It’s always exciting to see the music blogosphere hype machine kick into full effect. Even if the particular artist or album that is making the rounds on just about every independent music website and blog isn’t quite to my personal liking, the fact that a collective of small gonzo writers can give such a significant leg-up to the fresh blood to have recently emerged on their respective underground scenes is one of the most inspiring outcomes of the democratised nature of music journalism in the Internet age. As such, it’s easy to be swept up in the buzz whenever a new artist starts causing a great deal of commotion amongst indie music bloggers, and BROCKHAMPTON’s meteoric rise to prominence on the underground hip hop scene stands as one of the most testing examples of this effect in quite some time. Currently standing at 15 members strong, BROCKHAMPTON’s very inception itself can be traced back to the Internet, with the collective, masterminded by alternative hip hop and R&B artist Kevin Abstract, being founded through the music forum KanyeToThe. Whilst the debut mixtape from the self-described “boy band”, ALL-AMERICAN TRASH, only received a minimal amount of exposure from within the independent music blogosphere, an unprecedentedly solid selection of singles released in promotion of their first full-length album, SATURATION, had the collective mouths of humble hip hop writers everywhere watering in anticipation. Although initially announced as a mixtape, BROCKHAMPTON’s last-minute decision to promote SATURATION to the status of an album — and the their debut album, at that — is an understandable one, given the fact that the success of its singles alluded to an overwhelmingly positive reception for the project as a whole, especially considering the extent to which the Internet’s busiest music nerd himself, Anthony Fantano, had praised these tracks. Indeed, with the batch of four songs teased leading up to the release of SATURATION containing some of the hardest hip hop bangers of the year thus far, including some of the most infectious hooks to boot, I was one to completely get behind the hype in anticipation of the full album. Now, with SATURATION here in its entirety, the end product yields some interesting and somewhat surprising results. BROCKHAMPTON’s ear for impeccable hook-craft that was translated over the course of the record’s singles is undoubtedly one of the central features of SATURATION, as is the collective’s impressive cohesion as a group, even in spite of their size. This being said, there is undoubtedly a nominal, but no less noticeable, lack of consistency across the course of the tracklisting, with certain cuts deeper into the tracklisting not displaying the same compositional chops of the record’s singles, whilst featuring some admittedly ambitious stylistic choices that nevertheless fall short of the mark for which Abstract and co. seemed to be striving. Undoubtedly, with all this considered, SATURATION is an admirable first attempt at a studio album from BROCKHAMPTON, and its best moments are truly flooring, but there still exist some notable points of improvement that prevent the record from being the defining debut that it could have been.
As for what BROCKHAMPTON get right over the course of SATURATION, much of the album’s greatest successes are really rather straightforward, but no less rewarding as a result. The contagious catchiness of the refrains; the eclectic, hard-hitting beats; the cohesion between the MCs; the well-structured narrative that deals with teenage angst and soul-searching, which reaches some surprisingly level-headed and endearing conclusions; the best moments throughout the tracklisting simply hit the nail on the head when it comes to fully actualising the sound and image that BROCKHAMPTON seem to be dedicated to establishing across SATURATION. Although there are a handful of cuts that teeter on the boundary between hip hop and R&B, the group retain a degree of fiery intensity over the course of the much of the record, with the heaviest of these cuts starkly reflecting the angry, abrasive, all-caps audacity of their titles. The opening cut and second single from SATURATION, HEAT, for instance, brings an arresting level of ferocity to the table, even in spite of its relatively minimal beat, comprised of some sluggish, spacious, booming percussion, a grumbling, borderline noise rap bass line and intermittent wails of wild guitar feedback. However, the downright nasty causticity of HEAT largely arises from the vicious bars and flows provided by the host of MCs who spit on this gritty instrumental, with Ameer Vann’s rough, dirty delivery playing towards horrorcore territory at times, as does Dom McLennon’s performance, even during the touches of melody that he works into his flow flawlessly. In a rather different fashion, the unhinged and almost manic deliveries of Merlyn Wood and Joba — the latter of whom’s repeated line during the bridge, “I’ll break your neck so you can watch your back”, is one of the most amusingly aggressive moments from the entire record — bring a similar amount of fury to the track, but more as a result of how dangerous and psychopathic their characters come across, as opposed to because of their deep, grainy voices, as is the case with Vann and McLennon. This severity in tone continues onto the succeeding two tracks, GOLD and STAR, both of which were also teased as singles prior to the release of SATURATION. Although the former features a much mellower mood than its predecessor — with some incredibly sparse percussion only occasionally being cut up with some live drum fills, as some buzzing synth leads play against the serene backdrop of smooth keyboard incidentals — Abstract’s refrain is not merely one of the catchiest on the record, especially upon the introduction of the vocal countermelody, but the amount of attitude he conveys through his gritty delivery and his emphasis on the hook’s guttural and plosive alliteration makes for a surprisingly cutthroat performance too. STAR, however, is far more upfront in its menace, as it brandishes some creepy, ice-cold synths that flutter above the wobbly, almost G-funk-esque mid-range melody, with McLennon, Vann and Abstract’s respective verses being packed with firepower and playing off one another seamlessly well, even if the song’s ending is almost jarringly abrupt. Undoubtedly, with such a pronounced flair for infectious songcraft even on the most bullish and forceful cuts across SATURATION, it’s such moments wherein BROCKHAMPTON’s cohesion as a collective really shines through and yields some stunning results.
However, as was inevitable given the single FACE and Kevin Abstract’s involvement in the group, BROCKHAMPTON are attempting to establish an identity as a versatile hip hop collective, as opposed to one that solely churns out back-to-back bangers, and, as such, many songs across SATURATION take on a syrupy, soulful vibe that strikes some similar chords to the music of artists such as Frank Ocean and even Kanye West’s more R&B-driven output, especially in terms of the production. It must be said, however, that, whilst there are undoubtedly some highlights amongst these cuts, the points at which the members of BROCKHAMPTON convey the same ability to play to their colleagues’ strengths are less common here than they were on the earlier songs in the tracklisting, just as some of the production quirks don’t come together quite so smoothly. Undoubtedly, a significant portion of this issue is ramified by the record’s structure, which, despite being rather impressive for the most part, nevertheless displays some issues. Firstly, the fact that the tracklisting is front-loaded with the hardest and, I would argue, best cuts from the album, with the first three tracks comprising three of the four singles released during the run-up to SATURATION, leaves some of the more underwhelming songs around the record’s mid-section feeling all the more left out in the cold. What’s more, with the album’s themes of a young boy band desperately trying to find an identity in a new location, after having relocated to California from their Texan roots, coming to their logical conclusion on MILK, as Vann, Wood, McLennon and Abstract all approach the topic of maturation and the transition into adulthood with the kind of calm and composure one would expect from someone attending a mutual aid group, especially given that Wood even formally introduces himself at the beginning of his verse, this track really feels as if it should have been placed as the last song in the tracklisting. Whilst the two cuts that follow it, FACE and WASTE, are two of the stronger tracks from the latter half of SATURATION, MILK seems so suited for the role of the record’s closer that it can almost feel as if these two succeeding songs were initially intended as bonus tracks and then simply ended up getting tacked onto the end of the album. Furthermore, some of the shortcomings in the production or presentation of certain tracks significantly hinder the overall fluency of SATURATION. The hook from BOYS, for instance, features some rather clunky vocal layering and is unfortunately somewhat underwritten, especially when compared to those of the three tracks that precede it, whilst the various MCs’ performances during the verse sections seem to be striving for a sense of moodiness that plays to the same territory as the cut’s brooding instrumental, but simply come across as comparatively less inspired than at others points across the album instead. The refrain from BANK is similarly bare-bones in a rather underwhelming fashion, whilst its use of auto-tune, although by no means bad, alludes to some of the more questionable uses of vocal effects that crop up at numerous points across the record. One of the most unfortunate consequences of the unnecessary reliance on auto-tune and pitch-shifting techniques is the fact that it manages to strip some of the rappers’ voices of the charismatic individuality that made some of the earlier tracks so compelling, whilst also inhibiting the extent to which each MC is able to complement those that appear around them on the cut. As an example, Kevin Abstract’s auto-tuned and pitch-shifted hook on TRIP makes the artist sound like a completely alien MC, in a way that’s off-putting and rather disappointing, given how cogently he conveys a sense of tenacity, dynamism and vigour through his personality and his voice usually. With lapses in the fluidity of SATURATION such as these only being made all the more apparent by the clear disparity in the lyric-writing and performing abilities of BROCKHAMPTON’s several MCs, the cohesion and consistency of the record’s best tracks unfortunately don’t carry over to the project as a whole, leaving some notable holes in its overall coherence.
With SATURATION amounting to one of the most, if not the most, explosive, full-length, underground hip hop debuts of the year thus far, it’s hard not to at least comprehend and appreciate the buzz behind it, and, during the album’s best moments, I certainly feel that same enthusiasm. The MCs’ chemistry and magnetic personal charm makes for some fantastically captivating tracks, whether it be from the hard-nosed bangers of HEAT and STAR, the rap-dominated catchiness of WASTE or the silky smooth tone of MILK, during which points BROCKHAMPTON exhibit an almost effortless swagger for immense effect. Yet, there are some relatively small, but no less significant, pitfalls in the general pacing, consistency and unity of SATURATION, when looked at as a whole project, that limit its impact slightly. Of course, given how successful of a debut record SATURATION surely is overall, and considering the fact that the collective have matured exponentially since last year’s ALL-AMERICAN TRASH, BROCKHAMPTON will no doubt look to tightening their sound on subsequent releases. Although, whether or not this will have transpired by the point of SATURATION II, which is supposedly dropping later this summer, is another question. Nevertheless, if the most potent moments from SATURATION set the trend for what the group is capable of come the arrival of future material, BROCKHAMPTON could definitely firm their footing in the underground rap scene and potentially even start making waves in the mainstream, especially if they manage to maintain the levels of hype that preceded this album.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10