Every Brockhampton album has felt like it might be their last. From the moment they emerged in the mid-2010s, the LA-based boyband have always flirted with destruction, and their presence on the very edge of implosion is what’s given their music its life and energy.
According to bandleader Kevin Abstract, sixth album ‘Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine’ will be the first of two albums the band release in 2021, which will also be their final records. While the statement can and should be taken with a pinch of salt due to past claims along these lines (promo material around 2017’s ‘Saturation III’ touted it as “the last studio album by Brockhampton”), it’s proof that uncertainty still runs rife within the collective.
The band’s first few years felt like a rollercoaster, yet one they were in control of, driving the intensity of their every move themselves. Across 2017, they released a trilogy of furious, fantastic albums under the ‘Saturation’ title, hitting UK shores the following summer with the momentum of one the most exciting act in the world at the time, shaking London’s old KOKO venue to its foundations and pulling awe-inspiring crowds at both Reading and Leeds Festivals.
By the time they landed in the UK, though, they were without founding member Ameer Vann, who had been kicked out of the band following sexual abuse allegations. The fury and disillusionment of the fallout was distilled on fourth album ‘iridescence’, recorded in a short and sharp burst at Abbey Road Studios just weeks after those Reading & Leeds performances.
The feeling of wariness and lack of control persisted on 2019 follow-up ‘Ginger’, before that album’s unofficial mentor Shia LaBeouf – who Brockhampton called their “idol and inspiration” in an NME cover feature around the release of ‘Ginger’ – was also hit with abuse allegations by FKA twigs. It seemed like Brockhampton couldn’t stop themselves from turning into trouble, that self-driven rollercoaster fast turning into a runaway train that they’re desperately trying to control.
Abstract has said that he’s “tired of this boyband thing” and wants to ditch the label that has defined the band since their emergence. The hyper-specificity of the package Brockhampton arrived in half a decade ago – a self-styled boyband who lived and created together under one roof in intense, fruitful bursts – was what made them such a riveting prospect at the outset, but equally shouldn’t be one they have to be bound to for their entire career.
While the ‘Saturation’ trilogy was defined by its playfulness and fun nature, every Brockhampton album since has been infused with a deep darkness brought on by personal circumstance. This disorientation continues in earnest on ‘Roadrunner’, with band member Joba using psychedelic album highlight ‘The Light’ to muse on his father’s death by suicide. “Felt numb since September when I heard the news, what I’d do to speak one last time,” he raps over classic rock guitar licks, saying he’s “haunted by the image of a bloody backdrop, skull fragments in the ceiling.”
Even on the album’s lighter musical moments – ‘Count On Me’ is a summer hit purpose-built for road trips, complete with a whistled melody, while ‘Old News’ also has a light, airy quality – every note of ‘Roadrunner’ is imbued with a deep melancholy. While it might not provide the same hit as the jubilant likes of early hits ‘Boogie’ and ‘Gold’, Brockhampton are still masters of tapping into a mood, and it’s an immersive trip as a result.
Amid this inner turmoil, the album’s guests prove a welcome aside. While previous Brockhampton albums have brought in a smattering of outside collaborators, ‘Roadrunner’ brings in a host of featured vocalists outside the collective for the first time, and it’s a change in approach that suits them well.
Opener ‘Buzzcut’ sees Danny Brown doing what Danny Brown does so well, bringing untameable, frenetic energy. Elsewhere, JPEGMAFIA raps of Dua Lipa, Duolingo, Vine and beyond on the welcome respite of ‘Chain On’, and A$AP Rocky adds new textures to the chorus of ‘Bankroll’. Joba’s deep trauma – the album’s emotional crux – is tackled again on a sequel to ‘The Light’ that closes the record. “The light is worth the wait, I promise,” he sings, approaching some form of resolution to his pain: “Even though I’m mad, even though you’re gone, you live on / And the day I have kids, I’ll tell ’em ’bout Grandpa and how great he is.”
No longer a boyband freewheeling around south Los Angeles with the world at their feet, Brockhampton now represents something entirely different, whether or not they’re entering their last year as a band, as they say.
While ‘Roadrunner’ doesn’t provide party-starting hits tailor-made for when the clubs re-open, Brockhampton remains a vehicle for its sprawling cast of members to interrogate and overcome their darkest thoughts as one, and it’s a welcome reminder that you can tackle anything if you do it together.
Release date: April 9
Record label: Question Everything/RCA