We ain’t taking new BROCKHAMPTON projects lightly around here. After losing a whole year like the rest of us in 2020—causing them to fail to maintain their once-per-year LP issuing cadence for the first time since their 2016 All American Trash mixtape—the famed and celebrated pop-rap collective saw fit to unveil the first teaser to their alleged penultimate album ever as a boy band ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE toward the end of March, before unleashing the full body of work shortly thereafter on 9th April. Previewed by the manic and ferocious synthetic thrust of the rad Danny Brown-assisted “BUZZCUT“, the thirteen-chaptered sixth studio effort from the Texas-formed hip-hop group came into existence not without a certain degree of friction, huffing and panting as the culmination of a deranged and straining juncture for most of its members. Some of them spiralled into ravaging existentialism, some took time off to decompress and regroup, others lost family members to suicide, and most simply tried to do the right thing and combated an era-defining public health crisis.
Just to get some of the housekeeping and formalities out of the way here—this thing clocks in at about 45 minutes and change, is out as part of the band’s ongoing multi-year contractual obligation to Sony Music’s RCA Records, and comes co-signed, if not endorsed, by pretty much a who’s who of the hip-hop Mount Rushmore, starting with Wu-Tang Clan’s own RZA and super producer Rick Rubin. It’s sprawling and brimming with eclectic featured guests too, something of a first for BROCKHAMPTON, at least to the extent found here on a proper full length outside of sandboxing focus grouped contexts (such as last years’ pirated livestreamed Technical Difficulties mixtapes). On the newest project, a string of external vocal duties are provided by both A-list mainstream prima donnas (A$AP Rocky, Shawn Mendes, Charlie Wilson), as well as underground up-and-coming acts which one can only assume were pretty much A&R’d by Kevin Abstract and co. themselves (SoGone SoFlexy, Baird, Ryan Beatty). When considering both official tracklisted spots as well as uncredited contributions, no single record amongst the thirteen here is entirely devoid of fingerprints external to the core boy band collective’s.
The piercing and cutthroat aforementioned lead single finds Abstract in rare wordsmithing form, spitting fuming bars like his life depended on them, whilst enveloping prohibitive pockets other MCs would rather keep at arms’ length from: “Truth prevails, this is real, miss my brother / I love my mother, drove all the way to Cali’ just to check up on me / Made her go home, felt the virus / Web of life is my weave, false dreams stripped by silence“. Affording an expensive but ever so trustworthy Danny Brown feature, ornate with eccentric experimentalism coupled with exquisite velvet glove production, allows the Los Angeles-based posse to translate this joint into easily one of the standouts on the whole album right out of the gate. Moreover, its expansive and anti-climactic outro seamlessly fades into JPEGMAFIA’s low-key fly stanzas on the following G-funk “CHAIN ON“, not before alighting at a soft, glossy, and chanty refrain courtesy again of group leader Abstract.
Sequenced at number three on the tracklist one finds the carefree and summery alt-pop inklings of “COUNT ON ME“, doubling as the LP’s second single and—regrettably—tripling as one of the more lukewarm lulls on the whole project. Rocky’s lifeless uncredited intro and verse might just be uncredited for a reason, and while the Ryan Beatty and Shawn Mendes combo pairing crooning the “It’ll be okay, no matter what thеy say about us / It’ll be okay, no matter what they say about us / I know that it’ll bе okay / You ain’t even need no money, you can count on me” chorus is a certainly catchy formula, it’s also pretty much the only redeeming quality this tired radio edit has got going for itself. Counterintuitively, the following “BANKROLL“, with its intricate and busy textured beat and (properly credited) A$AP Mob indulgence does not seem to be able to invert the one-dimensional leitmotif kicked off by “COUNT ON ME”, falling short on nearly all accounts, sounding like a hodgepodge of lacklustre cutting room floor material from the group’s GINGER and iridescence studio sessions.
Fortunately, ROADRUNNER picks up quality steam and lifts off again on its (vinyl’d) B-side with one of its title tracks. “THE LIGHT” at number five is a revelatory, stark, and bare portray spat by both JOBA and Kevin Abstract set to distorted guitars and zany organ samples, interplayed by a singular foreboding and swift chorus, acting as central statement of intent for the whole entire record’s concept underpinning: “For the record, I can fly / Around the world, absorbing light / Something’s missin’ deep inside / The light“. Speaking of table centrepieces, the following six-minute epic “WINDOWS” might just stand as the boy band’s best and most grandiose roll call-meets-victory lap display by virtually all key members to date, sporting gnarly and captivating verses, bridges, and refrains one after another from, in chronological order, Video Store (Abstract and lead producer Romil Hemnani’s media company) signee and fellow Corpus Christi MC SoGoneSoFlexy, Merlyn Wood, Matt Champion, Jabari Manwa, Dom McLennon, JOBA, Kevin Abstract, and bearface.
Believe it or not, some of the most memorable moments on this thing are yet to be dissected though: “OLD NEWS” opening a hypothetical vinyl’s side C at number eight is lifted from true blue classic BROCKHAMPTON playbook MO, showcasing everything from saccharine R&B knacks, sing-along-y refrains, heartfelt and uncompromising bars from Champion, Wood, JOBA, as well as obscure talent Baird, all the way to bona fide clever producer tags worked in for prosperity (“BLEACH“, anyone?). The glamorous and sensual Charlie Wilson-assisted ballad “I’LL TAKE YOU ON“, together with bearface’s modern hymn solo gospel “DEAR LORD“, ensure some proper and much needed soulful respite is spruced atop of the otherwise musically eventful thirteen-cut tracklist, whilst the JOBA-Champion duet atop of an irresistible “WHAT’S THE OCCASION?” alternative indie beat comes across like one of the band’s most off-kilter and compelling songwriting in a while, completed by a sure fan favourite melancholic refrain (“A million little pieces all add up to nothin’ lately / Swim within my bedsheets, it’s somethin’ like a celebration / What’s the occasion? / What’s the occasion?“) as well as gorgeous Beatles-esque arrangement. Yes, you read that right.
Similarly, one could not sing enough praise about the two superlative back-to-back cuts “WHEN I BALL” and “DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY” on the record’s back end for switching up gears yet again—their inventive, refined, and catchy demeanour is pure sonic feast to behold. What’s even more remarkable about these two numbers is that they both manage to miraculously still leave a decisive creative impact after having undergone the evident enduring legacy from the wealth of quality material preceding them on ROADRUNNER. Yet, the award for absolute and utmost show-stopping, scene-stealing, heads-turning apex undoubtedly goes to curtain closer “THE LIGHT, PT II“. This stripped down, deconstructed, and larger-than-life helping houses what has got to be one of the most candid, bare, and brutally honest heart-on-sleeve set of verses any BROCKHAMPTON member ever put down to wax in the group’s discography. The following album closing account from JOBA, aside from being impeccably executed, acts as ultimate exhibit to life’s herculean and stoic defiance, particularly when guided by the light machine. It’s reported here in closing and in its bowing out entirety:
When that hammer pulled back, did you think of me?
You were the one that taught me how to be
Look at me now in all my glory
Overcame a lot, that’s a different story
Abandoned by the life-giver, lookin’ back at my life different
Deep cuts in the dusk of the final gasp, before your life flashed
What happens when you die? Does it fade black?
I sense you in my skin and the trucker cap
Missed it when we laughed
Didn’t trust my intuition when I saw the cracks
I’m sorry, all I ever want to do is make you proud
Fleetin’ moments, always found a way around the frown
Set aside the pain to celebrate the now
Couldn’t kick me out the house, I was fucked up
Nothing to prove without doubt, if I’m man enough
What’s the use? I could use you, ’cause I’m scared as fuck
Tuck me in, always young enough to feel loved
And share some, are you lookin’ down?
And a child reachin’ out, brittle bone, crying now
The past does not define you
The past does not define you
The burden was too much
Couldn’t save you from yourself when you’d self-destruct
Couldn’t save me from myself when I pushed my luck
To tell the truth, I am just like you
Left it all in the pistol that you used
Always be a little man, following your footsteps
Even though I’m mad, even though you’re gone
You live on, and the day I have kids
And tell ’em ’bout Grandpa and how great he is
And the grandkids’ grandkids
You’ll never meet if it weren’t for you
I wouldn’t be, neither would they
It’s safe to say I’ll find a way out the darkness
The way you left ‘Ma hits me the hardest
What a shame, things change in the blink of an eye
Fade away, fast break to the depths in the sky
Impermanence turned permanent with a nine
That’s life, that’s life
I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.
ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE
2021, RCA Records