What does the future look like? Is it bleak and dystopian, monochromatic and dull like a grim Black Mirror episode? Or is it colorful and vibrant, a place and time where people are free to express themselves?
It’s a difficult question to answer, especially in music: Writers, marketers, and record company executives are always looking for “the next big thing,” or maybe just the next great band. Today we thankfully don’t have to look very far. The future of American pop music is here, and it is Brockhampton.
It is, at first glance, a hip-hop collective, seemingly like the Wu-Tang Clan or Odd Future, but the members of Brockhampton have always insisted they're a boy band, like *Nsync or One Direction. Unlike those groups, they are not supported by heaps of major-label cash; they release all of their material, from albums and videos to merch, themselves, working from a house in Los Angeles they call "The Factory."
There's a total of 15 members hailing from wide-ranging locations — Texas, Florida, Connecticut, even Northern Ireland — and highly diverse racial backgrounds, from black and white to Hispanic and Asian. There are the performers: the off-the-wall, stylish Merlyn Wood, Dom McLennon, and Russell “Joba” Boring, alongside the more measured cool of Ameer Vann and Matt Champion. There are the producers, There are the producers: Jabari Manwa and Kiko Merley, who form the duo Q3, and Romil Hemnani, who sees Zayn Malik as a South Asian musical role model. There’s the art team: Ashlan Grey and HK Sileshi, who design the group’s spare, beautiful album packaging and film their slick, guerrilla-style music videos. And there’s Robert Ontinient, a Cuban-American web developer from Miami who has become the unlikely mascot, appearing in all of the group’s videos and album skits to deliver ominous messages en español: “Me llamo Roberto, y esta es mi cadena.” “Me llamo Roberto, y acabamos de robar un banco.” “Me llamo Roberto, y me gusta bailar.”
Everyone involved in the creative process, from the rappers to the producers to even the graphic designers, is considered a part of Brockhampton. Every member, no matter how seemingly minor, can be seen in the group's videos, in which they party, dress in wild DIY costumes, and ride around L.A. causing mischief. Yet out of all of the boys, one towers above the rest in significance: the group’s leader, Kevin Abstract, birth name Ian Simpson. He originally convened the group in 2010 by posting on the rap forum now known as KanyeToThe and has led it through changes in name, personnel, and creative direction to what it is today. He released a solo album, American Boyfriend, near the end of 2016, and featured the full band on a subsequent tour. He prefers not to talk about his past and his family life (he has admitted to being raised Mormon).
But most crucial of all, Kevin is proudly and vocally gay. He raps about boyfriends the way straight male rappers discuss their female relations. He declares, “I’m a faggot, I say it/I scream that shit like I mean it.” He is the latest, boldest queer voice, hot on the heels of Frank Ocean and Tyler the Creator, in a genre that has been historically inhospitable to LGBT voices. “Why you always rap about being gay?” he says on “Junky.” He answers matter-of-factly: “'Cause not enough niggas rap and be gay.”
Of course, the group’s debt to Ocean and Tyler goes beyond a mutual queerness. Their Saturation trilogy of albums, released throughout 2017, sounds as though Brockhampton looked at the collective output and influences of both of those artists and found a way to enhance it, polish it, and make it their own; the intensity of “Heat” mirrors that of early Odd Future tracks; “Swamp” is anchored by a spacey synth line that recalls both G-funk and N.E.R.D.; and a direct line can be drawn from Ocean’s Blonde to the lo-fi, summery guitar work and heartthrob crooning of singer Ciaran “Bearface” McDonald on “Summer” and “Waste.”
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Yet as much they wear their influences on their sleeves, so much of Brockhampton's production and lyrical content remains unique to their experience. There is a certain millennial anxiety present in many of their songs. Worries about purpose and belonging haunt their albums just as readily as themes of love and loneliness and standard hip-hop boasts. On Saturation, you’ll find Merlyn rap about feeling isolated by the college experience —“Walking 'round campus and you the only African/Nobody with passion, just cats that take direction well” — just a few songs away from amazing hooks such as the one on “Gold”: “Keep a gold chain on my neck/Fly as a jet/Boy better treat me with respect.”
All of this has ensured Brockhampton's imminent success after a meteoric rise in 2017. In little over a year, they’ve released three albums, more than a dozen videos, a making-of documentary, and a Viceland TV show. Their last record, Saturation III, reached number 15 on the Billboard 200, largely on its own hype. They’ve already announced their next album, Team Effort, and are on a massive tour that includes major festivals such as Bonnaroo and Coachella.
It’s difficult to know what the next big thing is, but this much is clear: In their diversity, independence, and fierce control of their group's image, the members of Brockhampton represent no less than the total future of American pop music.
Brockhampton. 8 p.m. Thursday, January 25, at Revolution Live, 100 SW Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-449-1025; jointherevolution.net. Tickets are sold out.