On paper, BROCKHAMPTON shouldn't be something that works. A hip-hop boy band with 13 members inherently feels like far too many cooks in the kitchen. But, over their relatively short career, the collective, led by Kevin Abstract, have made huge strides in shattering preconceived notions about what they could achieve, with each member playing as integral a role as the next. With a rapid-fire, prolific career, BROCKHAMPTON have worked to become one of the defining acts of a new generation of music fans. Never ones afraid to push the envelope or take sonic risks, BROCKHAMPTON are the perfect anti-boy band.
But 2021 marks a seminal year in the band's (future) legacy. If all goes as they plan, it will be their final year together. Most vocal groups have a natural shelf life, and it's refreshing to see BROCKHAMPTON admit their solo wishes ahead of time and cut themselves loose on their own terms. But, as a parting swan song to their ever-growing legion of fans, the band have promised two 2021 albums before they depart. And, on Friday, we got the first – Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine.
If the group's imminent split was somewhat of an "a-ha!" moment for them, it is realised on the album's stirring, dizzying opening track "BUZZCUT". A siren sound whirls around the listener's head as an impassioned Abstract raps, "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."
The creeping sounds of "CHAIN ON" follow, with MC Dom McLennon delivering a mammoth verse that unleashes a stream of consciousness. At multiple points, he sounds like he's going to get ahead of himself before he catches up, slowly winding back to make sure his message is heard loud and clear. That message? He is completely aware of his power, his influence and the best way to utilise it – "I'm fueled by the culture, driven by my ancestors/Body just a vessel, brain tapped into the answers".
The album also sees BROCKHAMPTON tackle some of the injustices they face in their various intersections in a more direct way than ever before. While Kevin Abstract's sexuality has always been a topic of the band's music, it is usually done in a (rightfully) celebratory way. But on "THE LIGHT", he reckons with how he deals with it internally thanks to an inherently homophobic society – "I love the attention, I'm a bastard in public/I still struggle with tellin' my mom who I'm in love with". The racism entrenched in the US is also a recurring theme on Roadrunner…, like when Merlyn raps on "WINDOWS" ("All of these bars bought chains, prison industries/America, did my people foul, then give me shot for free") or Abstract in megaphoned near-A Capella on "DON'T SHOOT UP THE PARTY" ("Colonized minds by masters and slaves/They both hate n****s, they like n****s the same").
But the album is a deeply emotional one centred around one tragedy in particular – the death of Joba's father, who died during the recording of the album. This is reflected in the album at large – it's nowhere near as frantic or as rattling as any of their previous works. While still high voltage and rammed with energy, it is far more subdued, placing focus on the rappers themselves. As for Joba, his pain comes through in a devastating outpour on album standout "THE LIGHT PT. II".
It's 40 bars of Joba wandering around the crevasses of his own mind, trying to comprehend death and suicide in a way he's never had to before. "When that hammer pulled back, did you think of me?/You were the one that taught me how to be'' he opens his verse with, making sure that listeners feel as confronted by his experience as he did. He muses on what death must be like ("What happens when you die? Does it fade black?/I sense you in my skin and the trucker cap") and expresses his anger with his father for what he did while he was alive ('It's safe to say I'll find a way out the darkness/The way you left 'Ma hits me the hardest").
It's a cathartic outpour, made so much more liberating by its gospel, sunbeam-filled "DEAR LORD". But despite being anchored in tragedy, the album is really about coming together even though the band are set to go their separate ways. They still find unbreakable strength in one another, best shown in tracks where they bounce off of one another like "I'LL TAKE YOU ON". But, on Roadrunner…, they also find strength in their collaborators. Danny Brown takes his circus-style bars to daring new heights on "BUZZCUT", which contrasts directly with JPEGMAFIA's creeping verse on "CHAIN ON". A$AP Rocky and A$AP Ferg unite once again on "BANKROLL", returning to the haunting, trippy style of hip-hop the two championed on 2012's Long.Live.A$AP and 2013's Trap Lord respectively. Even vocalists like Shawn Mendes, Charlie Wilson and Ryan Beatty weave themselves in, subtly, to help cut through the rawness and grit that the smorgasbord of rappers bring throughout the album.
BROCKHAMPTON's acknowledgement of the importance of unity on Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine makes it a sort of anti-farewell album. An album less about going their separate ways, but instead about connecting themselves to one another as they do so. The message? There'll always be light through the clouds, and each member of BROCKHAMPTON on the first half of their swan song pulls equal weight in helping the sun shine on their future legacy once again.