Since their founding on a Kanye West fan forum and coming onto the scene proper as BROCKHAMPTON in 2016, the self-proclaimed “best boy band since One Direction” have already released seven albums, with their latest, ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE, dropping last week. Three of those albums were released in 2017 in the form of the Saturation trilogy, and this was all before they were signed to a record label. Following this milestone, the group put out their No. 1 record and major-label debut, Iridescence, in 2018 before following it up in 2019 with GINGER. Now, after the longest wait between albums, we’ve finally gotten something new and it’s pretty great. With this latest addition to their impressive discography, there’s never been a better time to rank the BROCKHAMPTON albums, so that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
The boy band’s earliest work, it’s also their least identifiable. Songs like “MICHIGAN” sound entirely unlike them, but also like something Outkast might make, and they’re big inspirations for the boys, though the homages would relax a lot after this. “CONTACTS,” a really tender, fingerpicked song, is good but stands out like a sore thumb. You could be forgiven for thinking BROCKHAMPTON was anything but a hip-hop boy band if you just listened to All-American Trash. A lot of the sounds on this album lean one way, and it’s particularly slow. BROCKHAMPTON would become better as they tried different sounds and styles, but All-American Trash is incredibly tame on that front. Still, it’s not without its highlights, like “PALACE” and the charismatic intro “ENCINO,” which actually names the individual members (even a few who are no longer part of the group) and provides a little context for the fun the boys would sometimes have in the future.
Saturation doesn’t come near the bottom of this list because of its quality, but because of how unwieldy a project it is. It’s stuffy to begin with, featuring the longest tracklist of any of their records. 17 songs isn’t all that bad, and the record does run under an hour, but the runtimes on some of the songs on Saturation leave a lot to be desired. A lot of tracks run longer than four minutes, with the most egregious of them running right up against five. More of a song can often be a good thing, and with as many vocalists as BROCKHAMPTON had at the time, it may have felt like a necessity to make so much time for everyone. Ultimately, a lot of these songs, like “MILK” and “FACE,” suffer on account of being really slow songs that only get dragged out further by such long runtimes.
Slow songs aren’t necessarily bad, especially as BROCKHAMPTON has toyed with the idea over and over of being an alt-hip-hop boy band. The biggest commendation I can give this record is how much it plays with that, favoring more ambient and groovier production over hard-hitting beats and quick delivery, which would come much later. The distorted and spaced-out synths on “FAKE” especially come to mind, as well as the hazy beat on “GOLD,” which ratchets up the pace a bit. And not everything is that glacial on Saturation, which features a quick and fun cut with “STAR,” where the boys take turns with almost every line being a reference to some movie, celebrity or famous character. “Jason Bourne with the headshot, Jason Statham with the whip game” still absolutely bangs. The song’s also a great display of how you can do more with less, only featuring three of their seven vocalists. This restraint would guide future projects in a better direction, but means that Saturation is just doing a bit too much at times.
We all love “BOOGIE,” which has become BROCKHAMPTON’s go-to hype song and concert closer, and for good reason. It’s just a jam, from the deliveries of the whole squad’s braggadocious verses to the siren sample, down to the high-octane beat carrying the whole affair. Every BROCKHAMPTON song is technically a posse song, but this is arguably one of their strongest showings, with a fantastic TRL performance to match and lines you can’t not feel on top of the world barking at the top of your lungs, like, “Who got me riled up? Who the lame ass bitch wanna talk about us?” And can we just talk about Joba for a second? Perhaps the group’s most versatile vocalist, Joba has the voice and energy to match whatever they need, flying off the handle on songs like “BOOGIE” or bringing things down with his melodic voice on more emotional songs like “BLEACH.”
Unfortunately, outside of a handful of great songs (like all-time great BROCKHAMPTON song “RENTAL”), by the end of the Saturation trilogy, the series has worn out its welcome. The verses on Saturation III don’t hit quite as hard, the themes have been played out already and the beats have even slowed, as if they grew tired themselves. The occasional oddity like “HOTTIE” livens things up a bit, but the whole thing is a bit far gone. You can feel the strain of producing three albums in one year on this one and, really, the group hit its apex just before this album.
The group’s last release prior to ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE, GINGER is certainly BROCKHAMPTON’s moodiest record. Opening tracks are typically a good indication of where an album will go sonically, and opener “NO HALO” is no slouch there. After a lot of high-energy releases and clearly a lot of pain, GINGER feels like the comedown the group needed, exploring feelings of loss, listlessness and longing that have been present before in the boys’ work, but come across plainly and achingly on GINGER. Part of that may be that GINGER features some of the group’s most drastic departures from hip-hop, leaning more into R&B on hit single “SUGAR” and the title track. Maybe it’s that vocalist Bearface, who tended to do more solo alternative cuts on previous records, was more involved on this record than previous ones. Or it could be that, on this record more than any of its predecessors, the group makes way for voices outside of themselves, with Deb Never on the album opener, U.K. rapper Slowthai on his own song “HEAVEN BELONGS TO YOU,” and friend of member Dom McLennon Victor Roberts on the closer, aptly titled “VICTOR ROBERTS.” The result is a record that sounds mostly unlike anything BROCKHAMPTON made before. There are hints of classic BROCKHAMPTON on tracks like “BOY BYE” and “IF YOU PRAY RIGHT,” but GINGER downplays this for the chance to explore new soundscapes. So what GINGER lacks in hard-hitting sound, it makes up for melodically and sonically, setting the album apart in a polarizing but often fruitful way.
iridescence is a better project than it gets credit for. The circumstances surrounding its release were less than ideal, with the ousting of one of their founding members due to sexual assault allegations and the urgent need to reshuffle the group around a project all happening within half a year or maybe even less. Bursting at the seams with every possible emotion in the world, iridescence is an album I’ve taken to calling a sonic freefall.
Every sound in the book has a place in iridescence, and speaks to the experimentation and melding of style that make BROCKHAMPTON stand out so much in the first place. Opening track “NEW ORLEANS” sounds like it’d play while you’re zipping down a highway in a dystopian cyberpunk future before segueing into the serene piano-laden “THUG LIFE” and dipping into grimy car-revving on the supremely bass-boosted “BERLIN,” and this is just the rollercoaster of the first three tracks. The rest of iridescence is just as intentionally incoherent, and you know what? It goes hard. Emotional centerpiece “WEIGHT” stills hits as effectively as it did in 2018, the chopped-and-slowed “BUMP” sample halfway through “HONEY” still feels transcendent, and “FABRIC” still feels like their most vintage Kanye song and stands as one of the boys’ best closers.
Yeah, it’s really that good. BROCKHAMPTON’s latest, and one of their greatest, ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE is, frankly, a disgustingly good album. The representation of two years of work, which happens to be the longest the band has ever worked on a record, it’s marvelous on almost all fronts. From the strobe-y intro “BUZZCUT,” which houses a great feature from Danny Brown, to the dramatic and downbeat confessionals that close things out on “The Light Part 2,” the band is collectively flexing so goddamn much here. Vocalist Joba, whose recent personal tragedies take center stage on a number of tracks, described the album as “the feeling of freedom, and if not freedom, the feeling of running. Away from something and towards something else.” He’s right.
ROADRUNNER sheds a lot of preconceptions of what BROCKHAMPTON have built themselves up to be over the years. It is neither too hard-hitting nor too soft. It’s often open and vulnerable, but unafraid to be sharp and witty, too. It’s also not just the boys anymore. The aforementioned Brown feature on the opener only sets the stage for the most collaborations the boys have had on a single project, both credited and uncredited, like Shawn Mendes on “COUNT ON ME,” apparently. A$AP Rocky makes a widely anticipated appearance on that song and “BANKROLL,” a song first teased in a video promoting concert dates to support iridescence in the fall of 2018. The song has since haunted livestreams, unofficial albums edited from snippets, and now finally exists in an official capacity with Rocky and A$AP Ferg. There’s a JPEGMAFIA feature and, my god, Charlie Wilson even shows up on a song. If it wasn’t evident enough how big an influence Kanye is on these kids, look no further than the sounds on this album. The Chad Hugo beat on “WHEN I BALL ‘’ sounds luxurious and like it was ripped from West’s “Graduation,” yet McLennon makes it entirely his own.
More than anything, ROADRUNNER feels like the near-perfect marriage of a lot of the ideas and explorations the group’s committed to in the past. “I’LL TAKE YOU ON” and “OLD NEWS” are mid-tempo throwback R&B songs that feel like they’d fit on GINGER right alongside “SUGAR.” Personal favorite “WHAT’S THE OCCASION?” sounds like one of the more firmly alternative cuts you’d find on the Saturation trilogy, with a sprinkle of … The Beatles and Queen in its theatrical production towards the end of the song. “DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY” has a much more industrial and cutting-edge vibe that’s reminiscent of iridescence, but reined in significantly and organized in a way that’s not so messy. It’s a refinement of everything that’s come before it that stands as strongly on its own as on the shoulders of its influences.
Yes, Saturation II is BROCKHAMPTON’s best record. Coming off the success of the first installment, and sandwiched in before the exhausted conclusion, Saturation II is a near-perfect distillation of every member’s prowess. The hooks are almost exclusively catchy, everyone gets a punchy verse (like creative leader Kevin Abstract’s raw opening on track “JUNKY”) and the shifts in energy songs go through to fit the energy of whoever’s rapping feel as smooth as ever. Songs like “SWEET’’ don’t just bump, they’re fun as hell to listen to and they flow unbothered. It’s perhaps the most straightforward of all the releases, but also shows how well the group works within the realm of hip-hop. The slickly produced “TOKYO” has admirable performances from all members involved, but particularly from Joba and McLennon, whose technicality and rhyme structure are always incredibly fun to listen to. The raw energy, whether it be anger on “TEETH” or regret on “JESUS,’’ benefit from the almost singular voices behind the songs and how concise they are, too. No-frills delivery has always been where BROCKHAMPTON shines most lyrically, and Saturation II features that in spades. It really represents the group firing on all cylinders and while it’s not always indicative of the directions they’ve gone since, it’s a great encapsulation of the heights they’ve already reached.
Moises Taveras is an intern for Paste Magazine and the managing editor of his college newspaper, the Brooklyn College Vanguard. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.