Brockhampton: A New Light
A dive into the musical group’s newest album and how it has redefined the term “boy band”
May 19, 2021
Described by Complex, a bi-monthly pop culture magazine, as simultaneously “gay, black, white, DIY, ambitious, [and] all-inclusive,” with a distinctive sound to match, Brockhampton is a music collective for the new generation, the likes of which has never been seen. Founded in 2014, the group is led by Texas native Kevin Abstract (né Ian Simpson), who enlisted his friends Merlyn Wood (né William Wood), Matt Champion, Ameer Vann, and Joba (né Russell Boring) to embark on an ambitious mission to truly redefine the term “boy band.” With fourteen members, the ensemble has transformed from a small group of friends to a multitude.
Brockhampton is completely self-run, as each of its vocalists, producers, directors, editors, managers, and publicists tell important stories through music. The phrase “it takes a village” can certainly be used to describe Brockhampton’s success. In addition to the group’s unconventional size and business methods, what ultimately sets it apart is its unique style and voice. Often grappling with complex subject matter ranging from love to loss, and refusing to be confined to a single genre, Brockhampton has broken the mold of what it takes to make it in the world of music. As a result, the music collective is very much a “new machine,” in every sense of the phrase; its newest album has cemented not only its musical talent but its legacy as well.
In 1996, Ian Simpson, known today by the stage name Kevin Abstract, was born in Corpus Christi, Texas; he spent his childhood living in a neighborhood on Brockhampton Street. An avid lover of music and film, Abstract wanted to make a name for himself in the same way his heroes had. Admiring artists such as Tyler the Creator, Abstract wanted to be someone others could look up to and connect with through music. Further inspired by groups such as Odd Future and the Wu Tang Clan, Abstract sought to make his dreams a reality and meet like-minded individuals with a common aspiration. In 2010, then-14-year-old Abstract made a post on a web forum called “KanyetoThe,” a site for fans of Kanye West and hip hop aficionados alike, asking if anyone wanted to start a music group. Of the roughly thirty people who responded, none were turned away. Out of this original solicitation, the band AliveSinceForever formed and released its first and only EP in 2013. After this short-lived endeavor, AliveSinceForever disbanded to form Brockhampton, which still possessed many original members. While the members of Brockhampton have evolved over time, and are seldom confirmed, the main vocalists add unique and distinctive flavors to the group, and each has a substantial following of his own.
Following the success of Brockhampton albums, Kevin Abstract also ventured onto solo projects such as American Boyfriend, and Arizona Baby, each dealing with similar themes of alienation, coming of age, mental health, identity, and sexuality. Known for his toothy grin, cryptic Instagram, and unique sense of style, he has become a musical prophet of sorts to those who admire him. Merlyn Wood is considered the wildcard of the group, known for his crazy stage presence, energetic personality, and loud, comical, often catchy verses. Despite having a role as the group’s lovable mascot, he also often sings about deeper topics such as race, belonging, and broken homes. Although known for his laughter, he also brings a certain depth to Brockhampton’s music. With his raspy voice and captivating eyes, Matt Champion could perhaps best be described as the “heartthrob” of the group. While he is nice to look at, however, Champion is also a gifted rapper and performer who has additionally found solo success with popular singles such as “Fangs” and “Mansions.” Dom McLennon, perhaps the most soulful and technically gifted rapper in the group, is the bread and butter of Brockhampton. Often overlooked, he has been called the collective’s poet and is responsible for writing some of its most popular hits. Joba, a shape-shifting cult favorite, is deeply musically talented, often serving as both a rapper and a singer of many of their famous choruses. With an interesting story to tell, and only up until recently, a guarded past, when Joba has a verse, it is always emotionally thoughtful and provocative. Ciarán McDonald, also known as Bearface, is the only non-American in Brockhampton, hailing from Scotland. This quiet, reserved member of the group is often featured on passionate bridges and hooks; his subtle confidence and ease onstage help bring Brockhampton’s music to life.
On the surface, perhaps the most unique aspect about Brockhampton is the way it has defied music industry norms, primarily through the open sexuality of Kevin Abstract. In a popular YouTube video that circulated in 2018, a variety of young adults listened to Brockhampton for the first time. In the video, many of the listeners seemed interested in the new sound and even said that they would have to go home and download the album. Many people were surprised, however, when Kevin Abstract began singing about his boyfriend, or about having a crush on Shawn Mendes or Harry Styles. Some of the listeners even turned off the music, letting their perception of what rap music “should be” deter them from listening to music that they previously enjoyed. Abstract does not like to comment on his sexuality much, as he sees it as secondary to his art. However, in the song “Junky”, he raps, “‘Why you always rap about being gay?’ ‘Cause not enough [rappers] rap and be gay.”
Also definitive of Brockhampton is its refusal to stick to a single genre. As a self-described “boy band,” its songs range from alternative to rap, to pop, to gospel, to hip hop, to soul, to R&B. In an interview with GQ magazine, however, members of the band said they consider their music to be pop and look up to groups such as NSYNC and One Direction. As the members’ eagerness to claim they are pop artists may suggest, they do not see pop music as an inferior genre, but rather a wide-ranging, diverse, and valuable one. While not necessarily mainstream, their eclectic style has certainly earned them hoards of fans from all around the world, with almost ten million monthly listeners on Spotify and about 900,000 Instagram followers.
Under the masks of their many styles and experimental sound choices, Brockhampton covers a diverse range of topics that speak directly to the listener. In their newest album, entitled “Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine,” Brockhampton takes on polarizing politics, the Black Lives Matter movement, the global pandemic, and the universal feeling of not belonging. They additionally speak on how it feels to lose a friend, feelings of isolation and fear, and how religion can heal one’s soul. Characteristic of the group, they never sugarcoat their subjects, nor talk down to the listener, but tell a story that is both personal and relatable. In this album, they additionally take on more individualized experiences: the songs “The Light” and “The Light Pt. 2” delicately tell the story of Joba’s father’s suicide, and despite the heartbreaking origin, the songs urge listeners that one’s past does not define them and that “the light is worth the wait.” While many of their songs certainly deal with sobering themes, their ultimate message is profoundly optimistic and life-affirming. They beautifully and realistically capture what it is to be a young person now, all the terror and uncertainty, but also all the beauty and the love. It is essential that people can turn to music and essential to have artists who can speak to us, who we feel understand us on a deeply personal level. For me, and many others, this is what Brockhampton has offered. While fans of the group were heartbroken to learn that their latest album is one of their last, at the end of the day we can rejoice knowing that their music will outlive them, and that all good things must come to an end. Although the band is far from conventional, Brockhampton has certainly impacted the lives of many. Through their solid determination to never be anything but themselves, and their dedication to tell the stories they felt needed to be told, the band’s members have turned the music industry on its head, one album at a time. Ultimately, behind all the eclectic beats, catchy tunes, and striking lyricism, Brockhampton urges listeners to find the light and never forget how good the sunshine can feel. This is a tremendously profound message to convey through art, and tremendously important for listeners to remember.