BROCKHAMPTON is… unique, to say the least. A self-described “boy band” formed around rapper Kevin Abstract, the 15-member collective exploded onto the scene in the summer of 2017 with their debut album, SATURATION. When the album dropped on June 9th, the pressure of the groups presence had been growing for a little over a year. Their first mixtape, All-American Trash, went largely unnoticed by conventional hip-hop fans, as did their January 2017 single, CANNON. The group’s hype didn’t really begin to build until May of that year, when they released FACE, the first single supporting SATURATION.
FACE (along with the tracks that followed, HEAT, GOLD, and STAR) were as diverse as a group of singles could be. From the disinterested FACE to aggressive and erratic HEAT, the songs demanded attention – not only with the calamitic nature of the back and forth between the group’s seven vocalists, but with their brand new yet still classic sound. Their sometimes-industrial, sometimes-pop synth melodies wove over drums that ranged from typical west-coast boom bap to electronic style drum machine work – no one component being particularly original, but the combinations of styles being incredibly unique. Their songs range from one-and-a-half minute “throwaways” to sing (or shout) along rap anthems, from hardcore, loud, and grating to airy and reclusive. When SATURATION was released, it was simultaneously unique and directly in line with the current sound of hip-hop – almost as if they were a logical next step.
This isn’t to say that the album isn’t without flaws – some of the lyrics were lacking, sometimes “loud and grating” verged on “annoying”, and the more pop-influenced songs were lacking in both number and depth. While the reverb-drenched guitars and soulful vocals from Bearface in WASTE were a sonically pleasant way of ending the album, the song had limited replay value, and felt underdeveloped. Nevertheless, SATURATION made for a stunning debut album, and had everyone who heard it salivating over the possibility of what could be next. They weren’t waiting long.
On July 5th, Kevin Abstract revealed in a tweet that SATURATION II would be released in August. Promoted with the singles GUMMY, SWAMP, JUNKY, and SWEET, the album was dropped on August 25th to further acclaim. SATURATION II was a spiritual successor to SATURATION, following the same structure, with the same production styles and lyrical content. This album, however, felt more refined – a perfection of the sound that they had pioneered on their debut, with stronger verses and hooks, more time allocated to their “poppier” tracks, and more group cohesion. While only a few of the group’s rappers took up a majority of the space on SATURATION, SATURATION II gave more time to some of the more neglected members.
While two albums in a year is a feat for any major artist, the goal of the albums wasn’t just to make a statement. With the goal of truly saturating the hip-hop scene, SATURATION was designed as a trilogy, a fact Kevin Abstract revealed days before the release of SATURATION II. While the group had been moving at a breakneck pace over the summer, they were relatively quiet between August and December, only announcing that a CD box set would be available for purchase before the end of the year. It wasn’t until December 1st that the group announced SATURATION III’s release date of December 15th, and the first single, “BOOGIE”, wasn’t released until December 12th, a mere 3 days before the album’s drop.
A mess of horns, synths and bass that sounds like it was an outtake from Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition, BOOGIE serves as a rambunctious taste of what SATURATION III has to offer. Pulling double duty as the album’s first single and first track, this cut is a practice in semi organized chaos. It has no intro and no build up – BOOGIE immediately overwhelms you with a rush of buzz-saw bass lines, carnival horns, and what sounds like a sample of a pitched scream.While the first two albums offered a new and unique sound, BOOGIE (and SATURATION III) offered another level of complexity in their production. They had done a good job of moving towards more intricate and hectic drum beats between SATURATION I and II, but on SATURATION III, the beats rattle. They abandon acoustic kits all together, more often opting for a more modern, electric sound, which contributes heavily to the dance aesthetic of the album. Tracks like BOOGIE, HOTTIE, and ZIPPER each offer a jumbled mess of hi-hats and bass drums, pushing the beat forward so quickly it feels jittery – a stark contrast to some of the more relaxed, hard hitting songs of the first two albums. While SATURATION I and II had their share of eclectic songs (SATURATION I being a standout in this regard), the cacophony on this album feels practiced – centering around more polished structures and hooks than their predecessors.
That’s not to say this album doesn’t have it’s share of by-the-book group tracks. STUPID and ALASKA both feature more straightforward beats that allow the group’s MCs to shine over simpler production. The flow and lyricism on this album may be disappointing to some, however – it doesn’t have the same amount of solid “rap” songs as I and II, diverting more time to beat changes and musical interludes. On the other hand, the lyrical content is very much in the wheelhouse of their previous albums, talking about feelings of angst, anxiety and depression, issues with sexuality, and trying desperately to fit in. I think I have a soft spot for this album for exactly that reason: these guys are rapping about things that will hit home (in one way or another) for many suburban millennials.
This album is, at its core, a musical expression of that angst and insecurity. The production is carefully managed chaos, such that I didn’t notice exactly how busy and erratic some of the tracks were until I listened to this album for the eighth or ninth time. Vocal tracks are pitched layered with everything from the rapper’s own falsetto to a fuzzy and distorted cut of their own voice, and production adds layers and layers of instrumentals to create a truly unique soundscape. This depth of production leads to one of the group’s most diverse albums yet – from “STUPID”, that samples a piano melody that could have been pulled from an interlude on Watch The Throne to “BLEACH”, where a Metro Boomin-style trap beat is buried under watery, bubbly synths so that the song comes out as one of the most emotional on the album – and that’s before the beat switch.
SATURATION III features more beat switches than the other two albums (maybe put together). These hard pivots at the end of songs like BLEACH, ALASKA, SISTER/NATION, and TEAM add a new level of depth to the album, almost creating a new set of tracks that are linked to their predecessors, subtly enough that while they sound like standalone tracks, you know they’d be out of place anywhere else in the record. BLEACH has a hard stop three quarters in, and cuts to a staccato guitar line that’s plinked over the same booming bass and tinny hi-hats, giving the impression the dreamy, detached song is going to cut to a more intense, in your face ending. What follows, however, is more falsetto vocals, with increasingly distorted and bit-crunched synths rising in the background leading the song to a more emotional ending than you expected before, with production that could be out of an early 2000s alt-rock track (“Glycerine”, by Bush, comes to mind). A beat switch is also the most integral aspect of SISTER/NATION, a song that starts off sounding like undermanaged, alternative hip-hop noise and moving into a synth-pop track that could have just as likely been made by Phil Collins as MGMT.
Thematically, this album is not a large departure from its predecessors – a fact they poke fun at in STAINS, with an interlude from their photographer Ashlan Grey: “Y’all motherfuckers made three albums, still talking about the same shit…”. Their ability to cohesively express the themes they talked about over the SATURATION trilogy, however, has increased dramatically. The rapping has always been there – nobody listened to SATURATION I and II thinking, I wish these guys would put together better bars. Their ability to craft stellar verses has remained relatively constant, so there was limited room for them to grow in that regard on this album. That was what led to one of my main criticisms of SATURATION II: the group made minimal changes to their production, and their rapping remained consistent. While I understand that you shouldn’t necessarily change a winning formula (College Dropout/Late Registration from Kanye West is a great example of this working out well), SATURATION III succeeds specifically because it’s a change from what was presented on the first couple albums. The focus on song structure and more soundscape oriented producing made this album more cohesive than I and II. The layout of the album is still the same: hard hitting, wild tracks at the beginning, one minute and a half long throwaway, three skits, some pop-influenced tracks, and a washed out and reverb soaked track featuring Bearface to end the album. It’s what BROCKHAMPTON does within that structure on III that makes this album a standout.
The beat switches, the switch to poppier production styles throughout (sometimes at the expense of the hard hitting bars of I and II, sometimes not), and the depth of production all make this album feel like the true culmination of the story of BROCKHAMPTON’s rise. In their first album, they called themselves a boy band, and weren’t known outside of Twitter and Reddit. They screamed, they experimented, and they painted their faces blue. At the end of the trilogy, however, BROCKHAMPTON showed that they could write catchy songs, and that they could make truly relevant rap music. They debuted at 15 on the Billboard 200 with over 35,000 album equivalent units. They’re playing Coachella and Governer’s Ball (so far). They’ve had a series on Viceland, they made a documentary, a short film, and an announcement for a fourth album coming in 2018. This group of 15-or-so millennials who met on a Kanye West forum managed to truly saturate the hip-hop world from their communal house in Los Angeles, and if the story alone isn’t enough to make SATURATION III my album of the year, the music is.
I’m not gonna do numerical rankings anymore/10