Album Review: Brockhampton - 'Iridescence'

“The world’s greatest boy band” Brockhampton returned in September with their first album since signing to a major label (RCA) at the end of March this year. The young California-based hip-hop collective exploded onto the scene in 2017 with three superb albums as part of their ‘SATURATION’ trilogy and really seemed to be the next big act in hip-hop. On each of these albums, they showed they had great chemistry, song writing ability, an ear for ingenious production and were capable of standout individual performances and some seriously catchy hooks. However, it seems a new year has brought us a new Brockhampton; not necessarily in terms of the quality of their music but more in an emotional and psychological sense.

In the past year and a half, Brockhampton have gone from being a promising, slightly under the radar independent hip-hop group to gaining a multi-million record deal, selling out international shows and getting top billing at festivals and on late night TV appearances. It’s perhaps unsurprising then, that this album deals in most part with how the group has dealt with this new-found fame and fortune, that has hit them at such a speed. Indeed, it seems ‘Iridescence’ displays the group’s members at their most vulnerable, as they struggle with the pressures of the media and public expectation, as well as difficult personal relationships and mental health issues.

Closing track “FABRIC” takes a stab at the press and also the group’s fanbase for the incredible weight of expectation and a focus on negative circumstances instead of the group’s achievements. Tracks like “SAN MARCOS” even yearn for their simpler days when they were just starting out in San Marcos, Texas, beginning to make a name for themselves. This idea is perhaps most poignantly developed on the track “WEIGHT”, as frontman Kevin Abstract addresses the difficulty of keeping in touch with family, the pressures of a heavy touring schedule, concerns over his own self-worth in the group and concerns over his bandmates’ mental health, especially self-harm. He also touches again on his struggle with his homosexuality.

Brockhampton have covered darker emotional subjects before (see “BLEACH” or “JUNKY” to name just a couple) but on ‘Iridescence’ these issues seem to be widespread and central to the album’s narrative. Opening track “NEW ORLEANS” sets up a façade of confidence and braggadocio but flows straight into the second track “THUG LIFE”, which ironically exposes the band members’ deep mental battle through a wonderful verse from Dom McLennon who elaborates that “the biggest threat I’m up against is who I face in my reflection” and that “depression [is] still an uninvited guest”. These themes continue throughout the album as Joba addresses his depression and substance abuse on “WEIGHT” and “DISTRICT” whilst Matt Champion details his personal insecurity on “TAPE”.

Another key issue seems to be trust, and how the group’s personal relationships have evolved since their rise to fame. This is particularly relevant given the departure of Ameer Vann from the group in May this year, after allegations of sexual misconduct and emotional abuse in past relationships came to light. Whilst Vann’s absence isn’t instantly felt through the sound of the album, it’s clear that these revelations and his departure had a strong impact on the rest of the group. Several tracks do give off a sense of betrayal and mistrust; interlude “LOOPHOLE” discusses two-faced friends only attracted by fame and “TONYA” holds certain significance for being the first track the group performed without Vann. Indeed, Dom McLennon’s verse describes him being “a victim of Stockholm [Syndrome] in [his] friendships and family”, clearly displaying how his perception of such relationships has changed.

In the build up to the release of ‘Iridescence’, it was announced that it would be the first in a new trilogy of albums entitled ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’. As such it perhaps isn’t fair to make comparisons with the ‘Saturation’ trilogy. Nonetheless, the changes in the style of production on this new release are striking and certainly reflect the heavier emotional tone of the album. As previously mentioned, the ‘Saturation’ trio did have darker moments, but for the most part the production remained very bright and imaginative incorporating interesting samples and instrumental choices.

Think of the use of a latin jazz type of rhythm on “ZIPPER”, the jazzy trumpets on “JOHNNY” or Bearface’s emotional guitar ballads that close out each album. Right from the start, the production on ‘Iridescence’ is much darker and grittier with harder beats and more experimental use of synths and the like. For the most part, this is in no way a negative point. Whilst there are few catchy hooks on the record, the rough, distorted beats on “BERLIN” and “DISTRICT” for example really work and fit the mood of the song; and “J’OUVERT” stands out as the ‘banger’ of the album with its murky, nocturnal vibes. In addition, the increased use of pretty string arrangements on tracks such as “TAPE” effectively add extra emotional weight.

In terms of actual criticisms, the production on “NEW ORLEANS” does get a little bit stale and could have done with a change up in pace or style. However, as it is the opener to the album, it’s understandable the group would want to play it fairly simple, and the way it flows into “THUG LIFE” does make up for that. Apart from this, the instrumentals on “WHERE THE CASH AT” and “HONEY” are personally, just slightly off for some reason. This may be because the minimal throbbing beat on the former doesn’t quite match Merlyn’s excellent high-energy performance and as such the whole track feels a bit unbalanced. Similarly, on “HONEY” the main beat laid out just feels a bit too simple, Kevin Abstract’s slow drawl of a delivery on the intro doesn’t work personally, and Merlyn’s high-pitched Autotuned verse completely clashes in tone with the rest of the track.

One final point needs to be made on the individual performances within the group and how Brockhampton have found a new kind of balance with the departure of Ameer. Indeed, it seems Kevin and Merlyn’s presence has been more limited, so that whilst they still deliver several decent verses, they appear more frequently on choruses and let other members take centre stage. Bearface for example is far more prominent, contributing the same vocals he has on previous releases but also being allowed to rap more frequently. As has been mentioned, Dom regularly contributes excellent verses and performances, and Matt Champion continues to prove he could the most underrated member of the group, with displays on tracks such as “VIVID” really standing out. Nonetheless, the star of this album has to be Joba, who steals the show on almost every track he’s featured on. His delivery is more powerful and impassioned than I’ve ever heard before (see “NEW ORLEANS”, “DISTRICT” and “J’OUVERT”) but he also shows great versatility and singing ability on tracks such as “BERLIN” and “WEIGHT”. It seems that in this new cycle for the group, each member can truly reach their full potential.

To conclude then, it is fair to say that we should probably expect an entirely new take on the Brockhampton sound with this new ‘Best Years of Our Lives’ trilogy. The group have made a statement of intent with ‘Iridescence’, an album which continues to show the musical creativity and lyrical maturity that made the ‘Saturation’ trio such a success. However, as the group learn how to deal with fame and how it clearly amplifies emotional instability, this new set of albums could continue to take a much darker turn. ‘Iridescence’ certainly has its flaws, but it remains a solid addition to the Brockhampton discography and an intriguing preview of the direction in which the group may be heading.

Listen to the full album here.

Cover art by Ian Simpson (Kevin Abstract), Ashlan Grey, George Muncey and Henock Sileshi.

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