Bad at Growing Up: The Saturation Effect

When thinking about trilogies of music released in under a year’s time, I’m fondly reminded of the months I spent listening to The Weeknd in 2010, or Young Thug in 2015. That Abel played up his mystery by secreting out of Youtube’s ether and withholding a face for the drug-addled lothario until releasing his trilogy entire bolstered the listener’s excitement that they were truly discovering something new. The mythic aspect of Young Thug’s Slime Season mixtapes did much the same: recording hundreds of songs in a matter of weeks in some deluge of inspiration which were then doled out over a more human timescale of months. Thug seemed surprised to discover that artists needed more than a few minutes to record a song; true, we only need that many to listen, a few more to digest. The Weeknd created a mood and a spectre; Thug seems reliably bent on reinvention album to album. Both have gone on to great fame, arguably thanks to their ambition and staying in the listener’s ear for most of a calendar year.

With Brockhampton, the manifesto’s been clear from the first moment—Saturation. A group of misfits coming together from Kanye West fan forums, buying a house, living their albums’ creation—this is peak 2010s, if not peak crowd-sourcing. And despite the opener “HEAT’s” screaming promise to “break your neck so you can watch your back”, the intimidation and self-appellative of ‘boyband’ aren’t as subversive or shocking as they might want. We should barely bat an eye when the de facto leader, Kevin Abstract, wrestles with his sexuality (“Why you always rap about being gay? / Cuz not enough nigga’s rapping be gay”), at least not for any imagined banality. The modern hip-hop listener — and one hopes the industry, too — has let go those old phobias. He might have just stuck with the adroit line preceding, which functions tripart as a joke, genre jab, and braggadocio: “Is it homophobic to only hook up with straight niggas?”

What is promising from the get-go is their apparent desire to earnestly wrestle with personal demons and questions of identity. From the outset, Dom McClennon wrings them out: “I hate the way I think, I hate the way it looms / I hate the way the things I say incinerate a room.” Of course this does not come at the price of hip-hop’s number one rule: sounding dope. Dopeness abounds on the first and second Saturations, with Kevin Abstract coming up with some very sticky hooks on “GOLD, GUMMY, SWEET,” and the whole team coming up with great hollywood quips on “STAR.” We can thus forgive some of the gaffes on the tapes: where the hooks aren’t catchy they can be grating; the voice modulation is certainly a divisive choice (I for one enjoyed its effect on “FAKE,” but it’s overused elsewhere); earnestness can bleed over into mawkishness. But the vivacity and energy of the group tend to subsume those sagging portions.

On the second iteration, styles differentiate and the production value ratchets up. Whatever artificial deadline Brockhampton imposed on the first to make the work happen (supposedly it was mixed in a mere three days), none of the rough edges seem as evident on the second tape’s highlights. Production elevates each of the members’ particular talents behind the Mic; beats shift, sway, and smuggle in new elements under each MC’s flow. Kevin Abstract steps out from behind the role of director and hook artist and delivers some of the strongest verses on “GUMMY, JUNKY, SWEET.” Joba is another underused showcase, mixing up his sing-songy verses with see-sawing, unstable raps. Dom smooths out his flow into something ‘90s diehards might seethe over. Ameer Vann, the group’s most comfortable sounding MC, doubles down on gangster-tropes-as-mode-of-introspection and settles into an unchanging flow that somehow still doesn’t sound as lazy as Matt Champion’s. And Merlyn continues to cash-in as self-appointed wild-card, shouting his off-kilter verses as if in fear of going unnoticed among the group’s milieu.   

What might have started as a disjointed exercise, one that drew too many comparisons to that other LA-based squad of young goons, has grown more cohesive and tightly packed by apparent brute force. “I don’t wanna do it but they keep on pushin’ me” goes Kevin’s MIA-inspired hook on the second album’s opener, after a punchy verse that doesn’t quite escape a Childish Gambino comparison. This is the true beauty of having followed the release of these three albums: it really is apparent that these friendships and mutual drive have pushed each individual to both further refine their own skill sets and work as a team.

With sonic development racing away from ready comparison, so has expression grown more confident among the team. With Saturation III, no longer are the tough moments of introspection off-loaded onto the twee angst of the emo-inspired guitar ballads that closed the first two albums, nor to the intermittent skits of Spanish soliloquizing by Robert Ontenient. Instead of the tawdry howling of “I gotta get better at being me (bieng who I am)” on the first album’s “MILK,” we get more restrained bridges on the third with sturdier verses exploring the theme rather than simply belting it outright. This isn’t to disparage the ‘boyband’ ethos these guys have cultivated. Some of them have impressive chops, and their desire to cross genre boundaries effectively is admirable.

On Saturation II, Matt Champion asks “What you mean it ain’t workin? What you mean you ain’t finding yourself?” On the contrary, all of the group’s best tendencies are in fine form on the third album, shearing away the lesser ones. We get exciting production and kinetic mic-passing from the outset, and a steady stream of jaunty fun all the way to the end. Jabari’s experimental production on “LIQUID” pushes the rappers to make the most of just a minute and a half of queasy, glitching landscapes. Romil makes a jagged and high octane odyssey on “SISTER/NATION” that is as strange as it is a defining moment for the group’s ability to nail its weirder efforts.

The sketched desires of the group have been realized by Saturation III in one fine-tuned, pretty package compared to the relatively uneven first attempt. Kevin finally sounds nothing like Childish Gambino in the few moments his voice is unpitched. Joba and Merlyn tone down their wacky tendencies and let their flows normalize into something more adept, the former delivering a disarmingly plaintive verse on “JOHNNY” that, while not his most exciting vocal work, is astonishingly full of pathos. Even Matt Champion manages to sound exciting rather than lazy on “ZIPPER.”

It will be interesting to see where the young group goes from here. If their trajectory goes anything like the Weeknd’s, the idea of a ‘debut’ album might cause all their ambition and hard work to sort of self-immolate. I’m not sure if any of these guys would be all that interesting to listen to on their own for a whole album’s length if any of them decide to strike off from the group. Of course I’d also love to be proved wrong, but it seems as though only the Wu-Tang Clan has a clearly successful history of going from acclaimed group to something like Liquid Swords or Only Built 4 Cuban Lynx. Odd Future petered out about as quickly as the shock value did and some of us are still waiting for Earl’s Supreme Clientele moment.

For the moment, Brockhampton have achieved something special in its own right, as a group. With these three albums we are treated to the artistic process as catalyzed by friendship, which, with confidence, grows organically, and as each of the members steps out from behind artifice they start to sound most of all like themselves.

Conor Teichroeb