BROCKHAMPTON had many commentators scratching their heads when they proclaimed themselves “the best boy band since One Direction”. This seemingly infinite collection of young, upcoming rappers and producers bore more resemblance on a surface level to the Wu-Tang Clan or Odd Future than to Britain & Ireland’s most wildly successful teen phenomenon of the 21st century. Delve deeper, though, and the “boy band” moniker makes a surprising amount of sense. Although frontman Kevin Abstract plays the “Harry Styles” role, being their most recognisable member and commanding his own level of solo fame, no one individual hogs all the attention either on their records or in their marketing. The group was in part formed over the internet, with members like Bearface and Jabari Manwa hailing from as far as Northern Ireland and Grenada. Musically, they effortlessly weave pop hooks and glittering melodies into grittier hip hop and electronic elements. This, combined with a campaigning public image as a group dedicated to the cause of social justice and speaking to the mental health issues of the young, is what makes BROCKHAMPTON a reinvention of the boy band concept for the late 2010s.
It was all the more shocking, then, when founding member Ameer Vann – the face of their breakthrough SATURATION trilogy of albums – saw himself embroiled in a sexual assault scandal not long after the band signed their first major label contract. For a moment, it appeared as if BROCKHAMPTON would be condemned to an untimely public relations death before they could even fully get off the ground. Not so, however. The band swallowed their pride and kicked Vann out – a decision that was emotionally tough, but ultimately necessary for a collective determined to represent progressive values.
Four months later, we see the band execute their rebirth on an album that had been renamed, redesigned, and restarted several times over. The final product has been hyped as a record “written in 10 days at Abbey Road”, but the results certainly don’t seem as if they were a hodge podge effort.
Iridescence is at times an unrelentingly experimental album. Having been compared by the band to Radiohead’s Kid A, their production team seem to have been determined to shake off most of the glimmering sheen and flashy beats of the SATURATION era. Tracks like NEW ORLEANS, BERLIN and J’OUVERT come crashing in with squelchy, hard hitting electronic backdrops. Some have been quick to compare Iridescence to the work of industrial hip hop group Death Grips, but this parallel is only really drawn with Joba’s entrance onto J’OUVERT, where his screamed, pained lyrics are underpinned by a mesmerising bass-heavy drone that seems unlike any material the band has ever produced before. The overwhelming sense is that this is a darker, more mature album than BROCKHAMPTON’s usual fare, which undeniably reflects the emotional state of their members over the past few months.
The darkness of Iridescence is balanced, however, by vulnerability. WEIGHT, perhaps the most heartfelt piece of the record, sees Kevin Abstract nostalgically reflect on the band’s early career (“the old days before the co-signs”), his struggles with confidence (“thinking I’m the worst in the boy band”) and his youth coming to terms with his sexuality. Production-wise, WEIGHT glides from an opening backed by strings and autotuned vocals reminiscent of 808s-era Kanye into a soft drum and bass influenced core. Somehow, the patching together
of these styles is immensely satisfying, and it reveals the depth of talent of BROCKHAMPTON’s production team as well as the skill of their vocalists in being able to bounce over a beat that warps and turns between genres practically at will. A digitised voice calls from the background “do you want to start the game again?” It’s hard not to think that this is a revelation of the collective’s own thoughts, having both lost and gained so much over the past year of their meteoric rise.
HONEY, similarly, flips from a more mesmerising industrial beat in the first half of the track to a second half that samples Beyoncé’s “Dance For You” to create a more cathartic and soothing conclusion. The other sample, of course, is from BROCKHAMPTON themselves. Matt Champion’s hook from SATURATION’s BUMP creeps in slightly distorted. This helps lend to a theory that, while the SATURATION trilogy told a cryptic and complex story that has never been fully revealed by the band, the concept of Iridescence and its upcoming sequels seems to be about the band themselves and their own personal stories. Stitching in lines from a fan favourite song of the previous era feels like a glimpse into a past that now seems so far off, and builds up the impressive atmosphere and mythology of the BROCKHAMPTON discography.
SAN MARCOS – a song named after the Texas town from which several of the group joined together – is one of the few tracks that resembles something of their previous work. A gentle guitar melody underpins the bulk of the song before ascending to a choir crying out “I want more out of life than this”. TONYA, too, trades the harder edged sound of most of the record for a more sincere piano backdrop. Both tracks centre heavily around Bearface. Once upon a time he seemed relegated to playing guitar ballads as the closers of each album, but on Iridescence he takes a more integral role, singing choruses, at times rapping, and becoming a true and crucial member of the group.
Iridescence feels like an album that might not get the full praise it deserves on release. There is a stunning level of emotional vulnerability on this record, and an impressive diversity of styles. It’s almost a wonder that BROCKHAMPTON haven’t yet soared to the very top of hip hop and pop music. But, if there were ever a time for this band to take over, it would be now. Some critics and casual listeners may deride the group for their “boy band” aesthetic and willingness to incorporate pop elements into rap music, but Iridescence is the album that – eventually – will force many to recognise them as the future musical heavyweights that they are. The one thing that does seem certain is that even though there were plenty looking to BROCKHAMPTON and co to see what they did on their first major label album, there will be scores more keeping their eye to see what they do on their next.