Content warning: suicide
Since their arrival midway through the last decade, Brockhampton has been defined by chaos. The group’s dynamic DIY collaborative ethos has resulted in a flurry of albums that are as erratic and disjointed as they are exciting. On the group’s new LP Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine, the daring hip-hop collective are reunited once more, searching for hope in the face of darkness and personal tragedy.
Brockhampton’s rapid progression — from a string of versatile releases (the high-energy Saturation trilogy) to more scattershot projects (Iridescence and Ginger) — has made it clear that they are unafraid of change. Roadrunner points them towards the sunset, the first of two albums to be released in 2021, billed as the group’s final releases according to de-facto leader Kevin Abstract. Leading up to the album’s release, Abstract admitted that this is the first Brockhampton album where he grew “really tired of the whole boyband thing.” Though they initially set out to redefine the label, Brockhampton seems ready to break free of it altogether.
There’s an air of seriousness surrounding Roadrunner; the album highlights newfound hope emerging from grief as the members of Brockhampton, each processing their own inner turmoil, bounce off one another. “The Light”and “The Light Pt. II,” two of the group’s most important musical statements to date, are full of emotional weight, featuring meditations by founding member Joba on his father’s death by suicide — a loss which hovers over the album like a spectre — and an exploration by Abstract of legacy, identity and his relationship with his mother.
At other turns, the group comes the closest they ever have to sounding like a traditional boy band. “Count On Me” is straight-up pop-rap, featuring backing vocals from pop singers Shawn Mendes and Ryan Beatty. Other tracks such as the Charlie Wilson-assisted “I’ll Take You On” and “Old News” are more casual pop/R&B numbers with Backstreet Boys-type harmonies, a smoother but less-interesting direction that offers lighter moments to assist with the album’s flow.
The list of featured guests on Roadrunner may initially scan as the album’s selling points, yet these moments also feel the least like Brockhampton. “Buzzcut” kicks off the record with a relentless burst of sirens and a hard-hitting beat, but is only truly made memorable thanks to an electrifying performance from Danny Brown. Similarly, JPEGMAFIA does the heavy lifting on “Chain On,” throwing out effortlessly impressive bars which name check Dua Lipa to Duolingo, but essentially renders contributions from Abstract and Dom McLemmon as features on a JPEGMAFIA song. A$AP MOB members Ferg and Rocky take over “Bankroll,” each guest dominating their verses shared with Brockhampton’s Merlyn Wood. Relegated to one or two members at a time bringing small parts to the table, the album is at its most lacking in spots where there’s not enough Brockhampton to be found.
It turns out the quality of the group’s sound is largely a matter of participation. A backing string section and the combined efforts of multiple Brockhampton members instill the album’s sunniest moment “When I Ball” with genuine feelings of gratitude and optimism. Equally successful is “Dear Lord,” a gentle gospel hymn led by Bearface, accompanied in prayer by the rest of Brockhampton near the album’s end. G-funk influences permeate the infectious romp of highlight “Don’t Shoot Up The Party” as the lively, chanted hook against gun violence and everyday paranoia is radically repurposed to serve as a dance floor anthem.
Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine is a marker of the group’s growth, and at its best highlights the power of their synchronized efforts in new ways. The experiment that is Brockhampton, emphasizing individuality and creative freedom among a diverse group of musicians with diverse ambitions, is a highly unpredictable, unsustainable bag. The penultimate album from the best boy-band since One Direction produces sometimes exciting results, but doubles as a reminder that things very well might be coming to an end.
Vincent Tran covers music. Contact him at [email protected].