation was Abstract’s post on an online Kanye forum.

Their “SATURATION”-era work evokes a sort of retrofuturist pastiche, perhaps best exemplified by “SWEET.” The music video takes place at night in an empty lot; with a largely unassuming background, focus remains squarely on each rapper as they flaunt their unique mannerisms in rich, Huji-fied color. The artists are extravagant, certainly—during Wood’s verse, he is lifted off the ground by his beaming bandmates, his bleached hair bobbing, beaconlike, as he gesticulates to his own beat—yet it feels totally organic. So, too, does the camerawork. The three-minute clip appears to be one long take, complete with blips of blurriness as the lens refocuses, and even moments where no one is on camera at all; the artists’ energy is ostensibly too explosive for the filmmakers, and they bounce on and off screen before the camera can catch up. Back then, BROCKHAMPTON didn’t need gimmicks. Their music was just that good.

Contrast “SWEET” with “TRUMAN,” which—while undeniably catchy—represents a stark departure from the simplicity and sincerity of yore. At the start of the video, I thought something had gone wrong with my WiFi connection, because the image was completely pixelated. A bundle of colorful squares in the shape of a man painting a wall blue approaches the camera, coming into focus as he does so, and declares himself (through Cyrillic subtitles) as Miloš Mihajlov. Thus follows an intensely fish-eyed, sped-up sequence of Champion skateboarding down the street, passing inexplicably pixelated cars as he rides. Cut to Wood on the hook, close-up and hi-def, gesturing wildly from beneath a crystalline waterfall. On one hand, the video is cinematically masterful, with imagery so densely packed and complex that I couldn’t look away. Yet there was a feeling of compensating for something, a sense that, stripped to its bones à la “SWEET,” the mélange would no longer hold together. It was a refrain all too familiar in the age of instant entertainment, one in which each passing day holds a fresh avalanche of streaming content: BROCKHAMPTON was using high production values to mask a lack of substance, and hoping that their audience would be too blinded with love to care.

What makes BROCKHAMPTON so compelling is the way they are always trying to tell you something, but you never quite know what it is. Amid the mini-plot of “GUMMY”—the band is robbing a bank, and each member plays a different role in the scheme—are bizarre interludes: Abstract’s giant head floats untethered in front of a yellow coach as he spits raw rhymes on the criticism he’s faced for his art (“That n**** Kevin can’t rap, he too sappy with his shit/He don’t rep me with his shit, he on that teenage bullshit”). Vann caresses the snout of a big brown alpaca, soft-smiles into the camera as a man in a chicken mask contorts behind him, raps silkily about the drug-dealing days that predated his national recognition. It’s weird. It’s definitely weird. But, like clean laundry curling wetly around the core of the washer, “GUMMY” adheres to a central theme. The hook says it all: “Cash don’t last, my friends will ride with me.” In 2017, BROCKHAMPTON’s popularity was fresh, and it was intoxicating, but their work dealt with the transience of fame while addressing themes of friendship, racial and sexual identity, and personal growth, all with honesty and vulnerability. In 2019, they’re all flourish, failing to coalesce around a theme that was never clearly defined, falling flat with an audience that is less credulous than ever.  

Ultimately, in analyzing BROCKHAMPTON’s rise and fall, I’m imposing a dramatic arc on a band that refuses to be narrativized. At this point, what narratives did exist—from one song, album, and member to another—are lost in translation. The schtick has grown cold; the incessant capitalization has lost its mystique. (“No one knows,” says Complex on this matter. “It may or may not be important.”) Releasing an LP in 2018 was always going to be a tricky task for BROCKHAMPTON, as they had to reckon with both their new identity as mega-stars and the cultural zeitgeist into which they were confusedly emerging. Looking toward 2020, a potential new POTUS and a potential new identity for America’s hardest-working boyband, the question to be asked of BROCKHAMPTON is the same as the one that has been floated for Trump: Are they brilliant masterminds, or is there simply nothing there at all?

Original image courtesy of Nicolas Padovani via Wikimedia Commons.

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