THE BOYBAND OF RAP
In August of 2017, critics didn’t know what to make of BROCKHAMPTON. The 15-member music collective had just released their second album since June, with rumors of a third by the year’s end. The group released a total of nine lo-fi music videos over the three month span, showing members of the group rapping in parking lots, the backs of golf carts, and even a bathtub full of Fruity Pebbles. BROCKHAMPTON material was as plentiful as it was outlandish. In just three months, the group had released enough material to fill a short career. “I think what we’re doing hasn’t really ever been done before,” said BROCKHAMPTON’s de facto leader Kevin Abstract, a 21 year-old Texan artist best known for his indie-inflected rap on albums mtv1987 and American Boyfriend: a Suburban Love Story. Abstract spoke to music/ culture mag The Fader of the group’s dynastic ambitions as a boyband as well as a media company and ad agency, building a brand that defies the limits of the “band” title.
Still, music is still the central money maker for BROCKHAMPTON. The group released the mixtape All-American Trash in 2016, but didn’t gain substantial attention until their debut album SATURATION arrived in 2017. A sprawling work, SATURATION meticulously attempted to introduce 15 distinct characters to a world that had met almost none of them. For a group of 15 men, BROCKHAMPTON is about as diverse as a “boyband” can get: the multi-racial cohort includes rappers, producers, and visual artists who are straight, gay, and rep anywhere from Northern Ireland to Grenada to Connecticut. Though tracks like “SWIM” highlight Abstract’s indie-pop tendencies, the eclectic group earned the most praise from critics for its tag-team verses on “STAR” and “GOLD,” gaining them comparisons to Odd Future and other rap groups.
But “rap group” isn’t their preferred title. Much has been made of BROCKHAMPTON’s insistence that they be called a “boyband” instead of this more obvious label. With each SATURATION album, the group seems to draw from an increasingly mixed bag of genres, but nearly every voice you hear on the SATURATION trilogy is that of a rapper, or at least someone who raps. At face value, the “boyband” claim could be seen as a shallow attempt to differentiate BROCKHAMPTON from predecessors like Odd Future or competitors like Flatbush Zombies, but that would miss the essence of BROCKHAMPTON entirely.
While far from the Beatles or One Direction, it is easy to draw parallels between BROCKHAMPTON and the personal branding that has historically made a boyband a boyband. Though BROCKHAMPTON doesn’t have a “sweet” one or a “flirty” one, as USA Today has dubbed members of One Direction, they similarly accentuate members’ personalities. On “STAINS,” a single from SATURATION III, Ashlan Grey (one of the group’s photographers) interrupts a verse to shout, “Y’all motherfuckers made three albums still talking ‘bout the same shit— the one gay, the one selling drugs, the one that’s tryna act like ‘Lil Wayne…” It’s a self-deprecating quip, but at three albums in, it hints at the boyband aesthetic BROCKHAMPTON has worked so hard to perfect.
At their worst, the 15 members and 6+ voices of BROCKHAMPTON can sound frenzied and disjointed, especially within albums exceeding 15 tracks. But even as members clash, distinct personalities shine through. While Kevin Abstract’s affinity for M.I.A. style vocal effects can be overbearing at times, it serves him well on the hook of “GUMMY.” As Abstract sinks into cool disinterest: “Cash don’t last, my friends’ll ride with me,” Merlyn Wood echoes the sentiment in all caps: “CASH DON’T MEAN SHIT SHIT! CRIED MY LAST TEARS, BITCH!”
Wood, a 21 year-old rapper from Austin who dropped out of architecture school to join the group, is undeniably abrasive, but that’s the point. Every time Wood enters a song at maximum volume or yells “MERLYN!” unprompted during an interview, fans of BROCKHAMPTON are in on an inside joke that connects beyond music, and furthers the boyband branding that’s brought them into the national spotlight.
The same can be said of JOBA, a Houston bred singer whose falsettos range from tender to downright psychotic, displaying the full range on SATURATION III between “BLEACH” and “BOOGIE.” JOBA’s emphatically mediocre dance moves are a live show favorite, inspiring chants of “Go JOBA,” as he flails his limbs centerstage.