Brockhampton’s journey began when de facto leader Kevin Abstract posted “Anyone wanna start a band?” in the KanyeToThe forums, a meeting ground where hip-hop fans discuss music, fashion, gossip, and all things Kanye. By the time the dust settled, Abstract had assembled a collective of nearly a dozen rappers, singers, producers, and multimedia specialists hailing from different regions of the United States and Europe. Brockhampton blurred the line between rap stardom and rap fandom; they geeked out online about Frank Ocean, Harry Styles, and Tyler, the Creator records, and then they processed those influences in real time through their own music. Odd Future comparisons seem apt, but unlike that collective, this group has insisted on being called a “boy band” since the release of the 2015 mixtape All American Trash. At first, it seemed like a gag rooted in Abstract’s love of former One Direction singer Harry Styles. But over the course of last year’s series of Saturation LPs and this year’s new studio album, Iridescence, Brockhampton has worked hard to present itself as more than just the sum of its intriguing parts and personalities.
The three Saturation installments were whetstones where individual members of Brockhampton honed their talents through competition and collaboration. Highlights like “STAR” and “QUEER” clattered like iron sharpening iron. Abstract, rapper Dom McLennon, and album cover star Ameer Vann emerged as formidable, versatile talents while their peers Merlyn Wood, Matt Champion, and Joba gave memorable appearances, and producers Romil, Q3, and Bearface supplied quirky, busy beats. Adversity threatened that bond last year as an ex-girlfriend’s abuse allegations led Ameer to admit to mistreating women in his life and exit the group that had made him its public face. Iridescence isn’t just tasked with building on the unrestrained youth energy of the Saturation series. Its job is to recalibrate Brockhampton’s whole formula, to prove that no one person makes or breaks this group. In its finer moments, Iridescence showcases a collection of gifted triple-threat performers that are excited to rise up to the task, although there are spots where the guys seem unsure of how to manage all the open space their disgraced star left behind.
As boy band outings go, Iridescence most resembles the reckless, unpredictable sprawl of K-pop. You never know where a song is headed or when the album is going to charge full bore out of rap and into a completely different genre. Iridescence is a hulking everything sandwich where the flavors are all impactful but not necessarily complementary. At times, Merlyn and Joba’s louder, coarser performances can seem beamed in from a Das EFX or a Bone Thugs record; sometimes that sits well with Kevin and Dom’s sturdier, more reflective raps, as it does in Joba’s melodic spot in the middle of “WEIGHT,” and sometimes it threatens to blow a mannered song to bits. The urge to show the listener everything the group is capable of at all times is a drain on the album’s cohesion. Iridescence’s flight from Abstract’s quiet, affecting “SOMETHING ABOUT HIM” to Merlyn’s raucous “WHERE THE CASH AT” and from Abstract and McLennon’s emotive “WEIGHT” into the sprawling full-crew track “DISTRICT” is jerky and disorienting, but if you stick with it, a sweetness and a sobering sentimentality arise.
When the guys all get on the same page, they can be devastating. Songs like “WEIGHT,” “DISTRICT,” and “TAPE” are proof this group is worth the time of the throngs of disaffected teens that follow them now. Abstract’s frankness about coming to the realization that he’s attracted to men in “WEIGHT” revisits the disarming coming-out stories of his last solo album American Boyfriend. Champion and McLennon speak candidly about overcoming doubt and stress on “TAPE.” Bearface steals the show with a beautiful vocal on “SAN MARCOS,” where the London Community Gospel Choir brings the thing crashing down with a chilling refrain of “I want more out of life than this.” Brockhampton is a project about friendship, about partners boosting each other’s strengths and buttressing each other’s weaknesses. The somber tracks on the back half of Iridescence feel like a breakthrough in that respect; you wish the whole album focused on the bleary-eyed reckoning of “SAN MARCOS,” “TONYA,” and “FABRIC” instead of peppering them with gangly battle raps.
Iridescence was recorded in Hawaii and London, and you can feel the latter location’s influence all over the production, from the trip-hop accents of “WEIGHT” to the grime influence of “WHERE THE CASH AT,” “J’OUVERT,” and “DISTRICT” to the drum ‘n’ bass coda that lifts “TAPE” into the clouds. “WEIGHT” and “TAPE” are places where the focus on British rap and electronic music works for the album, but everyone’s skills are better displayed on offbeat productions like “BERLIN,” whose central melody is gleaned from the sounds of engines revving, or moments like “SAN MARCOS” and “TONYA,” where traditional sounds and lush arrangements give the group space to get heartfelt and a little sappy. There’s always a little too much going on, but five projects in, sensory overload seems to be half the point of Brockhampton. Iridescence strives a little harder than the Saturation tapes did and comes out with more breathtaking surprises but also a few duds. This group had to change — when you seek out new directions, you’re bound to hit a misstep or two — but Iridescence’s highs outnumber the lows.