When Brockhampton exploded onto the scene in 2017 with no less than three full length albums, their Saturation Trilogy, the group quickly established a reputation with their huge lineup of members and their resulting eclectic, genre-hopping style. Few rap groups have ever sounded so experimental and yet so consistently fun. However, the group hit a speed bump in the form of the exit of one of their most prominent members, Ameer Vann, due to his alleged violent behaviour. The group tried to recapture the energetic and aggressive sound without him on Iridescence, but it just wasn’t the same. Moreover, his departure and the circumstances leading up to it had wounded the group’s cohesion. The air needed to be cleared, leading to Ginger, the group’s best and most polarising record, at times sounding less like a rap album and more like an act of group therapy as the remaining members and some new additions got some stuff off their chests.
As an act of exorcism of feelings of hurt and betrayal, the record was a masterpiece, but it disappointed many fans who had been brought on by fun, hard-hitting songs like “FACE”, “GOLD” and “CASH”, and with the group announcing that they would soon be retiring the project after just another couple of albums, the future didn’t look too bright for Brockhampton. That portent however has been decisively disproven with the release of their sixth album Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine, a project that with its very title promised to see Brockhampton return stronger than ever.
Roadrunner is simultaneously the group’s most varied, and yet most consistent and cohesive album to date. This is accomplished through the album’s pace and structure, much like another of 2021’s best rap releases, Slowthai’s Tyron, opening with a run of hard hitting and aggressive tracks (both Tyron and Roadrunner achieve this with the help of an A$AP Rocky feature), before graduating into more personal, sentimental and melodic territory. Hints of this latter mode are lain from the beginning with many earlier tracks mirroring this structure, coming with extended psychedelic outros, gently dissipating the bouncy energy they built up across their durations.
The album rollout begins with its opening track, and one of the best singles of 2021 in “Buzzcut”. The song opens with one of Kevin Abstract’s most aggressive verses, only for featured artist Danny Brown to jump on and take the energy even higher with his typically demented squeaky delivery. The instrumental is fantastically layered and energised, with police sirens and breakdowns, finally resolving with the first of those extended psych passages. It’s a hard-hitting adrenaline shot to kick the album off with a highball.
Like some other tracks here, the following track “Chain On” featuring JPEGMAFIA was released in a different form last year as part of Brockhampton’s Technical Difficulties series. The latter part of the track is used to transition into a variety of ‘90s hip hop samples, of which the sole remainder is an excerpt from Wu-Tang Clan’s often sampled classic “C.R.E.A.M.”. The rising synth arpeggios on the bass heavy beat make an infectious hook and JPEGMAFIA gives a typically slick performance on his verse.
“Count On Me” struck me as a fairly mild single when I first heard it, but used as it is on the album, it sounds a lot better. A Brockhampton song really may be the only place you might hear Shawn Mendes, A$AP Rocky and SoGoneSoFlexy all on the same track and not bat an eye at it. The smooth instrumental doesn’t skip a beat as it packs all six vocal performers onto its sub-three-minute runtime, with each contributor sticking to the track’s unshakable vibe of positivity and calm.
Perhaps the album does hit a bit of a lull after its opening leg. “Bankroll” features both A$AP Rocky and A$AP Ferg, and as such risks sounding more like an A$AP Mob track than a Brockhampton one. Ferg and Merlyn Wood do have phenomenal chemistry on the opening verse, and despite not having a verse of his own (unlike on the preceding track on which he isn’t listed as a feature), Rocky’s presence determines the track’s dark and moody atmosphere. It’s not a bad track but it does feel like an outlier in the track listing and doesn’t really reinforce the songs around it.
The group’s posse track “Windows” features performances by all seven main members: Kevin Abstract, Joba, Merlyn Wood, Dom McClennon, Bearface, Matt Champion and producer Jabari Manwa, plus an extra verse from SoGoneSo Flexy. It does drag a little at six minutes, the whole stitched together by one of the album’s weaker choruses. “I’ll Take You On” is a full detour into a more indie psych-pop direction; it’s a smooth and cooling moment with a fitting feature from Charlie Wilson, but the chirruping beat feels a little too fast and doesn’t quite live up to their best tracks in a similar style, like “No Halo” or “Sugar”.
“What’s the Occasion?” is a more rewarding track in this vein, with an impeccable hook sung by Joba. The sudden guitar chords on the pre-chorus keep threatening to turn the track into a tacky glam rock song but thankfully never do, instead delivering a mature and grand bridge. “When I Ball” is another highlight, with a pair of standout nostalgic verses from Dom McClennon and Matt Champion, both reflecting melancholically on their adolescences, paying tribute to the parents who raised them and reflecting on those that didn’t. “Don’t Shoot Up the Party” offers more of a return to exciting energy of the opening tracks, though underneath the more up-tempo beat you’ll find a similarly introspective song about wrestling with a sense of anger at the world, particularly in the face of racism and homophobia, and trying to find a more constructive outlet for that anger.
The most surprising moment on the entire record though, and one that signals an entirely new dimension to Brockhampton, is “Dear Lord”, a tribute to bandmember Joba following his father’s suicide, presented in the from of an a Capella gospel hymn with group vocals led by Bearface. It’s a poignant and sublimely beautiful moment that feels like the spiritual cleansing we could all do with right about now, appealing for their grieving friend to receive comfort and support. Joba deals with the loss of his father himself on the paired tracks “The Light” and “The Light Pt. II”, addressing his performance directly to his father, dealing with the complexity of his feelings in heartbroken fashion. Hearing his voice crack as he delivers the album’s closing lines is devastating.
In a similar fashion to Ameer’s exit on Ginger, the loss of Joba’s father runs through Roadrunner, with the differing associated feelings determining the different sounds of the two projects. Roadrunner is perhaps a more well groomed and attentively composed project than Ginger, but that’s no detriment to its predecessor, which had a real sense of necessity and importance. Roadrunner is perhaps a less definitive or unique project, where having gotten off their chests what they needed to, the boys have been able to bring what they have learned emotionally to a project that blends the maturity of Ginger with more orthodox and accessible musicianship. It’s still not as fun or playful as Saturation, but listening to Brockhampton is a less raw experience than ever, with the group sounding as cohesive as ever and confident in their own distinct lane.
Brockhampton will seemingly be true to their word that the group would dissolve after just a few more projects, with Kevin Abstract having teased a seventh and final Brockhampton album before the end of the year. It’s sad to see the project brought to an end, but with the group sounding so comfortable and unified on Roadrunner, it seems likely that they will be able to go out at a strong place and hopefully carry that momentum into fruitful solo work for each member.