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Review: Brockhampton’s ‘Saturation III’

Texas-hailing music collective Brockhampton insists on being called a boy band, but that classification deeply rooted in radio-ready pop music and teenage girl-driven album sales isn’t what most would label the group of 20-something-year-old men who create experimental, upfront rap bangers that would undoubtedly make the typical boy band fan – someone in their tweens who loudly esteems the sugar-coated artistries of One Direction, or if it were 20 years ago, the Backstreet Boys – furrow their eyebrows in distaste and confusion.

Still, even though the men met each other on a Kanye West fan site rather than a reality TV program, their desired title stands: the 15-member collective was the subject of a VICELAND show called “American Boyband”; they’ve referred to themselves as a Southside reimagining of 1D; if a Brockhampton newcomer visited the Wikipedia page for their latest studio album, Saturation III, they’d be greeted with an introduction that refers to the group as a boy band, indeed. And though most ambitious, young, and creatively driven musicians would despise the commercialized connotations glued to bands of boys, it seems like Brockhampton’s goal is to revolutionize the concept by initially embracing it.

“The focus on the group is more than just making music, the focus of the group is more on redefining things and shifting people’s perceptions,” Bearface, a 24-year-old Brockhampton member said to The Fader back in July, further noting that the collective’s founder, rapper Kevin Abstract, wanted Brockhampton to redefine the word ‘boy band’ altogether.

Now it’s been about two years since the group’s 2015 conception, and it’s clear that Abstract and his bandmates were onto something. Oddly enough, if you look at a group photo of Brockhampton, they reflect a boy band at its conceptual core – each youthful member looks like they bring their own distinct style to the collective vision, and a sense of brotherhood gleams through the images. Sure, the guys are dressed in beat-up Vans and chinos, rather than Harry Styles-inspired skinny jeans and wide-brimmed hats, but this aesthetic resonates with their audience, surely comprised of millennial kids using art as an escape from lifeless, suburban environments – the very kind that Brockhampton has touched on in the music and visuals of their 2017 album trilogy, Saturation.

In December, the third, final installment of the series was dropped, and Saturation III has been critically branded as the strongest of its siblings (that amazingly released just months between each other). But it’s unnecessary to familiarize oneself with the two older records to appreciate and enjoy the standalone genius of this climactic project. The record is a unification of moods, and its 15 tracks succeed at keeping a hip-hop head’s ears engaged via unconventional structures, varying paces and attention-grabbing bars.

Nearly every bit of Saturation III is crafty, and it can make a new fan regret sleeping on the now-Los Angeles-based outfit for so long. Yet, at the same time, few parts of the LP allow for listeners to dare regret their previous disinterest – “Boogie,” the wild, offkey cut that opens Saturation III illustrates this scarcity perfectly. “My niggas takin’ over, Brockhampton call your momma/My niggas goin’ platinum, break necks, send you to the doctor,” raps Ameer Vann in the track’s second verse, vocalizing the band’s meteoric success over the past year. As Vann and his other rapping friends spit bars, there’s no time to lament one’s own life and decisions.

Instead, there’s only time to boogie – in this way, the track is like a millennial rendition of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” – and follow-up “Zipper” encourages equally wacky moments through both Matt Champion’s anthemic third verse and its instrumental that connotes mischievousness. But there’s also an unfortunately borrowed tone in the flows of songs like “Zipper,” “Liquid” and “Sister/Nation”; in these moments, Brockhampton’s experimentation falls short to the characteristics of hip-hop’s biggest subgenres right now, like trap and grime. This is not to say that those styles are collectively abominable, but it cannot be denied that the conventions of those genres have, in 2017 at least, inundated ears to the point of fatigue.

However, the powerful spaces on Saturation III still overshadow the small lot of weak ones, and by way of R&B, redemption is exemplified on more emotive tracks, such as “Bleach,” “Hottie” and “Alaska.” On the former, featured pop singer Ryan Beatty broods, “Who got the feeling? Tell me why I cry when I feel it/ Tell me why, tell me why.” His warped vocals are warm and poignant enough for listeners to wish Beatty was Brockhampton’s sixteenth member, and in the track’s bridge, abstract’s femininized, processed vocals smoothly lead to the four-minute song’s outro.

And though “Bleach” is arguably the album’s smoothest inclusion, “Hottie” is still a robust contender that carries a pop-ish, keyboard-driven outro made for grooving to. The track also brings attention to a recurring sonic aesthetic that appears on “Johnny” and “Stupid” – in the choruses of these cuts, Abstract frequently turns his voice into that of a prepubescent, 13-year-old boy’s. At the end of “Stupid,” in particular, he sings “Boys wanna play with my cell phone, but I don’t want nobody to see what’s in it,” and it’s this high-pitched performance that reminds listeners who Brockhampton ultimately are – a band of boys not far from their own teenage years, making clever music about their own resonant experiences and saturating our world with their sonic eccentricities.

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