Thursday, December 21, 2017

album review: 'saturation iii' by BROCKHAMPTON

Not going to lie, I had mixed feelings about this the second I heard about it. Hell, they're the same mixed feelings I have whenever a band or act decides to drop multiple projects in a year when they could combine them into one uniquely strong record...

Actually, I'm not sure I stand by that in the same way anymore. The fact remains that I've covered a fair few artists over the course of this show who have dropped more than one project in the course of a year, sometimes with a radically different focus and style where the quality remains consistent - look at billy woods or Eric Taxxon. I think my bigger issue with BROCKHAMPTON is that while both Saturation I and II are good albums, they're a shade away from greatness, and it's hard not to feel like the thematic arc is retreading familiar territory without really evolving on it. And then there's the other big concern: burnout - quite simply, churning out multiple records in a year with a distinct promotion and marketing arc, especially when you're an independent collective, while it might be easier in the internet age it's also the sort of work that can push working relationships to their limit. And thus when Kevin Abstract made his fakeout post that Saturation III was their last hip-hop record, I believed it - artistic collectives have broken up over far less.

Now of course that's not quite the case, and we'll probably have more BROCKHAMPTON coming up, along with solo projects, but in the mean time, the critical buzz behind Saturation III was promising, so what did we get with this?

Honestly, it's a little tough to tell. I can see why some critics are being more charitable towards Saturation III, because to some extent you can tell this is one of their most refined projects to date - the chemistry is stronger, the writing seems more refined, the production is more varied... and yet up until I gave this record one last listen, I was going to say it didn't quite connect even in the same way the first two Saturation records did. But with that last listen, I think I finally get it, and while I'm not quite sure this record hits the stark high points that have characterized their last two records, it also doesn't hit the lows and thus winds up as their most consistent project to date, and one that opens up a lot of doors going forward.

Now if you're familiar with BROCKHAMPTON's sound and approach at this point, while the overall tones in production are more diverse the core members remain consistent in their strengths and weaknesses. Kevin Abstract remains the sensitive leader tweaking his vocal tone with layers of filters, Don McLemon is the most technically skilled and insightful but has unfortunately developed a taste for autotune that doesn't quite flatter him, Ameer Vann has the best stage presence but his rhymes can feel disjointed, Merlyn's delivery is the most wild but he's often ahead of the curve in his insight and references, Joba's crooning has only gotten better - although I'd still argue that bearface is the best secret weapon BROCKHAMPTON have ever had in their arsenal - and Matt Champion... well, as much as I can find him a limited MC at points, he actually does showcase some real improvements in the structure of his bars and I really do like a lot of his singing on songs like 'RENTAL'. What's more pronounced is how the group are acting more and more like a cohesive unit, often trading bars back and forth with an ease and comfort I definitely appreciate, even integrating Robert's Spanish interludes more effectively than ever with some absolutely gorgeous arranged instrumentals behind him. Now do I wish that the entire group as a whole refined their wordplay and lyrical construction a little more so more of the rhymes actually connected, of course I do, but the more BROCKHAMPTON projects I consume the more I realize it might just be a factor of the homegrown, throw-everything-at-the-wall approach that's coming to characterize the group.

And yet that artistic focus and cohesion does take center stage when you start digging into the content here, and the position of Saturation III as the end of a trilogy does shift the context of how I'm hearing this album. If the first Saturation was the genesis of the come-up and the second was the ecstatic moment of clarity racing to the top, Saturation III starts at the apex, with 'BOOGIE' as the explosion of delight... but Merlyn's verse highlighting an odd hollowness that begins creeping through the rest of the project. This is where despite my criticisms that BROCKHAMPTON have retread similar thematic territory Saturation III shifts both in content and overall mood to a more somber affair, with less outright aggression and more open questions surrounding what might come next - after all, if you get close to the top and you're still not finding satisfaction, where do you go from there? And that yawning sense of dissatisfaction and emptiness even in the face of fame is pretty potent, especially when Kevin Abstract is conscious that he's still hasn't pulled the boy band into true 'pop star' territory where he could get Harry Styles' number, Joba is succumbing to bad habits, and Merlyn realizes that the girl with him on a tour bus doesn't trust he won't hurt her, but he also knows it's probably the right decision. And as the record progresses you can see each band member see the lingering consequences for charting an unknown path to fame so damn quickly in a way for them that seems completely natural: some retreating into the safety of their process; no desire to return to a far bleaker past, but wary of critics who'll misunderstand them; anxious for the spotlight and fans to see the honest truth of what they're building but conscious of the vulnerability that'll expose; and as Dom emphasizes on the two part 'SISTER/NATION', he's going to continue to blow past established standards to seize control of the narrative pen despite the world's projections, even though he doesn't quite know where that narrative leads. And it's a potent choice to then end the record with 'TEAM', which might rely on bearface's gorgeous, reverb-soaked guitars for the first half... before letting each member take to the mic one last time, where they may have evolved and changed but the world hasn't quite caught up or in some cases regressed - and thus when the album clicks into the sample that drove 'HEAT' - the first song on Saturation - the artistic cycle must continue - society might sputter backwards but they sure as hell won't.

So okay, the group is only growing more refined, there's a stark lyrical departure thematically and in a promising direction that emphasizes BROCKHAMPTON's careful balance of exuberant bravado and confessional vulnerability... why am I not over the moon about this record? Honestly, the more listens I gave this record the more it circled back to the production - and at this point, I think it's more that the tones BROCKHAMPTON chooses just aren't all my cup of tea. I don't think I'll ever quite get onboard with the wonky pitch shifting and vocal filters, and like with Saturation II this record seems to inhabit more of the odd tunings, M.I.A.-esque blaring synths, and midtempo distortion than the hyperaggressive bangers or sweeter organic passages that the band is uncannily good at balancing. Now this time around I am hearing some tonal choices that seem a little closer to the Timbaland-esque futurism of the mid-2000s and even some more distinctive traditional hip-hop elements, like the off-kilter but jaunty piano on 'ZIPPER' or the brighter keys on 'HOTTIE' or the really sweet horn line on 'JOHNNY' playing off the spiraling tape and scratching, one of my favourite instrumentals on the project. And that's before you get the sharp but effective beat switch on 'SISTER/NATION' from gritty blasts of bassy synth - one of the most common elements driving any of the grooves on this project - to an oily progression that wouldn't be out of place in late 70s/early 80s synthpop. And again, I like how well this project can balance the whooping cacophony of a tune like 'BOOGIE' and by the end of the project with 'TEAM' resolve with dreamy, overdubbed guitars and bearface's stunning falsetto... but I can't say I liked the slapdash tuning of the guitars on 'STUPID' or 'BLEACH', and if they were going to get a guest singer for the latter, I really wish they had stuck with bearface instead of Ryan Beatty, who is serviceable but doesn't really add enough to that hook, especially when the outro is going to use bearface anyway! And again, it's hard to say if any of the songs have the same electricity or instantaneous hooks that made the first two Saturations - but again, when so many of these songs feel like they're decomposing at the seams, which of course is intentional given the themes, I'm willing to be more forgiving in that territory.

But as a whole, as this is the third BROCKHAMPTON record I've reviewed in 2017... you know, I'm still not quite sure they've dropped the undeniable shot of genre-bending greatness, but after the Saturation trilogy I'm more convinced than ever they have the raw potential to get there, especially with the refinements across this record. And thus while I'm not sure I could rank my favourite of the trilogy - like the last two, I'm giving this a strong 7/10 and for certain a recommendation - this one leaves me the most encouraged. BROCKHAMPTON may have had a potent 2017, but 2018 looks to be even better, and I can't wait to hear more.

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