brockhampton: revolutionizing the boy band in 2018
Illustration by Sarah Crawford, inspired by the Brockhampton album art for Saturation II.
It’s easy to imagine - five young attractive males, highly produced back-beats, simple yet catchy lyrics, well rehearsed dance moves, ambience, and thousands of screaming young girls. The recipe is as old as pop music itself, the target audience and all the pieces, more or less, the same as they've been for years. From *NSYNC to One Direction, many of us have spent at least some portion of childhood (if not well beyond) jumping on a friend's bed belting the lyrics to “Bye, Bye, Bye” and the like.
As I watched the fandom around the more modern groups grow, it was easy to take for granted the characteristics of the genre - young men catering to young women in a traditional pop music, massive stadium format. Many of these bands were formed as a direct result of a very mainstream “music machine,” with Simon Cowell’s assembly of One Direction immediately coming to mind, among others. This is to be expected though - the genre’s very core seems to be the quintessential ‘pop music’ ideal of giving a target audience exactly what they want in a way that they are very used to receiving it. Very seldom is there bold risk taken in this genre, yet slight evolution and a few new faces keep the same old lineup as popular and talked about as ever.
Now picture this: twelve (plus or minus a few) ragged boys of all ethnicities, sexual orientations, appearances, and walks of life holed up in a house together putting out three heavily hip-hop influenced albums in a year for anyone who will listen. Picture four to seven of them, painted blue, running around on a stage rapping about, well, really anything that comes to mind. Surely, based on this description the label “boy band” does not apply, but it is one that they have loudly and proudly bestowed upon themselves since their formation just a few years back. Their favorite artists include Jay-Z, Tupac Shakur, Mr. West and stoutly, unironically, and right up there with the rest in terms of praise and respect, Harry Styles and Justin Timberlake.
These guys met on none other than a Kanye West message board a few years back. When founder Kevin Abstract posted indicating interest in forming what at the time seemed a sort of creative collective, somewhere between twenty to thirty young motivated men expressed interest, ranging from your standard musically-inclined fresh-into-the-real-world youth all the way to fifty-hour work week accountants. Before long at all, these guys packed up their old lives and moved into a house together in North Hollywood, and the project was born. Almost instantly dubbing themselves a boy band, the content on the surface seemed anything but that. Their lyrics were often raw and lacked tight structure, the music videos were low quality on a shaky camera, and the transitions could at times be choppy - but there was a certain energy that kept your head moving. The beats were wildly unique, and the charm was clearly apparent in the camaraderie that comes through both on track and on stage. One of their music videos, “LAMB,” is essentially the group of them hugging to a somewhat repetitive, upbeat, and undeniably poppy song (which, by the way, is absolutely delightful).
So, what gives them any right to the claim? Well, for starters, they are a group of males in their late teens/early twenties making music, so we can check the words “boy” and “band” off the list. Seeing as on almost all their tracks, they are constantly emphasizing their belief that they are this ‘thing,’ what else do they really need to do?
It is by flipping the basic expectation of what it means to “be” something you want to be on its head that Brockhampton really shines. In truth, Brockhampton is far more reminiscent of a hip hop group than anything at face value, but even in that genre they defy tradition. In a subset of music drenched in over-exaggerated hetero-club lifestyle, Brockhampton brings lyrics that are remarkably fresh and unflinching into the mix. I once heard someone arguing that they couldn't listen to Frank Ocean after he came out as gay, as they felt they “couldn’t relate” anymore. The other party was quick to point out that very rarely does Frank Ocean use gendered pronouns, so no worries, you can pretend he’s rapping about women! This is not the case at all with Brockhampton's approach.This is a group that is not afraid to rap about sucking a boyfriend’s d*** in the same vein that they reference Harry Potter, avoiding federales, and Rick James. This is a group that has an entire song dedicated to male idols ranging from Frankie Muniz as “Secret Agent Cody Banks” to “Heath Ledger with some dreads,” not only making the concept of fangirling seem cool but also universally accessible. This is a group that references Ratatouille, Pee Wee Herman, and Mean Girls all in the same verse, while, most importantly, sounding damn good doing it.
That being said, this isn’t some alt-lifestyle-only club that you have to have been the high school outcast to get into (though you'll love them all the same if that’s the case). The magic of Brockhampton is that it is a truly diverse and unique group who play off each other’s strengths in a way that is genuinely positive and constantly evolving. The band isn't a “gay” band, or a “black” band, or a “hip hop” group. They're whatever they want to be. There are verses that go as hard as any given Rick Ross verse, like the wildly-paced opening verses of “ZIPPER,” while on the same album, a classically poppy opening verse about just “wanting a shirt to make my body feel all sexy, and a chain to make my body feel all hefty.” There are songs that could barely be considered rap, like the desperate loneliness of the early 20s that oozes through in “FACE” or the slow guitar and vocal falsettos of “TEAM.” Shoot, there are entire songs about coming to terms with being a wildly successful boy band!
It is a group that absolutely refuses to be just a “thing” or fall into a mold. When they say that they're “the best boy band since One Direction,” I find less and less reason to take it as purely tongue-in-cheek as I originally believed, and more and more reason to believe that this might just be the first boy band that has broken through the targeted mold and audience of the boy bands of yesteryear. These are not attractive young white males hand selected to woo young women - this is an organic collective here to say that whoever you are, you can be exactly what you want to be. Dare I say it could be a boy band for everyone, with songs ranging from lighthearted and fun like “HOTTIE,” to rowdy like “GUMMY,” all the way to somber and reflective on what is their current biggest single “BLEACH.” The body of work appeals the the extroverted party goer that loves Kendrick while all the same appealing to the introverted music lover inclined to Odd Future, touching on an unprecedentedly wide range of issues and perspectives that only comes naturally when that many talented young people come together.
What started as a couple of guys quitting their jobs and coming together to do the thing they love is now so much more. Brockhampton has released, as of this article, four full-length albums in the course of 3 years, each one arguably better than the last. Most members have now committed full time, with merchandise selling out in mere hours of its release and the name Brockhampton inching higher and higher on festival lineups and people’s radars.
Perhaps the most traditional boy band move of all - as of this month, Brockhampton signed a $15 million, three-year deal for six albums, one of the most aggressive for an up and coming group in recent history. As these talented, passionate young men continue to gain traction, who knows, the very crowds the boy bands of yesteryear sang before could be screaming at the top of their lungs at a show just for them. So, if a couple of rag-tag internet boys can come together and prove that they’re a boy band, who’s to say what you, you beautiful Fluf reader, can’t do?
Their next project, PUPPY, is due for release sometime in the coming months. I hope you all will give it, along with the rest of Brockhampton’s work, a listen.