Despite remaining mostly palatable, BROCKHAMPTON’s underwhelming latest makes a strong case that it should be the terminus of their collaborative efforts.
When Kevin Abstract pensively observed that “It’s kinda sick and I was born in 1996 and 1999 the only year that I remember,” on Saturation II’s “JUNKY,” it helped put things in perspective: the appointed ringleader of Texas-rap group BROCKHAMPTON, who was 21 when he wrote that line and will turn 25 later this year, was trying to live in the moment but was lingering on his troubled past, the definitive young man’s angsty ethos. The trio of mixtapes he released with his cohorts in 2017 refracted this inner turmoil through their unconventional song structures — often cramming upwards of five of their members on a single track at once — shifting genre approaches, and deeply personal (as opposed to cringe, the two things often conflated) lyrics; then they got signed to a major label, and ever since have been attempting to trim off the perceived fat. In an ironic twist of fate, after saturating the market with their dysfunctional sonic approach on their Saturation series, they’ve since been struggling to streamline their sound, while also staying relevant in the process. This could be a result of attempting to reach a wider audience, but could also be attributed to the group members simply growing out of this heavy emo phase. Either way, it has produced some of their most polished music, while simultaneously being some of their least essential. One doesn’t even get the sense that most of them really want to keep up the whole enterprise anymore, as once-circulating rumors that their final studio release was just around the corner have now finally been confirmed to be the truth — though that was signaled long before, with Abstract dropping a solo record in 2019, taking the wind out of Ginger’s sails.
Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine, the first collective release from BROCKHAMPTON in over a year, continues to suggest that the self-described “boy band” is at a creative crossroads; or, more accurately, it finds them stalled in the uncomfortable growing pains of artistic maturity. It’s competent and never outright unpleasant, but it severely lacks the x-factor that made their previous outings so memorable. The first leg of the album features mostly one-off pairings with other P4K-approved rap artists — Abstract with Danny Brown on “BUZZCUT,” Dom McLennon and JPEGMAFIA on “CHAIN ON” — which points to a fractured collective attempting to cohere wildly contrasting stylings. The end results are often non-starters, with the only noteworthy moment being the bouncy “BANKROLL,” with the always animated Merlyn Wood matching ASAP Ferg’s wily energy. The true dramatic starting point — the moment where things are really meant to kick off — is on guitar-heavy “THE LIGHT,” where vocal chameleon JOBA gruesomely details his father’s recent suicide (“Skull fragments in the ceilin’, felt your presence in the room”). Abstract is also featured, though his recollections of his mother’s homophobia feel a tad muted when presented in such close proximity to this more immediately brutal subject matter. Regardless, the abrasive instrumental fits the mood, and the track’s pathos is rightfully earned through the duo’s impassioned performances.
The rest of Roadrunner plays into the group’s more base pop instincts — the promotion of R&B vocalist Jabari Manwa from featured player to full-time member is most felt here — like the wannabe Beatles imitation “WHAT’S THE OCCASION” and Charlie Wilson-featuring “I’LL TAKE YOU ON,” while occasionally oscillating into territory that’s well-intentioned, if poorly executed. “PLEASE DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY” questionably confronts America’s gun violence epidemic over a G-funk beat, and the gospel hymn “DEAR LORD,” where the group prays for JOBA in his time of need, is way too gimmicky to fully resonate. “THE LIGHT PT. II” at least closes things out on a somewhat optimistic note — not for the group as a whole, but for JOBA, as he comes to peace with his father’s actions and vows to raise the “grandkids you’ll never meet” with the same compassion he was afforded. It’s a powerful sentiment, but one that’s so singular that it feels altogether disconnected from the group as a whole, while also undermining the previous tracks by highlighting their inconsequentiality by comparison. So while it’s been fun rooting for the band’s success this far into their weirdo careers, solely going off of the music they’re making now, their disbandment might honestly be the best business decision they could make.
Published as part of Album Roundup — April 2021 | Part 3.