• Avant Garb

Brockhampton: Boy Band of Rap

Updated: Dec 4, 2018

Written by Chris Ritter

Illustration by Zac Wilson




In August of 2017, critics didn’t know what to make of BROCKHAMPTON. The15-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 selfdeprecating 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 Houstonbred 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.

It’s almost a shame that the group’s boybandish antics distract from the sheer skill of

several of the group’s rappers, notably Abstract and Ameer Vann, whose stone-faced flows

often contain the richest lyricism of the group. “JUNKY” contains a candid recount of addiction

from Vann, with bleak lines like “My acts of desperation, I’m on an empty stomach / So fuck

the consequences, I ain’t running from them.” But even he has his meme worthiness. Vann might be

the first ever rapper to rhyme “dank” with “Secret Agent Cody Banks,” as he does on “STAR,” but

he’s also “the one selling drugs,” as Grey refers to him, rapping so much about his dealer days that

he’s inspired fan memes about it.

Band members having their own distinct styles isn’t anything new, but the

BROCKHAMPTON brand reaches far beyond music. While BROCKHAMPTON visuals

contain a certain degree of ridiculousness, they’re filmed casually in bedrooms, parking lots, and

empty streets. BROCKHAMPTON merch, which sells out in minutes, is just as nonchalant,

donning phrases like “boys make me sad” in all lowercase. It’s a kind of aesthetic that breeds

inclusivity, conveying a sense of understated specialness among members that’s easily extended

to fans. Abstract, self-dubbed “dumbass” on Twitter, interacts with fans almost daily, congratulating them on college acceptances and laughing with them at videos of straight men

reacting to his gayness.

With so many personalities to keep track of, BROCKHAMPTON can be a challenging

group to follow, both outside of their music and within it. The group has earned better reviews

with each SATURATION album, improving their music as quickly as critics are catching up.

But their complexities have made them successful from the beginning. While their sales have been

as middling as their reviews (their top track has a modest 18 million streams on Spotify),

the BROCKHAMPTON brand continues to thrive with a cult-like energy. The band doesn’t

have the broad fanbase of past boy bands, but BROCKHAMPTON fans have no trouble

showing the same hyper-enthusiasm: they have been filmed showing up hours early to shows,

clad in signature BROCKHAMPTON blue face paint, giggling to interviewers about their

favorite members. Major label RCA recently took note of the brand-driven success, signing

the group to a $30 million record deal. Despite the pay raise, Kevin Abstract says that the group

won’t change their DIY aesthetic. Three albums and $30 million in, it’s hard to imagine why they

would.