Hip-hop collective Brockhampton (stylized in all caps) burst onto the rap scene in 2017, dubbing themselves the “best boy band since One Direction” and releasing three albums in the span of a year to form their “Saturation” trilogy. It quickly became apparent that chaos is their ethos: The albums are disorganized, fun and raunchy, with beats so brash and in-your-face they make you want to punch a hole in the drywall.
The group’s latest album, “Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine”, is markedly calmer and more cohesive, a testament to how they’ve grown as a group. Normally, evolution is seen as a good thing, but in Brockhampton’s case, it has translated into music that just isn’t as fun or exciting as their earlier work.
Nothing on “Roadrunner” even comes close to the whirlwind infernos of “Boogie” from “Saturation III” or “Bump” from “Saturation,” songs I still return to, years after their release, because their lawlessness makes them unforgettable. “Ginger” and “iridescence” — the two albums that preceded “Roadrunner” in the post-“Saturation” era — also followed this trend, getting progressively more tranquil and straying further from what made Brockhampton unique.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy listening to calmer music; anyone who has ever graciously allowed me to have the aux cord is familiar with my penchant for slow and sometimes depressing music. But, since Brockhampton did musical mayhem so well, their more measured recent outputs feel tepid by comparison.
The aesthetic and musical changes between the “Saturation” trilogy and all subsequent albums were not just happenstance, though. They were undeniably intensified by the departure of founding member Ameer Vann. In May 2018, Vann was accused of sexual misconduct and emotional abuse by multiple women. He responded to the claims on Twitter in a series of since-deleted tweets, writing “Although my behavior has been selfish, childish and unkind, I have never criminally harmed anyone or disrespected their boundaries. I have never had relations with a minor or violated anybody’s consent.” Brockhampton responded by ousting Vann.
Vann was the face of the “Saturation” album covers and contributed immensely to their success. His gritty, deep voice and pessimistic bars provided a much-needed counterpoint to the pop-indie-softboi sensitivity of other members, helping to ground a group that relied on a balancing act of stylistic differences to make their songs work.
When seven or eight people are on the same song, they can’t all be melodic singers and rappers or it starts to feel repetitive; Vann’s voice was crucial in keeping the songs dynamic. The two best songs on “Roadrunner” are “Buzzcut” and “Chain On” thanks to guest verses from Danny Brown and JPEGMAFIA, demonstrating how the group has had to turn to features to mimic the sonic contrasts they once had with Vann.
The calm and melodic beats of “Roadrunner” provide the backbone to a couple infectious songs, despite the project as a whole feeling lackluster. “Chain On” is a nicely paced head-nodding song, kept interesting with clever and impactful verses from JPEGMAFIA and Dom McLennon addressing racism and police brutality. “Count On Me” is a sweet pop song with a Shawn Mendes-assisted chorus, centered around a reassuring platitude: “It’ll be okay, no matter what they say about us / I know that it’ll be okay.”
The initial allure of Brockhampton was the feeling of being fully immersed in their manic world of DIY creativity, which fans got through a blend of the group’s music, visual projects and social media presence. Few collectives are as committed to a multisensory all-encompassing DIY aesthetic as Brockhampton. There are band members who solely work on visual and web-based aspects of the Brockhampton experience, including an in-house webmaster, photographer and creative director. They’ve also released self-made behind-the-scenes documentaries and a remarkable 38 music videos.
The group’s members, many of whom met in high school and organized their early musical projects on a Kanye West fan forum, lived together in order to eat, sleep and breathe their music 24/7. You got the feeling that they were stars burning bright and fast, and the whole crazy endeavor was always just hanging on by a thread. This gave them an authenticity and reliability that was like a lightning rod to their primarily young and internet-savvy fanbase. They were living proof that you and your friends making music in someone’s basement had a chance to make it, no matter how chaotic, weird or disorganized you were.
When the looming threat of group implosion became somewhat real in the form of Vann’s scandal and swift condemnation, it created a crisis of artistic identity, one that the group still seems to be processing. “Roadrunner” has its highlights; I wouldn’t even go as far as to say it’s a bad album. But, my memories of the early artistic highs of the group linger and still guide my expectations for their work. I’m not necessarily disappointed by “Roadrunner,” but I’m not excited by it either. Instead, I feel strangely neutral, a word I never thought I would use to describe Brockhampton.
However, I also recognize that it is unrealistic to expect the group to keep churning out chaotic songs without one of the founding agents of that chaos. It seems like the group recognizes it too: group member Kevin Abstract announced on Twitter that “Roadrunner” is one of two Brockhampton albums that will come out in 2021, and that those albums will be their last as a group.
Mirabella Miller SC ’23 is TSL’s music columnist and an English major from Portland, Oregon. She shows up to most events drinking a Yerba Mate.