‘ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE’ is the sound of a hip-hop collective tortured by a shattered identity, at last piecing together the fragments to reveal an entirely new reflection. This is their final form: the penultimate act in a hard-won evolution. If we are to take the recents tweets by BROCKHAMPTON’s Kevin Abstract at face value, ‘ROADRUNNER’ is the first of the group’s final albums this year; from the start, this feels like the boys are shaping up for the final curtain call.
When they bounded onto the scene with the technicolour glory of the ‘SATURATION’ trilogy in 2017, BROCKHAMPTON were pushing the envelope with their sense of hedonism and gloopy, almost child-like experimentalism. Born of the fertile breeding ground of the internet, meeting each other in a Kanye West forum, BROCKHAMPTON came to define a utopian vision of inclusivity, where the spectrum of background, race and sexuality unified them, holding the promise of radical hip-hop concoctions that defined a new horizon for hip-hop. But after Ameer Vann, the face of the trilogy – and, above all, their best friend – was kicked out of the group in light of sexual abuse allegations, the empire they built for themselves caved in like a house of cards. What ensued were two albums of reckoning: ‘iridescence’, a scattered departure from their high-spirited bangers, resembling a dumbstruck expression of grief; and ‘GINGER’, the record weighted equally in light and the dark, as the collective climbed back to their feet.
‘ROADRUNNER’ is the latest installation in their story, and while they are blazing a new path with an entirely new, old-school indebted sound, BROCKHAMPTON are wrestling with just as many demons as before. To try and liken ‘ROADRUNNER’ to the ‘SATURATION’ trilogy not only feels wrong, but reductive in light of what this record means. The foundation of this record was built upon loss: Joba’s father killed himself when ‘ROADRUNNER’ went into production, and despite a smattering of bangers, ultimately, the record is a sun-kissed shoulder to cry on. There is a sense he found ‘the light’, and that his best friends, through this record, showed him the way. ‘DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY’ is a silky, groove-inflected banger, but Joba’s outro: “What’s the issue? Why you gotta grab that pistol? / Think about who ‘gon miss you / Never know what I been through” makes the red cup feel more like a poisoned chalice.
‘THE LIGHT PT.2’ is a masterwork in confessional self-expression. Abstract, who has always laid his soul bare for all to see through his music, guides Joba almost shaman-like through his outpouring of grief on this track. Their lyrics, with white knuckles and gritted teeth, bear the weight of truth, scared and loaded with hurt: together, they bleed like an open wound. “The light is worth the wait, I promise,” Joba whispers. After this track, there will be no dry eyes.
The album’s production has depth and detail, which serves BROCKHAMPTON’s more emotive arsenal of members. Bearface, who has only appeared phantom-like as an inflection beyond his melodic, solo closers in the ‘SATURATION’ era, makes a long-awaited return. ‘DEAR LORD’ is a stripped back plea to the heavens, a chink of hope, with choral harmonies that will tie your heart in knots. Dom McLennon, the group’s appointed spiritual-lyrical-miracle, though criminally underused on this record, delivers a sashimi-sharp verse on ‘WHEN I BALL’, a reflection on the dizzying heights the group have reached. It’s airy and smooth, with glossy strings that suggest a level of sophistication the group have never toyed with before. BROCKHAMPTON have also developed a fine-tuned instinct for pop earworms, with ‘OLD NEWS’ standing out as a much-needed shot of sugar.
While BROCKHAMPTON began as notoriously tight-knit, ‘ROADRUNNER’ is their most collaborative record to-date – and holy shit, those tracks are weapons-grade. ‘BUZZCUT’, the album’s lead single, is a psychedelic, anthem with a 24-karat verse from Danny Brown. Kevin Abstract also shreds his verse – he has never been sharper. ‘CHAIN ON’, featuring a snarling contribution from JPEGMAFIA and the only track to be taken from their as-of-yet unofficially released mixtape ‘TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES’, sounds like a roof-down summer night. But with a six-speed rapper onside like Peggy, it often feels like the artists BROCKHAMPTON have enlisted haven’t been stretched to the best of their abilities. ‘COUNT ON ME’ and ‘BANKROLL’, both featuring an A$AP ROCKY verse the group have been toying with for years on various demos, somehow feels anticlimactic, considering they had so much at their disposal.
Nevertheless, ‘BANKROLL’ is a stunning showcase of Merlyn Wood’s eclectic, livewire flows which run side-by-side with A$AP FERG’s killer verse. But what seems to dampen the track is a very disjointed verse from Matt Champion. It sounds tailor-made to go off in a mosh pit, but when its woven into the overall fabric of the track, it feels patched-on and out of place. Considering Champion’s stellar track record of verses on ‘ROADRUNNER’, with his crowning glory being on the immaculate six-minute odyssey “WINDOWS”, an all-star display of BROCKHAMPTON’s versatility, this misstep is a small anomaly.
But the one thing you can’t overlook, no matter how much BROCKHAMPTON may dazzle with ‘ROADRUNNER’, is the fact that the collective no longer feel like a super-tight unit. You can practically hear each member itching for their own self-expression, with styles and verses that no longer seem to add up as part of a whole. Through bringing in such a range of collaborators, including their very own Jabari Manwa for the first time, the borders of BROCKHAMPTON are dissolving. If anything, ‘ROADRUNNER’ is the first taste of a collection of rappers who can stand alone with the same instinct with which they stand together – and that’s exciting. There is this overwhelming sense that the roadrunners are, at last, forging paths of their own.
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