Each and every year has its winners and losers.
2017 - the ever-interesting pop cultural odyssey that it’s become - had some clear leaders and stragglers. The former are the year’s wildest success stories: Calvin Harris’ hip hop infused redemption, Lorde’s powerful refutation of the sophomore slump and SZA’s long-awaited debut all spring to mind. The latter are attempts marred by miscalculation and disaster: Katy Perry’s ‘woke pop’ LP Witness, The Chainsmokers’ ill conceived debut and XXXTentacion’s drawn out career suicide are but the most extreme examples.
As the year barrels on, cases will be made for the primacy of many acts and artists, all of whom excelled throughout the year. At the risk of being presumptive, I’d like to present my nominee for 2017’s true winner. It’s not Jay Z. It’s not Tyler, The Creator. The most inspiring and unexpected success of all comes from a modest house in South Central LA - the home of creative collective Brockhampton.
Brockhampton, a self professed “all-American boyband,” is the brainchild of LA-based rapper Kevin Abstract. Their setup is a creative’s dream - all the 14 members live in the one modest house in South Central LA, a place one can only imagine is a hotbed of inspiration and productivity. Glimpses of the household, afforded in the “LAMB” video, only serve to fuel this impression.
Their origin story is an unorthodox one. Instead of uniting with childhood friends or familiar acquaintances, Abstract reached out to a number of creatives on the Kanye To The forums, or KTT. The resulting group - originally called ‘Alive Since Forever’ - boasted 30 members until a restructuring in 2015. It was then that Brockhampton was born, a culmination of raw talent, the internet and mutual admiration for Kanye.
Their debut mixtape All American Trash was released in 2016, showcasing the talents of eight MCs across 13 tracks. Abstract was joined by Ameer Vann, Merlyn Wood, Rodney Tenor, Matt Champion, Bearface, Joba and Dom McLennon, with production handled by fellow Brockhampton members Romil Hemnani, Kiko Merley, Jabari Manwa and Albert Gordon. Though Tenor and Gordon left the group in 2016, the lineup remained much the same into the SATURATION era.
SATURATION, the collective’s debut LP, was released in June of 2017. The album dropped with little promotion and received general acclaim. Pitchfork, often reserved in their verdicts, deemed it a 6.5/10. TheNeedleDrop gave a more generous 9/10, with Fantano calling it his “frontrunner for hip hop project of the year.” It exploded on the net in a way I’ve never seen - my social media pages were immediately overrun with equal parts praise and recommendation, a sudden and remarkable jump from relative obscurity to cult status.
They’re undoubtedly a group that lend themselves to cult appreciation. Videos for SATURATION tracks “GOLD” and “HEAT” show the group at their lo-fi best, a combination of savvy aesthetic choices, low budget ingenuity and fantastic tracks culminating in some of 2017’s most fascinating music videos. They’re both faithful visual companions and testaments to the talent behind the camera - whilst artists such as Beyonce, Kendrick and HAIM excel with assists from generous financial backing, Brockhampton craft low-budget videos that warrant no disclaimers.
The music videos are shot by Ashlan Grey, the group's chief cinematographer, and edited by Henlock Sileshi, who also handles the distinctive colouring. The lo-fi overlay that runs through the group's videography leans into the technical limitations of the DIY shoots, disguising them within an endearing and unique vision.
These stylistic tenets endured with the release of SATURATION II. The second of the trilogy of records, SATURATION II is both a continuation of the first instalment and a slightly more confident collection of tracks. Promotional single “JUNKY” is especially challenging, with three beat changes across four minutes. Tracks such as “SWAMP,” “SWEET” and “GUMMY” essentially mirrored the structures expounded on SATURATION, the makings of a ‘classic Brockhampton sound’ already starting to take hold.
The second instalment also lent more heavily on the group’s professed pop sensibilities, with fleeting vignette “JESUS” and anthemic album closer “SUMMER” ranking amongst the year’s most triumphant pop releases. There’s definitely a pop pedigree running through the project as a whole - Abstract’s 2016 record, American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story, incorporated a variety of pop influences atop a clear hip hop grounding. Whilst Matt Champion’s indie-rock sound isn’t given the same prominence on the collective’s releases, bearface’s offerings are invariably pop-rock finales such as “WASTE” and “SUMMER.”
The release of the much-anticipated SATURATION III completed the trilogy, closing out the group’s incredibly productive year. The most experimental of the SATURATION records, it incorporated enhanced production and included the SATURATION trilogy's first exhaustive posse cut, “BLEACH.” Whilst lead single “BOOGIE” seemed to threaten an alienating base-breaker, the record only served to solidify Brockhampton’s hard-earned standing.
The slightly more conceptual "SISTER/NATION" represents the group's first official two-part track, complete with a hard-hitting mid-track beat change.
Confirming what many fans suspected, album closer "TEAM" reverts to SATURATION's four-letter song titling, sonically segueing into trilogy opener "HEAT." It's a largely meaningless but intriguing creative choice that presents the trilogy as a complete work as opposed to three seperate instalments. The fact that the sonic bites at the end of "TEAM" and start of "HEAT" don't actually sync up hurts this ambitious statement, but doesn't change the calibre of the three records.
The Internet's First Boyband
Brockhampton also engaged in non-musical creative ventures - a series of two-a-piece member interviews titled ‘Deep Cuts’ offered further insight into the group. The first put Robert Ontenient - the group’s web designer and skit personality - and Kevin Abstract together, offering a surprisingly deep look into Abstract’s influences and Roberto’s insecurities.
The second instalment, starring Ameer Vann and Jabari Manwa, begins by a parking garage before the pair are kicked out by the owner. “He wasn’t having a good day,” muses Vann. “He was obviously dealing with some shit outside this situation, because there’s no need for him to be that upset.”
These seemingly candid insights into the minds of the group's members helped cultivate the band's boyband image. It helped members become creative microcosms within the larger collective, helping fans identify with individuals in much the same way as fans would with mid-90s boybands. Whereas the youths of yesteryear would point to Gary Barlow or Justin Timberlake as their idols, fans of Brockhampton anchor their love for the group in their favourite contributors. It's as much a crafty use of time and resources as it is a crafty approach to viral fame - offering a seemingly organic and honest insight into their lives and relationships, the group utilises the internet in a way few burgeoning artists do.
Other inspired uses of the internet as a means of communicating between artist and fan include Frank Ocean's tumblr, a repository of insight for fans of the elusive singer, and Boy Pablo, a singer-songwriter who inadvertently gamed the YouTube algorithms so tremendously that you've probably seen his thumbnail whilst browsing. Golden-era hip hop collective Hieroglyphics used podcasts, titled "Hierocasts," as early as 2000. Savvy artists have always seen sales potential in the internet, but fewer have used that medium to connect with their fans with innovative and intriguing complementary content.
Innovative online engagement is reciprocated in a small-but-dedicated fanbase. Though SATURATION III's chart successes effectively launched the group into the forefront of music's most dominant genre, fans of the collective have been using Snapchat as a means to mobilise and socialise at shows and events. The Snapchat account BHTours facilitates group conversations for shows in specific cities, and often plays host to a swathe of live show videos filmed and posted by an attending volunteer. It's more than simply a means to chronicle shows - it's a social hub through which fans can connect, meet and host their own highlights show. Some hosts elect to quiz those waiting in the line, whilst others diligently watch for any sign of the group themselves. It's an interesting and newfangled means of communication that, ten years ago, would have been unimaginably complicated to undertake.
This briefly included an Instagram page titled ‘BillyStar.mov,' which hosted short scenes acted out by Brockhampton members. Though it’s been deleted - for reasons unknown - it only served to reinforce the work ethic that underpinned all their releases: three records in a year, alongside music videos, intra-group interviews, a short film, a lengthy documentary and a to-be-released feature.
Billy Star suddenly reappeared in the lead up to SATURATION III, this time as a 22-minute short film. It featured music from the upcoming LP as well as “QUIVER,” a yet-unreleased track from singer-songwriter bearface. It features collective members in acting roles and ties in with Kevin Abstract’s 2016 album, American Boyfriend. The character of Helmet Boy featured in the visual for his single “EMPTY,” and reappeared throughout the group’s 2017 Vice documentary, American Boyband. Abstract resurrected the character for the film, which can be watched on YouTube.
The two-and-a-half hour SATURATION documentary was released as a part of the trilogy boxset, and though members of the group implored fans to refrain from uploading it online, it's since found its way onto YouTube. It follows their significantly shorter All American Trash-era documentary and their 2017 Viceland documentary series American Boyband. It's perhaps unsurprising that Brockhampton thoroughly document their creative process - Kanye West purportedly records the making of his records, though none of that footage has ever been formally released.
A YouTube channel, Brockhampton Vault, has been a constant source of speculation amongst fans. It hosts material that the group has disavowed and removed from their official channels, most notably "BET I," a track the group worked to distance themselves from, and "SATURATION 389," a track included on the limited edition SATURATION DEMOS release.
The speed at which leaked tracks have been uploaded to Brockhampton Vault stokes rumours that Abstract himself is behind the channel, using it as a collection for work the group formally maligns. It's not a bad theory - briskly uploaded copies of unreleased, CDQ tracks are easily explained by Abstract's involvement. Some of the material quietly disseminated through the channel, such as unreleased fan-favourite "MARCH," is amongst the group's best work.
Just as the last embers of Odd Future are stifled by solo successes and personal rifts, Brockhampton emerges from an internet forum, turning aspiration and fandom to collective excellence. This frequent comparison is lamented by fans of both groups, and for good reason: Brockhampton moves as a collective, whilst Odd Future's releases were primarily vehicles for the individual talents within. The comparison does hold merit in terms of potential: Odd Future members such as Tyler, Earl Sweatshirt and Frank Ocean helped shape modern hip hop, and the talent within Brockhampton could conceivably do the same.
Only time will tell whether Brockhampton holds the same individual stardom as OF. It’s largely immaterial - when a group gels as well as Brockhampton do on the SATURATION trilogy, you can’t help but hope the outfit is here to stay.
TEAM EFFORT, their fifth album, is due this year.
You can watch the group's 2016 Viceland documentary series, American Boyband, for free on SBS On Demand