On the very first bars of the iconic Straight Outta Compton, Ice Cube successfully set N.W.A apart from every other rap group of the time. He boldly introduces himself as the “Crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube / From the gang called Niggaz Wit Attitudes.” Notice he didn’t call them a “band” or “rap group”, but a “gang”. The viciousness and rawness of Cube’s attitude are felt to this day as he created a whole new idea of what rap music could be, honestly portraying life on the streets and not having to sell out or water down their art to reach a broader audience.
Today we see all different kinds of rap groups like Migos, collectives like Odd Future, and what have you. But Brockhampton (stylized in all caps) are trying to innovate again, toying with terms and normalcies of the rap genre. Led by Kevin Abstract, the group of 15 rappers, producers, designers, etc. has branded themselves as a boy band, even calling themselves the “Southside One Direction” on their formerly released single “BOYS”. Originally meeting on a Kanye West fan forum, these guys now live together in Van Nuys to hone their skills and build an empire.
Just a few months ago, Brockhampton exploded onto the internet with their breakout full-length Saturation. And never has a boy band or collective sounded so “in sync”. From the opening four bangers to the soulful alt-rock ballad “WASTE” sung by Irish member Bear//Face, their debut possesses consistent quality, unpredictably dynamic, and is thoroughly enjoyable — a tough task with 17 tracks.
Now, with no time to breathe between, the group released Saturation II, an ambitious 16 new tracks to add to their yearly output. It would seem this would have to be a bunch of b-sides and leftovers from the first album’s recording sessions. But somehow, Brockhampton has created a new offering that is equally refreshing and enjoyable by pretty much following their original formula to the letter.
In structure and delivery, volumes one and two of Saturation are very similar. They both begin with a set of high-energy anthems before revealing the stripped-down emotional side of the group members. Skits again feature member Robert Ontenient. The number of tracks and total runtime are nearly identical. The similarities go on and on between the two albums. And yet each individual’s contributions to the project gives it life and keeps it engaging.
The glue of Brockhampton’s two releases is the production of Romil Hemnani and duo Q3. The tracks never try to do too much, often featuring little more than some brighter drums, booming basses, and one or two minor key synth lines. Opener “GUMMY” sounds like Middle-Eastern-flavored G-funk with its eerie portamento synths, while “TEETH” features dreamy keyboards layered under a haunting vocal sample that you might hear somewhere on Kendrick’s DAMN. or Jay-Z’s 4:44. What the production team has mastered though is striking a balance between complementing each voice with different textures and moods and pulling it all together to sound cohesive.
The cohesiveness in sound is essential to the project because most of the songs, while the vocalists are incredibly talented and have a lot of lyrical depth to offer, are a bit unclear thematically. For example, “JUNKY” features Kevin Abstract rapping about being gay: “‘Cause not enough niggas rap and be gay.” Ameer Vann follows with a verse about his “paranoia and drug addiction.” Then Merlyn Wood raps about family pressures to pursue a profession other than music, followed by Matt Champion getting mad at sexists. It’s thematically all over the place, which is one of the only complaints to be made about the album.
Organized or not, the verses are for the most part phenomenal. Abstract’s opener on “GUMMY” takes an honest look at all the criticisms he’s faced from his music, “That nigga Kevin can’t rap / He too sappy with his shit… Knew that boy in high school, man / That nigga wasn’t awkward.” And his frankness about his sexual orientation is stigma-defying. But it’s Vann who shows up again and again in this sequel with hard-hitting bars like a never-ending highlight reel. Take the beginning of the interlude “TEETH” for example: “I done been in trouble ‘bout as long as I remember My momma tried to help me, but I hardly ever listened So she sent me to them white schools I learned that I was different They told me I’m a nigga Well, now I know I am I got my finger on the trigger I’m a project baby.”
The artists that make up Brockhampton talk about themselves — where they’re at, where they’ve been, and where they hope to go — with complete honesty, even if that means fighting against social norms. Through two albums this year (and a third on the way), they’re solidly established in their identity as a group. Saturation II is a major step in that development as it confirmed they’re capable of putting out quantity and quality. But trust in a formula will only get them so far. Hopefully, they will be able to build and innovate on Saturation III. We’ll just have to wait and see.