Tuesday, September 3, 2019

album review: 'GINGER' by BROCKHAMPTON

I'm worried about BROCKHAMPTON.

Which is a weird thing to say, given that thanks to their signing to RCA they've started to see significant market movement for their albums outside of their cult fanbase - all well and good, because I still hold iridescence as their best album thus far and easily earning its spot in my top 25 albums of 2018. But that was a project that felt transitional, and while there was always darkness between the lines on every BROCKHAMPTON project, here it was reflected in a fragility that made worry that the rushed push for a new album had pushed the band to the brink. And I know that's weird to say about a group that once put out three albums in a year, but creative burnout is a thing, especially when you have to push out a member for some damning allegations.

And thus I was utterly shocked that we were getting yet another BROCKHAMPTON album so quickly and this year - you'd think the group would take a few seconds to breathe and tour, especially with Kevin Abstract releasing a project of his own, but nope! And the reception from what I've seen has been... scattered, to say the least. Some have called it a return to Saturation-era form, others were noting the darkness had only deepened and was further fracturing their sound... but given how much I loved iridescence with multiple songs from it making my year-end list, I had expectations this time around. So what did BROCKHAMPTON deliver on GINGER?

Goddamn it, this is the worst sort of review for me to make - which, yes, I've said a number of times before about projects that wind up disappointments, but it's the type of disappointment that really saddens me that I can't get into this nearly as much as I wanted. Because more than ever, this album reflects a cohesive mood and sound from BROCKHAMPTON, which many have translated into the group showing greater maturity and internal growth... and yet of every one of this boy band's projects, this is the one that hit me the least. Don't get me wrong, it's not bad, but in comparison with the fractured but vibrant heights the group knocked out of the park on iridescence or even the bangers strewn across the Saturation trilogy, this feels smaller and more predictable - good, not great.

Now granted, the lack of immediate hard-hitting songs doesn't have to be a detriment - I saw Joji this year and their overlapping audience will mosh to anything - but if you're coming here looking for the lush production or wild pivots that emerged from the previous four projects, they're not here, even while keeping this still a BROCKHAMPTON project. The pitch-shifted layering and wild shifts in tone are still here - although somehow the sequencing seems to be getting more scattered with every project - but even these elements seem eased back and tempered, trying to refine the focus and dampen the vibe to enrich the melancholy... which isn't an issue in and of itself. It's depressingly conventional - in order to find "maturity" the act feels they have to make darker, moodier music - but there's always been that undercurrent on every BROCKHAMPTON album and GINGER is going to serve as an album-length group therapy session, I'm not against it, especially as all the boys are becoming better and better rappers. The biggest standout improvements go to Joba and Matt Champion continuing to tighten up their bars and embrace more melody, but even bearface is dropping into some melodic flows that actually worked more than I thought they would. But it's also hard to avoid the feeling that given the shift in tone it's not always flattering all the elements of this band, and while Dom finds his lane to start peeling into the roots of his depression, we don't get nearly as many verses, and while Kevin Abstract's musings can remain hit-and-miss, the real guy who got short-changed here was Merlyn, who I remember getting blunt about his angst as far back as 'MILK' and now seems to be constantly trying to ramp up the energy... and is just left hanging. 

But that seems to be rooted in my larger issue with GINGER - it just feels unfinished and increasingly scattered with every listen, as if Kevin Abstract just missed pulling a few songs from the hundred-plus the boy band apparently recorded to fully expand it. Unlike previous BROCKHAMPTON albums - which yes, nearly all ran long, but they at least felt well-balanced and diverse - we only get twelve tracks, with 'HEAVEN BELONGS TO YOU' entirely given over to UK rapper slowthai and the closer 'VICTOR ROBERTS' given to a new rapper who might well join the boy band, with a hook from Ryan Beatty and only a few lines from bearface to tie things together. Now I don't mind either song - hell, 'VICTOR ROBERTS' is probably one of my favourite cuts here and a great way to close things out, we'll come back to this - but when you're missing those bigger anthemic moments and the bangers along the way, it feels like there were cuts made for the sake of 'cohesion' that didn't need to happen, especially when the increasingly wonky sequencing doesn't help the sense of cohesion anyway! And while I'm here, going back to 'HEAVEN BELONGS TO YOU', I have to question what sampling budget and label notes BROCKHAMPTON got from RCA, because not only is that Three 6 Mafia sample blatantly reused on 'IF YOU PRAY RIGHT' - a tenuous Nina Simone reference doesn't explain splitting them apart with 'ST. PERCY', which contains the same gang vocal pickup as 'I BEEN BORN AGAIN' and a Hurricane Chris sample of all people - and then the band reuses a Chicago Hartley sample on multiple songs, but once again BROCKHAMPTON is sampling themselves! And normally this wouldn't be an issue given how colourful BROCKHAMPTON can be, but with this project sounding increasingly stripped back, with percussion that's either sandy warps or ramshackle clunkers, synth melodies increasingly fragmented, and cheap, fractured acoustics, especially in comparison with iridescence recorded at Abbey Road with its Radiohead sample and broader orchestration, it sounds like BROCKHAMPTON got told to make this with less resources, and it kind of shows. That's not saying there aren't great moments - 'NO HALO' is a phenomenal cut with real command of its melancholic groove, and 'DEARLY DEPARTED' pays off its echoing psychedelic elements well - but place it opposite the borderline elevator music tune of 'BOY BYE' or the brittle plinking of 'I BEEN BORN AGAIN' or the warping grain of the percussion on 'LOVE ME FOR LIFE', and the tonal choice doesn't always click.

Granted, I'd argue some of this comes with the content as well, and again, BROCKHAMPTON have always been open about the angst lurking just behind their most depressing and fractured songs, and moving that to the forefront isn't a bad idea... but it's hard to avoid the feeling that this album might be their most inward-focused to date. We get some details about Dom's persistent struggle with depression and how it shapes his art, how Joba's trainwreck lifestyle is barely holding together, how Matt's relationships with women are increasingly fractured, how Kevin questions how much he can really give in a relationship or even to the audience at large... but not much of this feels like a revelation, or reaches much in the way of resolution. And while you can tell this is part of the point - the dreariness of the project seems to accentuate how these problems have persisted for years and they're no closer to solving them - it doesn't really build to much in the way of payoff... except for two points. The first is 'DEARLY DEPARTED', which for the majority of the song seems directed at BROCKHAMPTON's former member Ameer Vann, where the betrayal of trust is placed at the forefront and Dom nearly breaks down at the end of his verse... hell, when you consider that brotherhood and family is consistently the most important part of any BROCKHAMPTON album, it's easy to tell how much this stings. But the second moment comes with the ending 'VICTOR ROBERTS', where the titular rapper describes his own family fragmented by trust given where it shouldn't, taking his innocence far too quickly as he clings to his Power Rangers toy in the face of the police busting in... and that's when the undercurrent of longing empathy slides back to the forefront, where they're willing to keep trying to extend the trust and love regardless - even in the face of betrayal or a contradictory form of masculinity that demands hard lines on 'BIG BOY', it's still worth more.

And yet even with that... I dunno, it feels more undercooked than it should, generally the emotion I feel with this entire project. And yet the very best moments do push this into enough quality that I can see the appeal - even if I think this is more scattered and diffuse than it should be, lacking the soaring moments or crushing heights that made their previous albums so strong, I also can't deny the emotional arc and throughline of this album makes a certain amount of sense. Granted, maybe some of it comes through familiarity with the group, and I tend to be way more forgiving of thematic cohesion making up for weak moments... but while I do think this is BROCKHAMPTON's most flawed album, I'm still going to give it an extremely light 7/10 and a recommendation. There's certainly an audience for this brand of brooding melancholy, and ending on a moment of profound empathy and welcome is potent even despite the shortcomings - so even if this was a dark night for BROCKHAMPTON, I'm looking forward to a coming dawn.

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