Every musician who carries the weight of being the most culturally significant of their time is predestined to suffer a year like Brockhampton’s 2018. The ‘All-American Boyband’ enjoyed a meteoric rise to an unchartered level of success in 2017 with the successive releases of the Saturation Trilogy; subverting your expectations with their sky-blue style and inclusivity, Brockhampton entirely redefined the ‘boyband’ as we know it, championing a collective of creatives unafraid to be black; white; queer; straight; typical or eccentric. More than that, they claimed their own corner of the commercial ‘boyband’ field: where rap and a DIY ethos is adorned with the same ferocity as pop-dominated cash cows. With their style being the ace up their sleeve, their matching outfits and individualism took the world by storm. Here was something we had seen before – yet here Brockhampton were, making it interesting, flipping our expectations on their heads. For once, something felt exciting.
Then, with the turn of 2018, the superstructure they built from scratch crumbled at its foundations. Just before a new album called ‘Puppy’ was set to be released in June, Ameer Vann, one of the key architects of the Saturation trilogy, faced allegations of sexual misconduct. Just like that, the empire they built together caved in on itself. With Ameer Vann kicked out, Brockhampton cancelled tour dates and shelved the record. Brockhampton stalled. The shows they did play were met with silence when Vann’s verses kicked in; Brockhampton were mourning not the loss of Vann, but instead their identity and direction that was thrown into doubt. This doubt, perhaps worst of all, was not the doubt of the fans, but the doubt of Brockhampton themselves.
After a regroup and a rescheduled summer tour, Brockhampton took to Europe. After performances at Reading and Leeds Festival, as well as London’s KOKO, Brockhampton seemed to be galvanised. It was with this renewed vigour, and firm resolve to move on, that they took to Abbey Road Studios began their work on ‘iridescence’ in earnest. It was always going to be a risk: ‘iridescence’ is their first statement after the end of the Saturation era, and thus the first album without Ameer Vann. You could assume the album is a desperate pursuit of the old – but instead, ‘iridescence’ is defined by its innovation, looking firmly forward, never once turning back.
‘iridescence’ is an album of confrontation: Brockhampton look their own inner demons in the eye. Their lyrics and musical style are far more visceral than the tracks on the erratic and endlessly exuberant Saturation trilogy. That carefree, skittish attitude doesn’t factor into this album. It’s a self-reflective work, but above all, it’s executed with a kind of conviction that makes you realise Brockhampton have grown up.
‘TONYA’ was the first track to be officially announced as featuring on ‘iridescence’. Derived from ‘I, Tonya’, a film about unstable stardom, Brockhampton, in turn, derive from it the theme of their album. With an indulgent piano introduction, bear face really comes into his own. A backbencher on the Saturation trilogy now takes the emotional weight of ‘TONYA’ along with Kevin Abstract. Their harmonies meld with a lurching violin instrumental that anchor the track, giving a rough edge to a song of skyscraper-scale richness. ‘TONYA’ is nuanced, without being messy.
Kevin Abstract was deeply influenced by Radiohead’s album ‘Kid A’; shades of their sound can be heard in more than a few tracks on ‘iridescence’. ‘TAPE’ has an urgency brought by the drum beats sampled from Radiohead’s ‘Videotape’ and breakneck verses from Abstract and Dom McLennon. The lazy tinkling piano and expansive orchestra at the end of the track still give ‘TAPE’ that luxury of sound that is a critical artery to ‘iridescence’. Another track that Abstract dominates is ‘SOMETHING ABOUT HIM’ – so it would come as no surprise that his vocals are so similar in their harsh distortion to the vocal style on ‘Kid A’. An ode to Abstract’s long-term boyfriend, ‘SOMETHING ABOUT HIM’ has a pastel sweetness to it, with its laidback R’n’B grooves and discordant synth. It shows a sensitivity that has become a more fixed quality of Brockhampton’s evolving identity.
But Abstract’s moment of crowning glory is ‘WEIGHT’ that immediately won favour upon the album’s release. The track deals with what we find hard to talk about unapologetically. Abstract confronts his battle with his own sexuality: “And every time she took her bra off my dick would get soft/ I thought I had a problem, kept my head inside a pillow screaming”; and his own insecurities about being the torchbearer of Brockhampton and the doubt that arose from the departure of Ameer Vann: “I been feeling defeated, like I’m the worst in the boyband”. Its OutKast melodies dissolve into an expansive, psychedelic breakdown. It shifts in tone, yet still firmly holds its gravitas.
Matt Champion, with his cool, aloof vocal style topples entire tracks. ‘DISTRICT’ is Champions for the taking. It’s the anthem of ‘iridescence’. The low-key looped drone of the instrumental is undulating and chilled out, bringing the best out of Champion’s shrug-of-the-shoulders style. The material comfort Brockhampton have is a cause of conflict with their recurrent struggles with mental health. Joba’s livewire verse: “Praise God, hallelujah! I’m still depressed / At war with my conscience, paranoid, can’t find that shit” is sarcastic and coloured with the disillusionment that sets his verses so drastically apart from the rest of the band.
‘Fabric’, the closing track, with its taunting instrumental, whirring sirens has a heartbeat of pulsating drum beats that pick up in pace. It’s an exhilarating closer, with its coda being a dissonant crush of noise. “It’s the best years of our lives, motherfucker / You are about to experience” they tease, reminding us that ‘iridescence’ is the first, in what promises to be a monumental trilogy. They have found their authority; they have found their style; they are honest, unafraid to experiment with the new but stay true to the old.
Brockhampton have cleared the biggest hurdle of their career, and ‘iridescence’ is their lap of glory.
Words by Sophie Walker.