The highlight of Brockhampton’s new album, Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine, is the production — as it so often is with the group’s full-length projects. But this time, there’s an interesting twist, as they incorporate more classic hip-hop sounds and styles into the overall sonic background of the album. It’s a gift and a curse; while the new approach may entice older fans and intrigue younger ones as it expands the group’s production palette, it also underscores some members’ shortcomings as rappers.
Collectively, Brockhampton is great at knowing what they want to say, but they don’t always have the mechanics to say it in a way that the message is clear, concise, or charismatic. The group has mostly gotten by on their boisterous, untethered energy and the propulsive momentum of beats ready-made for pep rallies and mosh pits. When things slow down, the barely controlled chaos they harnessed to electric effect on efforts like the Saturation series or Iridescence reads as unfocused and haphazard on later projects like 2019’s Ginger.
Even the rollouts for their projects have been chaotic; prior to the release of Iridescence, they told fans they’d release a project called Team Effort, then switched mid-stream to a “different” album called Puppy. Whether these were all different projects or the same project undergoing multiple name changes remains unclear, but it has seemed evident at times that the group’s commitment to hyperactivity onstage could seep into their behind-the-scenes work. While this tendency never quite derailed the momentum they’d built from Saturation I, II, and III, it made the ride bumpier than perhaps was strictly necessary.
After Kevin Abstract’s detour into solo work, it also seemed that there was possibly some distraction to the group’s super-collaborative approach — rumors of discontent bubbled to the surface by the time the group rolled out Ginger, including from Abstract himself. Perhaps the crew mentality has run its course; ahead of releasing Roadrunner, Abstract hinted that it would be the group’s first of two projects in 2021 as well as the penultimate Brockhampton release. In that sense, perhaps it’s fitting that it’s such a nostalgic but fractured work, reflecting the uncertain frame of mind the band’s members must be in as they prepare for their next step.
It’s also a much more collaborative album, with more guests than the group’s ever had before in an effort to freshen up the chemistry. “Chain On” is a great example of using throwback-sounding beats and a guest rapper to liven up their efforts, drawing on a sample of Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” and a DJ Premier-esque sample loop with boom-bap drums to back verses from the group’s top rapper Dom McLennon and featured artist Jpegmafia. “Bankroll” takes a similar tack, employing ASAP Mob members Ferg and Rocky, as well as the New York crew’s goth trap sound to break up the pop-rap aesthetics of “Count On Me” and the Griselda Records-esque horror movie organs on “The Light.”
The latter track is perhaps one of the most personal songs the group has ever released, as Joba recounts his father’s death by suicide. It’s also jarring — maybe by choice — in how graphic its lyrics are and how it juxtaposes the visual elements of Joba’s recollections with a beat that’s almost too aggressive for them, confusing and obfuscating their emotional impact. Something more somber and melodic might have captured Joba’s emotional distress but instead, listeners are left wondering whether to dissociate and headbang to the menacing beat’s screaming electric guitar.
The musical experimentation, though, is something to behold, just in terms of the outright bananas combinations the crew throws together. A G-Funk saw wave degenerates into a buzzy guitar solo on “What’s The Occasion?” while “When I Ball” sounds like 2006-era Pharrell — a surefire inspiration for Kevin Abstract’s own musical hero Tyler The Creator. Miami Bass&B turns up on “I’ll Take You On” with Charlie Wilson, and album intro “Buzzcut” with Danny Brown is as close to the signature Brockhampton sound gets.
If the group’s lyrics and concepts don’t always keep up with its progressive genre experimentation, it’s only a sign that perhaps they’re pulling the ‘chute with near-perfect timing. With only one of the group’s members putting out a solo project to date, there’s still plenty of potential for individual growth, and perhaps that’s what they need to truly refresh their sound — or find it, in some cases. Roadrunner also suggests some clever directions for their future endeavors as well — Dom could delve deeper into the hardcore rap that obviously attracts him, while Kevin could explore his production with other artists who fit it better.
And just because they’ve mined as much as they can from their group efforts today doesn’t mean they won’t find a better configuration for it tomorrow. Given time and space to determine their musical identities may make it easier to maintain focus if or when they decide to come back together as a group, which could result in a much more cohesive product. For now, their “new machine” has done well enough to churn out a handful of intriguing ideas worthy of shedding a little more light on in the future.
Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine is out now on RCA Records. Get it here.