Hip-Pop Group Brockhampton Defies Easy Definition on Remarkable ‘Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine’: Album Review

A.D. Amorosi
·5-min read

For a self-proclaimed “boyband” — a convenient tag for mainstream pop male cookie-cutter ensembles going back to the days of doo-wop — Brockhampton has never been altogether too conventional or convenient, despite its chart-topping success.

None of the schizophrenic yet contagious albums from the Texas pop-hop team have revealed as much as its new “Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine,” the first of two promised B-Hamp (see, they don’t even have an easily accessible nickname) full-lengths for 2021.

More from Variety

Name another truly multi-racial boyband, with a proudly gay frontman/writer (Kevin Abstract) that also include producers, graphic designers, web designers, photographers and managers as part of its musical mythology. Nor can you find another boyband whose real and daring diversity, wizened street smarts and deconstructed autobiography play out in its songs as principle lyricist Abstract ensures this one does – be it via “Roadrunner” or the band’s first three albums from 2017 (the “Saturation” trilogy), 2018 (“Iridescence”) or 2019 (“Ginger”).

“False dreams stripped by silence
Deals they had us sign, for years it had me blind
Think I had to hit rewind and think about why I do shine”

That’s Abstract on “Buzzcut,” surely musing on the breaks Brockhampton has taken during its brief tenure, to take stock and separate the wheat from the chaff (e.g. getting rid of rapper Ameer Vann, when he was accused of sexual misconduct).

With an unsettling sonic whirr, an equally uneasy wheezy saxophone, some supple harmonies, and enough dub echo to scare Lee Perry, “Buzzcut” moves through a series of bracing homey dramas (“My whole family cursed”), until landing at an ominous, slow-spoken stanza from hip-hop fright king Danny Brown.

The creepy-crawly-paced “Chain On” (featuring avant-hardcore-hop overlord JPEGMAFIA) is no less disturbing, despite its half-stepping Stax guitar line. To go with imagery of photographing assaulting cops and marauding soldiers, MC Dom McLennon raps, “Unless you got war on the mind to get the shackles off / You can’t ignore the karma when it’s flames across your law.”

The high-harmony-driven, free-jazzy “Windows,” the linty silken, R&B-ish “Count on Me” and the dancehall-electro “Bankroll” (the latter featuring A$AP Rocky and Ferg) break the album’s menacing mood when it comes to melodies. The B’s may talk of familial co-dependency and feature some bad-natured boasting on these three songs, but melodically, as one, they’re worth their weight in gold Spinners singles, where the sound of men plying their multi-octave skills ruled the day. Kudos, too, to A$AP Rocky for his deep-bassy rap in a gently Jamaican style. It’s a keen reminder of how bracing his brawny vocals are when used in the most cutting of settings. And big points for Abstract and company for acting as the consummate curators – plucking dynamic voices (such as Danny Brown, A$AP and Uncle Charlie Wilson on the mesmerizingly soulful “I’ll Take You On”), and knowing where and how to frame their singular soliloquies.

McLennon switches lyrical gears for something decidedly homespun and moves his musical moods to the string-laden Sound of Philadelphia when he hits up the sweetly soulful “When I Ball” with stately reminiscences (“My momma is home / I’m following her expressions / A drop in her tone / Some things that she had to mention”). While MC McLennon welcomes his mom’s story to the Brockhampton legend, deadpan rapper Matt Champion embraces his father with the same sing-song-y vibe (“Bet my dad was trippin’ bad, when he hit the gas like car chase”).

For all the great guest collabs, it is the Brockhamptons, alone, together, that get the neatest tricks all to themselves.

Steeping into the fretless bass-driven, staccato rapped-rhythms of “Old News” it’s as if your grandad’s barbershop quartet sailed off the rails. Looking for oddball hip-hop’s equivalent to the ’80s power ballad, complete with roaring guitar rawk outs and heavenly choirs? Go no further than “What’s the Occasion?”

Only Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and the 2013 pairing of producer-composer Adrian Younge and the Stylistics’ lead voice, William Hart, rival what the Brockhamptons can do when flowing in unison.

Some of the Bs’ most poignant and haunting tracks on “Roadrunner,” can be found when its membership poke their heads out the harmonic-driven hole, alone.

Psychedelically produced by Kiko Merley, Video Store and Jabari Manwa, the lava-lamp-like “The Light” finds rough rapper JOBA and Abstract running hard beside a fuzztoned guitar and a melting Hammond organ sound. All the while, their lyrics reflect something dreamy, dreary and majestically surreal. If Brockhampton ever truly busted up, as Abstract claims every two years or so, he and JOBA would make a dynamic duo, as their raw powered vocals have the ability to snake within each other like a rap-expressionistic Hall & Oates.

Swelling sweet harmonies aside, Brockhampton rarely lets you forget the “hop” part of the pop-hop equation. As far an autobiographical riffs go, Abstract’s intro to the heart-pounding, G-funk of “Don’t Shoot Out the Party” is as frantic as it is forlorn.

“All American self-hatred runs deep
White boys all I see whenever I sleep
[N-word] think I think these thoughts on purpose
But I knew ‘bout *NSYNC before cash could rule me…
Homophobic
I tried to gang bang I tried to get laid I had to get paid
Hopped off the ship
I land on my feet
In Corpus Christi I got my own street
Runnin’ this shit like it’s a track meet
I had to go back home, I seen too many [N-word] die in a week”

Abstract’s dark star-spangled banner is met, verse for verse, wretched nuance for nuance, in the album-ending “The Light II.” Rapping his way through a recollection of grandchildren never met, JOBA’s bittersweet baritone intones, simply,

“What a shame things change in the blink of an eye
Fade away, fast break to the depths in the sky
Impermanence turned permanent with a 9
That’s life.”

From the Four Seasons through to One Direction, never has the pop construct of a “boyband” had as much to say, and as many offbeat ways of saying it, as does Brockhampton on “Roadrunner.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.