The Lowdown: We’re now deep into the heart of hip-hop’s psychedelic era. As modern-day rappers and producers have begun to embrace the use of psilocybin and LSD, the mind-altering effects are starting to bleed into the music. But for the same reason that shrooms are being legalized for therapeutic purposes, these drugs, if taken in the right doses and circumstances, can inspire deep reflection and serious psychological growth.
Not that BROCKHAMPTON needed any help to gaze inwardly. This Texas crew opt for introspection over braggadocio and thoughtfulness over arrogance. But the tone of their sixth full-length and the subject matter within reveals an ensemble trying to make sense of the chaos of the last year on top of trying to understand their place in the larger hip-hop community. It makes for a fascinating tension at the heart of the album, as they bump somewhat awkwardly against the personalities and rhymes of some major names in the rap game and certain members wrestle with some extremely heavy personal issues. And the whole affair is set to rubbery production work that keeps undulating and shape-shifting throughout.
The Good: This is the point in an artist’s trajectory where they take stock of where they’ve been and what that means for their future. That’s why Kevin Abstract has been insisting in recent interviews that BROCKHAMPTON is moving past the “boyband thing” that defined the group early on. But it’s not simply putting aside childish descriptors. The group’s lyrics are marked with poignant turns and heavy subject matter. On the acid rock-soaked “The Light,” Joba spends his verse unpacking his complicated feelings concerning his father’s suicide while Abstract wonders about the strain that fame and his sexuality has put on his relationships with friends and family (“I love the attention, I’m a bastard in public/ I still struggle with tellin’ my mom who I’m in love with”). Dom McLennon and Matt Champion go a similar route over a glowing string section and a ‘70s funk groove, as both worry about how they have yet to forgive themselves for their troubled pasts.
The unpredictable restlessness of the album might be a hard sell for the uninitiated. But, to these ears, it smacks of BROCKHAMPTON’s collective ambitions. According to the group, it took them multiple tries to find the final tracklist of ROADRUNNER… — experimenting with various elements to see which combination was most explosive. And while not perfect, what they landed on is still plenty combustible as the sinister boom bap of posse cut “Windows” makes way for the fizzy soul of “I”ll Take You On” (featuring some mighty testifying by Gap Band vocalist Charlie Wilson) and the steely g-funk of “What’s the Occasion”.
The Bad: Roadrunner is the first BROCKHAMPTON album where the group allowed a small passel of guests to join the fray. It’s the kind of move that usually happens on a debut — bring in a high-profile name to acclimate listeners to a new musical world. That might be the point of pulling in some other rappers here, but these features don’t dovetail into BROCKHAMPTON’s aesthetic that easily. A$AP Ferg’s puffed-up strutting on “Bankroll” (“Know that you envy me, but I am hater-proof/ Talkin’ with Diddy, I made me a milli’ in about a day or two”) mixes poorly with the strange romance of Merlyn Wood’s verse (“Had to break down the Berlin Wall/ Just to come talk to ya/ Who hurt ya? I’ll break his jaw”). Same goes for the thug flexing that Texas rapper SoGone SoFlexy pushes into “Windows”, which chafes against Abstract’s thoughtful take on gun violence later in the album (“Don’t Shoot Up the Party”). Only Danny Brown and JPEGmafia were up to the task of finding the right balance of grounded and fried in their early features.
The Verdict: ROADRUNNER… is precisely the kind of record that we’re going to be hearing a lot over the next year or so — the product of a year and change of reflecting on our lives and our own mental health as we wait for the world to open up. For BROCKHAMPTON, that includes wondering where the group sits within the span of hip-hop history and needing assurance that they belong. Hence, cracking the door open for guests and the Wu-Tang samples and interpolations on this album. Any group slashing out its own path and exploring new ground is liable to have those moments of doubt. BROCKHAMPTON needn’t worry. Throughout ROADRUNNER…, their psychedelic-saturated groupthink frequently coheres into daring and undeniably moving work, smoothing over the rough spots and small stumbles.
Essential Tracks: “The Light”, “Buzzcut” (feat. Danny Brown), and “I’ll Take You On” (feat. Charlie Wilson)
ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE Artwork