Brockhampton’s Rise Almost Broke Them. Now, They’re (Hopefully) Stronger Than Ever

From the beginning, Brockhampton had an ending in mind. It’s unconventional — and slightly macabre — for a boy band to have their breakup planned out in advance, but knowing when to bow out always seemed smarter than imploding.

“We’ve talked about it since before we even put out Saturation 1,” Kevin Abstract, the group’s leader, says. “We’ve always known we didn’t want to do this forever as a group. So it’s like, let’s make the best of this opportunity and this moment. See how much of an impact we can leave before we hit that last album.”

Ginger, which comes out on August 23rd, is Brockhampton’s fifth album — it isn’t going to be their last. They’ve been working on the follow-up to 2018’s Iridescence at their spacious, cluttered Beverly Hills house that serves as the group’s creative hub. By their estimation, it’s been their headquarters since late last year, after the conclusion of their I’ll Be There tour. It’s a world away from the South Central house where they came of age in 2017.

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In only a few short years, Brockhampton’s ascent has given rise to an origin story seemingly engineered to concoct a new set of cliché teen fantasies for the 2010s. A group of outcasts find each other on a Kanye West fan forum and drop everything to move in together in Texas, before picking up and moving to Los Angeles. They start making R&B-inflected rap music, and movies, and merch; release three intensely personal and occasionally beautiful albums, each called Saturation; attract an obsessive fanbase, filled with young people who flock to the anarchic energy of the collective. They start touring, and their shows take on a mythic quality. Eventually, they get a record deal; in this case, it was for $15 million with RCA.

Brockhampton no longer live together. While their initial chemistry was fueled by the devil-may-care dropping of everything to move in with friends they met on the internet, the group now arrives to their headquarters in waves. Jabari, one of the group’s producers, disembarks from a ride-share; singer-songwriter Joba simply appears and ascends the steps soon after that, and sonic architect Romil Hemani whips a Tesla into the driveway. “In some ways, it’s changed for the better,” he says of the newfound living situation. “It’s something you have to adapt to.”

Once they all arrive, the many men of Brockhampton sit around a patio table as Jagged Edge’s “Let’s Get Married” blasts from a distant bedroom. Despite the quick ascent, it’s clear the many members of Brockhampton — Kevin Abstract, Matt Champion, Dom McLennon, Merlyn Wood, Joba, Bearface, Romil Hemnani, Jabari Manwa, Kiko Merley, Robert Ontenient, Henock “HK” Sileshi, Ashlan Grey, Jon Nunes — enjoy nothing more than hanging out with each other. Quickly, conversation turns to what’s been trying for the group in the past year. Once you get famous, it turns out, your problems don’t disappear. The group has found that much of what made them a productive, manic, and beloved group was eventually going to break them. The brutal creative benders that birthed the Saturation trilogy in a single year were simply not sustainable. They hit a wall.

“I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t sleeping. I was like a fucking robot,” Romil, the group’s producer says. “I bought a bunch of Soylent. I wouldn’t leave my house. I wouldn’t leave my room. I wake up and I sit at my computer until I literally fall asleep in the chair. And just do it over and over again. I came to a point where I was like, it’s cool to take care of yourself, it’s okay to be a normal person, be healthy for a day.”

“I got burnt out for the first time in my life,” Joba says. “I had an identity crisis. If I’m not in the studio, working or writing, or playing an instrument, I didn’t know how to exist. There was a block within my mind. It was my goal to understand.”

Brockhampton at Governors Ball 2019. Photo by Griffin Lotz

So, they began to get their own apartments, and slow down the days-long marathon sessions of writing and recording. It’s not the same energy, but it’s more sustainable. You have to move out of the dorms eventually. And, it turned out, you can still be close with people even if you all don’t live together.

“They’re like this ideal band,” says Deb Never, a singer featured on “NO HALO,” the group’s final single before the release of Ginger. She saw Brockhampton’s intimacy firsthand after Bearface, one of the group’s vocalists, contacted her on Twitter to collaborate. “I was nervous the first time I went over to their house,” she says. “I wasn’t really sure. I could tell they were close before meeting them, just because I feel like they have such a chemistry online and in videos… It’s like watching a beehive. Everybody has their job and understands how they work. There’s such an interconnection and synergy that happens when they’re all working together.”

Recently, Abstract went to play Rick Rubin Ginger. “It kind of felt emotional, not so much like a party,” Rubin told him. From there, the group recalibrated and “changed the direction of the album” at Rubin’s studio. “Now it feels more like a party, but still emotional at the core. I think I was just caught up in what I wanted it to be, but also lost within what I was making,” Abstract says.

New songs like “I Been Born Again” and “If You Pray Right” are nearly devoid of the melody, an approach the group honed on the Saturation trilogy. The beats are sparse, the lyrics dense, and the camaraderie on full display. It’s a return to a more innocent era, one that ushered thousands of kids through early-adolescence even as the group stare down their early-to-mid-20s.

It’s a marked difference from the tone of their last album, which was made while Brockhampton was in disarray. In May 2018, Ameer Vann — one of the group’s most popular members and the face of the Saturation trilogy’s album covers — was accused of sexual misconduct and abuse by various women. A few weeks later, Brockhampton released an announcement that Vann was no longer part of the group, along with an apology.

Made in the wake of the allegations and the group’s response, Iridescence was part apology, part roadmap for moving forward. Lyrics about betrayal, sexual identity, disillusionment, and heartache crashed into production that altered between unencumbered brashness and delicate melodies. They experimented with choirs and drum’n’bass. It was their most ambitious project to date. Upon its release, Iridescence sold 101,000 units, and received near-universal critical acclaim. When you Brockhampton about the reception to the project, though, a pause lingers as the group glances at each other.

“If I’m being honest, I was disappointed, because I thought our audience would’ve been more stoked on it,” Abstract says. “Critics liked it, it seemed, and then when we went and did the shows, people weren’t really responding to the music as well as they did to Saturation stuff, because I think it wasn’t as immediate or sticky… I’ve grown to love the album a lot. It’s one of my favorite things we’ve made.”

“It was kind of like, one giant group therapy session almost, in a weird way. Just like he said, a purge, [you] have to hit a reset button,” Romil says.

“What does purge mean?” Abstract asks.

“Just getting rid of a bunch of shit,” Romil answers.

“It’s cool to take care of yourself, it’s okay to be a normal person, be healthy for a day.”

Brockhampton’s music has long relied on a radical honesty to connect with their fans, but the group’s leader has lately been taking the concept as far as he can. In May, Abstract released a recording of himself, saying “I’m currently writing music, and songs and albums from hell. Saturation 1, 2 and 3, was my moment of catching magic… I have to release music not from joy but from obligation, which will cause messy, unfinished work,” according to Stereogum. Naturally, fans took that to mean Abstract was unhappy with his major label deal, and the pressures it came with. On Ginger’s “Boy Bye,” Abstract tries to clear the air about the incident, rapping “Put it in the vacuum, I got love for my label / 15 million on the table, none of my niggas are stable.”

“I just saw it as like, the industry and how hard it is to meet genuine people in the industry,” Abstract elaborates. “Not necessarily connected to a signing. I don’t think about us signing as much. I want to clear this up, but I don’t want to go into detail about anything else after I clear it up. I just want to say that voice memo thing I put out online wasn’t about us feeling boxed in by signing.”

“There’s no issue with our record label. It’s just like, I don’t want to say anything. Cause anything I say it seems like I’m a having a fucking meltdown or like, yeah, I don’t know,” he continues. “I feel I’m starting to come to terms with my trauma and face it, and it makes it hard to make music. That has nothing to do with signing a record deal.”

Photo by Ashlan

Abstract’s recent work is defined by turmoil. Released in the form of three EPs throughout April, Arizona Baby is an at-times claustrophobic listen, an extremely personal expulsion of angst and regret. “With my solo work I’m trying to survive, especially with that record,”he says. “I was just trying to make something that could help me get through my shit.” Abstract’s parents, sister, Ameer Vaan, and members of Brockhampton are all referenced.

“I have these conversations through song, and I haven’t had these conversations directly with my family members,” he says. “Early on, people I talked to and people that uplifted me and helped me out as I was coming up, I feel a lot of guilt towards them, because I don’t talk to them anymore. There’s stuff I want to say, but I feel like I can’t say it and I’m really trying to get past that part… For some reason it’s just easier for me to talk about it through my work.”

For all their success, Brockhampton has yet to pass the traditional borders of mainstream success. While they’re streaming juggernauts, Brockhampton songs aren’t often in rotation at radio stations or sitting on the top of the charts. In late April, Kevin admitted on Twitter he wasn’t “tripping bout streams or sales” for Arizona Baby like he had after releasing Iridescence.

“Some stuff I feel like you just can’t control. I don’t know what makes a song connect anymore, and I don’t think people really know,” Abstract says. “Our album is very summery right now. Even though it’s maybe rooted in sadness, the goal is to make it feel right and to uplift and to help people get through.”

There’s a lingering question of whether the group’s fans — young and enthusiastic — are ready to grow up as Brockhampton does. “Even though it’s not been that much time, I can sort of feel people growing apart,” Dom McLennon says of their fans. “And that’s not a bad thing either, because that just means that we served our purpose for whatever it was for that moment in their life.”

Before leaving, Brockhampton talk about what they still have to achieve as a group.

“I think what would make me happy is just seeing all these guys and everybody find their peace, find their center more than anything else,” HK says, with a disarming earnestness. “I’d rather a good foundation and everything and everybody that believes in me and the people that love me and the people I love. Just be the person that they see in their head.”

It’s a beautiful sentiment, I tell him, but a hard one to achieve.

“I think it’s harder than getting a number one single or a number one album,” HK replies. “I’d rather see that and that get fulfilled more than anything else.”

The members of Brockhampton nod and interject in agreement.

Do you guys feel close to that?

“Hell no,” Abstract says. “Personally, no. I don’t know. I find me even searching for that right now, though. I just want to make shit. That’s all I know. Whenever I get like this, just make stuff.”

Photo by Ashlan

There are limits to self-care and sacrifices that supercede self-preservation. During the second verse of “Corpus Christi,” a song on Arizona Baby, Abstract raps, “At what point do I do it for myself, instead of thinkin’ ’bout the set?” It’s a brutally honest admission, and a legitimate concern. Historically, boy bands aren’t breeding grounds for eternal camaraderie.

“We’re stronger as a group,” Abstract says. “And my selfish thoughts are never the thoughts that help me fully in the long run, I’ve learned. I think my purpose now is just to be there and be a strong leader and be there for my friends. I think that’s what I’m supposed to be doing right now.”

“I’ll think about myself once we’re done with this. Because this is not something that’s supposed to last us the rest of our lives. This is a short thing. We know how many more albums we want to put out. We know when it’s supposed to end.”

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