BY PARKER KLYN
Odd Future broke up recently. The Los Angeles-based hip-hop collective, which earlier in the decade built up a huge wave of hype off the strength of their pure energy, consisted of a number of incredible individual talents (including Tyler, The Creator, Earl Sweatshirt and Frank Ocean). And yet, in a way, the group feels like a missed opportunity. Their full-group collaborations always ended up being less than the sum of their parts, and the excitement of seeing a collection of young, delinquent friends making great hip-hop and soul faded away.
Enter Brockhampton, an up-and-coming hip-hop band out of Dallas. The group’s dozen-plus members met on an online forum dedicated to Kanye West, and with Saturation, released earlier this year, they’ve already been able to accomplish something Odd Future never did: an album that is solid and engaging from front to back.
I get a rush of elation whenever I discover a talented young rapper. Saturation multiplied that excitement almost tenfold. Now, less than three months later, Brockhampton returns with Saturation II. This album is an extension of much of the same material they were displaying on the original, but where Saturation dazzled with pure exhibition of their giftedness, Saturation II establishes Brockhampton as one of the most essential acts in contemporary hip-hop.
Brockhampton is ostensibly led by 20-year-old Kevin Abstract, who performs most of the hooks and seems to do much of the actual songwriting, but the group’s myriad members all carry out equal work with their distinct voices, rapping styles and themes. The handsome Matt Champion questions everything he sees, lifting himself up and putting his opposition down. Dom McLennon, with his Twista-like rapid-fire flow, raps about his mind, thoughts and mental health. Joba is a jack-of-all-trades in the style of Anderson .Paak: he effortlessly moves from smooth, soulful singing to melodic, self-aware rapping. Merlyn Wood, with his layered Ghanaian accent, is a ball of energy better suited to quick ad-libs and hooks than actual spitting. And finally, I’m partial to Ameer Vann, who has one of the best voices I’ve ever heard from a rapper: deep, with a dirty South drawl telling stories of drug-dealing and evading the law, both of which make it impossible to believe he’s barely out of his teens.
All this talent wouldn’t matter if the songs weren’t great, but they are. Most of the album’s production is handled by Romil Hemnani, Jabari or Kiko Marley, and I’ve never heard a hip-hop album that sounds quite like Saturation II. The best I can describe it is a mix of west coast G-funk and world music; specifically, traditional Indian music and French electronica. Lead single “Gummy” is, straight-up, the best G-funk song in over a year and one of the best bangers of 2017. Abstract goes M.I.A.-style for this chorus (among many others), pitching his voice up to create an uncanny replication of the great London rapper.
Speaking of, pitch-shifting is a production trick that Brockhampton uses frequently. On Saturation, I wasn’t much of a fan of this technique because I didn’t see how it improved the song versus just using their normal voices. But here, on tracks like “Jello” and “Swamp,” we can see why the choice to shift the pitch was made. The former fits as much pure rapping as possible on a track, and the latter changes Vann’s menacing growl into a childish yelp, underlining how young he was when he started dealing dope. Later on the album, the group explores dreamy M83-style pop on “Sunny,” and on “Gamba,” Brockhampton actually lives up to their boy band moniker with an extremely melodramatic Backstreet Boys-style bridge courtesy of tangential member Bearface. In less capable hands, this moment could have been cringey and poorly executed, but here, it’s transcendent.
Saturation II’s centerpiece is “Junky,” the darkest track that Brockhampton has ever made. Each member talks about the negatives that come with their respective styles. Abstract affirms his queerness more than he’s ever done when he spits “Where I come from n****s get called f****t and killed, so I’m gonna get head right here.” Vann raps like he’s paranoid of cops at all times. Champion admonishes other rappers for their blatant sexism in the best verse of his career. But there’s the slightest bit of optimism in McLennon’s final, abrupt sixteen: “Turned our inspiration to a vision, that’s a given, no slipping.” After hearing Saturation II, which might just be 2017’s best hip hop album, I’m not about to bet against them.