Here’s a guide to the prolific 14-strong collective’s most essential tunes
Describing themselves as a “boyband” (and completely obliterating any preconceived notions of what a boyband should be), the Texas-bred, LA-based collective Brockhampton proved to be one of the most important acts of 2017. Tackling race, sexuality, mental health, and masculinity in their music – sometimes in the same song – the group of rappers, singers, producers, and visual artists have solidified their place as the millennial Wu-Tang with their phenomenal Saturation trilogy of albums.
Founded by Kevin Abstract in 2015, Brockhampton’s members mostly hail from across the United States (about half the crew are from Texas, some are from Connecticut, while one member is from Northern Ireland). They met each other online – Abstract posted that he wanted to start a band on a Kanye West fan forum – and together they moved to San Marcos, Texas. Eventually they got fed up with the of the lack of opportunities around them and relocated to Los Angeles in 2016 to foster their boyband dreams. The group sits somewhere between Odd Future and One Direction, perfecting a balance between soft and hard. But unlike the carefully manufactured 1D, they’ve made it a point to express their individuality – and unlike Odd Future, they’re moving together as a cohesive unit.
The collective is made up of 14 members, and in 2017 alone they released 48 songs across three albums (and that’s before taking solo projects, guest verses, productions into account). So it’s obviously quite intimidating for newcomers to enter into their world. Comprising Kevin Abstract, Ameer Vann, Merlyn Wood, Dom McLennon, Matt Champion, Joba, Bearface, Romil, Jabari, Kiko, HK, Ashlan Grey, Robert Ontenient, and Jon Nunes, there’s a lot of Brockhampton to get to grips with.
Each of the vocalists are capable of surprising with their contributions. One song might see vocalist, producer, and engineer Joba turn up sounding like an angel, while another might see him screaming his lyrics in a gruff voice. One track might see Abstract, who primarily sings and raps, take on co-production duties, while another might see the group’s dedicated director of photography Ashlan Grey make a cameo appearance during its bridge. One might include Texan rapper Merlyn Wood with a refrain that’s catchy as hell, while another might feature a rare appearance from enigmatic singer and producer Bearface.
Romil, Jabari, and Kiko act as the group’s three main producers, though Joba and Bearface contribute to their instrumentals too. The final four members of Brockhampton aren’t always involved in the music, but each bring something important to the group regardless: Nunes acts as their in-house manager, Ontenient is their webmaster, Grey their director of photography, and HK their art director. Despite this, none of them have set roles, and it’s just one of the reasons they’ve managed to sound and look so fresh across so much material. They work astonishingly well together, even when they’re all doing something completely different. As Ameer Vann told us when we spoke to the group in 2016, “Everybody’s doing their own thing, but we always come together.”
With their fourth album Team Effort on its way later this year, now’s the perfect time to get familiar. This isn’t necessarily a list of their best songs so far, and there’s plenty more material to dig into beyond these tracks (including the groups’ deep cuts and stellar solo material). Instead, this is an introduction to their versatility and variety, and a starting point to discover what makes Brockhampton so special.
Saturation III’s opening track is the perfect introduction to what each Brockhampton vocalist (minus Bearface) brings to the table. With its insane, high-spirited production and undeniable energy, “Boogie” is Brockhampton at their most fun. It’s all attitude – Joba comes through with an unpredictable and volatile appearance, while Ameer Vann confidently delivers some of their smoothest bars, showing the group’s remarkable chemistry and just how well they play off each other.
The opening verse on this alone makes it one of 2017’s most essential rap songs. Kevin Abstract’s astonishing verse – “I told my mom I was gay, why the fuck she ain’t listen” – is unapologetic, and he delivers each line with the force of a jackhammer. Each member subsequently builds on Abstract’s momentum by addressing their own struggles and demons with zero sugar-coating. Matt Champion tackles rape culture, Merlyn Wood the pressures of further education, and Ameer Vann the perils of self-medication. It’s not their easiest to digest, but it is their most impactful.
Playing tug-of-war with the bouncy Jabari production, Dom McLennon, Ameer Vann, and Kevin Abstract attempt to outdo each other on “Star” with no clear winner. Dom namedrops horror legends Bruce Campbell and Gunnar Hansen, while Ameer compares himself to Secret Agent Cody Banks. Kevin, closing out the song, raps about sucking dick with one of the hardest bars of 2017.
A change of pace from the previous songs in this list, “Bleach” is one of the few songs to feature a vocalist from outside of the group. Former YouTuber and Radio Disney alumnus Ryan Beatty handles the gorgeous hook on this one, setting a forlorn feel. It’s a heartbreaking song that sees each member looking inward, analysing their past in excruciating detail. Bearface provides the stunning outro to this coming-of-age tale.
From one of their prettiest hooks to one of their catchiest, “Sweet” opens with the voice of Matt Champion, who effortlessly raps about his restless brain. Kevin Abstract then brings things into focus with his hypnotic, earworming hook. Dom McLennon raises the energy immediately, paving the way for Merlyn Wood’s bombastic introduction: “DON’T CALL ME STUPID, THAT AIN’T THE WAY MY NAME PRONOUNCED.” Joba, making a case for his skills as a rapper as well as a singer, completely steals the show with his frenetic delivery closing the song. It’s one of the biggest sleeper hits in Brockhampton’s discography.
“Gold” is, if you’re going by YouTube streams, Brockhampton’s most popular song. It’s certainly the most accessible single they’ve released so far. Produced by Q3 (aka Jabari and Kiko), the beat sounds like modern-day N.E.R.D., a mesmerising lead melody underscored by a truly bizarre backing track. Each member does a lot to contribute to that feel with their impeccable verses, creating the type of rap track that’ll make you wanna dance.
One of the few tracks across all three Saturation albums to really showcase Matt Champion’s gentle and gorgeous singing voice, “Rental” sees each of Brockhampton’s members (Joba in particular) have a few surprises up each of their sleeves. Champion carries the stunning song, which is another example of just how much these guys love to switch it up – just when you think you’ve got one of the members figured out, they’ll flip your expectations on the next song. Case in point: previous album track “Sister / Nation” sees Champion in rapidfire form, but when it flows into “Rental” he sounds like a completely different artist. Better yet, he’s just as good at both approaches.
Brockhampton’s members are mostly at an awkward, transitory age before it’s time to become an adult for real. It’s a scary feeling, and “Milk” captures that anxiety perfectly. Discussing the feelings that come with that age, it’s a song about looking toward a brighter future without forgetting the past. “I gotta get better at being me,” Kevin sings on the chorus. Dom’s bare bones outro is both inspiring and heart rending, but nothing hits quite as hard as Merlyn Wood’s opening line: “Hi, my name is Merlyn, I just applied for food stamps.”
It doesn’t get a lot of love from Brockhampton’s diehard fanbase, but “Gamba” is the heart of Saturation II. Singing about the unexpected nature of love, “Gamba” sees Kevin Abstract, Dom McLennon, and Bearface filled with nervous feelings of love. They take it in turns to express their desires, fears, and frustrations: “I would take my heart right off the hook for you,” McLennon sings in the opening verse. “If I had to choose I would not choose you,” Abstract expresses on the second. It doesn’t make those confusing feelings any easier to comprehend – but it does offer comfort to those experiencing it firsthand.
“Lamb” unfortunately didn’t show up on any of the three Saturation albums, but it did make the number one spot on our best songs of 2017 list. Offering a burst of sunshine and basically just sounding cute as hell, it’s a beautiful tribute to friendship. The video only compliments the track further, with webmaster and designated mascot Robert starting things off adorably: “My name is Roberto, and this is my family.” A pure and positive sentiment in the face of an increasingly dark world.
While All-American Trash has a few standout moments, it’s essentially a beta run of what Brockhampton would go on to be. “Palace”, however, is the a real highlight from the mixtape, not just promising potential but totally delivering on it. It’s a tender, gorgeously composed track that sees Matt Champion, Joba, and Bearface effortlessly blend together. (Fuck that iPhone noise, though.)
The best album in the Saturation trilogy also has the best closer, flipping the usual idea of a solo track from Bearface on its head. It fakes out as it approaches its climax, allowing the rest of the group to offer a gritty epilogue that juxtaposes the tragic love story that makes up the meat of the track. It’s a fitting end for Saturation III, offering up the extremes of both of Brockhampton’s sides at once.
The disruptive “Heat” is a nice follow-up to “Team”. Where the latter track closed their Saturation III album, this one opens the first Saturation. By taking things back to where they started in 2017 you get a clear perspective of how special the group are when they work as a cohesive unit.
Listen to this as a playlist on Spotify