Self-help studio therapy
by Jericho Cerrona
What a difference a year makes for hip-hop supergroup (or “boy band”) BROCKHAMPTON, who stormed into public consciousness in 2017 with their highly lauded Saturation trilogy. Some may view the group’s rise as a sad commentary on the Internet age, where SounCloud rappers and meta-pop stars flourish while mainstays of the industry (Eminem, here’s looking at you, kid) stumble into irrelevancy. The truth is the insane amount of music BROCKHAMPTON managed to unleash in such a short amount of time actually delivered the goods; showcasing 15 members playing off one another’s strengths effortlessly. Saturation II was an especially potent distillation of the band’s strengths; combining funky synth-laden production with aggressive rapping and pop-oriented song structures.
However, trouble was brewing even before signing a huge deal with RCA records and hunkering down in London’s famous Abbey Road studios to record major label debut, Iridescence. Allegations of sexual misconduct against founding member Ameer Vann hit hard, causing a split with arguably the most talented MC in the band. Cancelled tour dates and written apologies followed, and very quickly, the mighty BROCKHAMPTON seemed to be on the verge of implosion. Would the painful in-group shakeup, not to mention financial payout for signing the RCA deal, relegate the talented young men creatively bankrupt? For all its production muscle and ambition, Iridescence is indeed the sound of a band swallowed up by expectations; whether external or self-imposed.
Right off the bat, the most noticeable thing about the album is its lumbering excess. On the surface, this isn’t such a bad thing, since BROCKHAMPTON have always thrived on their unbridled abrasiveness and unchecked emotion. Part of the outfit’s appeal is how they manage to cram each member’s songwriting prowess into the length of any given song, but throughout Iridescence’s 15 tracks, the band equate loudness (with every conceivable sonic bell and whistle) as a sign of maturity. Take, for example, album opener “New Orleans”, in which producers bearface and Jabari Manwa allow a weak bass kick, low hum of distortion, and Merlyn Wood’s dancehall verses to plod along for over 4 minutes. The song is a repetitive start to a record which rarely, if ever, finds its footing. “Thug Life” attempts to combine sugary piano with 90s R & B style crooning, but even here, BROCKHAMPTON sound as if they are trying too hard. Rather than stripping the song back (the piano motif is actually quite lovely), Kevin Abstract’s cheesy chorus regarding the trappings of wealth take the tune into the realm of self-parody. We get it. Becoming overnight celebrities is a bummer, and money isn’t everything. This theme is also explored on piano ballad “Tonya” and trip-hop influenced “Tape”, in which Matt Champion raps about Vann’s absence in ominous tones. The tale of DIY trailblazers caught in the whirlwind of success has been captured in all its messiness, but this arc is so predictable as to be nearly irrelevant at this point.
The album’s two best tracks, “Where the Cash at” and “District”, showcase the band at their most focused. Both are typical BROCKHAMPTON bangers in that they feel raw and unhinged; using the newfound studio sheen to fuck with sound, tempo, and vocal range. Elsewhere, there are novel stabs at honesty, such as Abstract’s confession to being attracted to men on “Weight” and the Gospel-tinged choir refrains throughout “San Marcos”. Most of the time, however, Iridescence comes across like a product of studio overhaul.
Ultimately, there are too many voices here. Too many ideas. Too many producers throwing in sonic arrangements. Of course, with a group this large and a major label debut this anticipated, the pressure to deliver on every conceivable level must have felt overwhelming. In many ways, Iridescence caves into these pressures while only occasionally allowing a purity of vision to peek through. Sadly, BROCKHAMPTON sound desperate, and their strain of braggadocious introspection about the perils of fame, is in dire need of the edit button.