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BROCKHAMPTON’s ‘ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE’ Is A Triumphant Tragedy - Album Review

Surviving through thick and thin, the BROCKHAMPTON arc is a peculiar one for hip-hop. The boy band was no greater than the sum of its parts on the group’s flimsy debut mixtape ‘ALL-AMERICAN TRASH’. Since then, they’ve amassed one of the most consistent discographies in recent memory, cementing themselves as alt-hip-hop royalty along the way. It was 2018 when the troupes were rocked to the core following internal fall-outs, the morbidity of it was captured in their soul-stirring 2019 record ‘GINGER’, their most focused project to date. The road to emotional recovery is far from over for BROCKHAMPTON, but it’s their continued saddened state on ‘ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE’ that has the boyband churning out the most fully-realised material of their careers. Ambition abound, ‘ROADRUNNER’ retraces the best elements of previous eras and repackages it in hard-hitting form.

BROCKHAMPTON are back and, at times, better than ever. The record picks up right where ‘iridescence’ left off, only this time around, the griminess and sheer elation is increased tenfold. With hyperventilating synth layers and flashing urgency ‘BUZZCUT’ is a slice of hardcore hip-hop perfection turned up to eleven. I struggle to remember a time where Kevin Abstract sounded so eager to impress and featured artist Danny Brown fits like a glove in the midst of the marauding chaos. The cartoonish expression doesn’t end there as ‘CHAIN ON’ is a similarly riled-up piece of abstract hip-hop. Here, JPEGMAFIA and Dom McLennon steal the show with particularly exaggerated performances, atop some of the record's kookiest production. It’s non-stop jubilating saturation that wouldn't feel out of place on Gorillaz’s ‘Plastic Beach’.

The collective goes from strength to strength, marrying their broadest set of influences to date. The result is equal parts explosive and endearing, but it’s the continuation of the dejection-drenched aesthetic of ‘GINGER’ that makes ‘ROADRUNNER’ such a painstaking listen. On ‘WHAT’S THE OCCASION?’ Joba juggles existential crisis and depressive episodes with a syrupy tone over the top of a symphony of stereo glitches. It’s a deafening mix that’ll have you on the cusp of tears awaiting any kind of sweet ending. Those prayers are only answered on ‘DEAR LORD’, a yearning choral anthem that sees Joba’s associates begging for support, his absence makes it all the more gripping. It’s somewhere between a euphoric Bon Iver interlude and the tones of Gospel Kanye West tried and didn’t get nearly as right.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the core themes of ‘ROADRUNNER’. BROCKHAMPTON widens the scope of loss as they highlight their vulnerabilities, drawing from their own intimate recollections and demons. The result is a sense of comradery brought on by some of their most despondent writing to date. There’s a real therapeutic catharsis to ‘I’LL TAKE YOU ON’ as the collective recount being pulled from the depths of anxiety, even if it is a tad repetitive. ‘WHEN I BALL’ is an ode to overcoming struggle as Dom McLennon and Matt Champion weigh in on forfeited youth and broken perceptions of life due to normalised struggle. It’s tied up with an adorable boyish chorus that adds weight to their heartbreaking confessions.

In a state of anarchy, BROCKHAMPTON stretches the concern beyond personal narratives, as ‘ROADRUNNER’ even tackles social injustice. ‘DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY’ hinges on a deafening gunshot, the theatrical representation of the gun culture that remains rife in America. Their approach is a critical one, voicing concern when the rest of the industry seems to have brushed the potent issues under the rug for convenience's sake, but it doesn’t mean the boys sacrifice any of their raw excitement in doing so. All hell breaks loose in the presence of the Snoop Dogg-esque G-Funk production which is the audio equivalent of cocaine. It’s one of the few inclusions, along with ‘WINDOWS’, that capitalises on the explosive back and forth dynamic the group possesses. These sporadic posse cuts, an integral building block to the BROCKHAMPTON brand, are often neglected on ‘ROADRUNNER’ in favour of a more conformist song structure.

At times, there’s a real lack of cohesion between the collective. On their highly acclaimed ‘SATURATION’ trilogy, BROCKHAMPTON gelled together like a well-oiled machine, on ‘ROADRUNNER’ there are moments where they awkwardly interact as if it were their first time working together. Outside of an absolutely electrifying A$AP Ferg performance, ‘BANKROLL’ harbours one poorly crammed in verse after another, it’s a rare moment where BROCKHAMPTON’s many chefs do in fact spoil the broth. ‘OLD NEWS’ feels similarly rushed, the track never once paces itself in order to give any performer enough breathing room to really leave a mark. If the highs of ‘ROADRUNNER’ are comparable to a raucous mosh pit, then the lows are like an overpopulated ship on the verge of capsizing.

For everything the record attempts to blend into this one wildly ambitious soup, it was bound to make a mistake or two at some point, and unfortunately, it’s the production that tends to drop the ball. The bleak whistles and tacky hi-hats crumble under the weight of shapeshifting vocals on ‘COUNT ON ME’. But it’s ‘BANKROLL’ that takes the cake for the most excruciatingly boring instrumental on the album. It’s easily the track that’s appeal I understand the least, and I can only assume it exists to satisfy some kind of aspiration for commercial recognition. That’s not to suggest ‘ROADRUNNER’ in its entirety is flawed, but it proves that there’s certainly room for growth still.

The centerpieces of ‘ROADRUNNER’, however, are ‘THE LIGHT’ and ‘THE LIGHT PT.II’. BROCKHAMPTON were depressed on ‘GINGER’, here, they’ve plunged deeper in their misery-stained psyche, pouring their guts out into their most captivating writing to date. The former is some of the most abrasive material on the record with its intoxicating guitars which act as the perfect bed for Joba and Abstract’s blunt reactions to suicide and broken relationships. It’s a sentiment I struggle to stomach even after the album’s conclusion. The latter doubles down on themes of loss as Joba wrestles with the harsh reality of his father's demise, every refrain has me on edge. It’s a closer of subdued epic proportions, the tastefully over dramatised final chapter to an inescapable tragedy. This is BROCKHAMPTON’s most mature musical statement yet.

The best way to describe ‘ROADRUNNER’ is by relating it to a multicultural-themed buffet, an incredibly diverse feast for the ears. Even by BROCKHAMPTON’s standards, the record is a drastic change of pace, a moment of reflection to grasp at what little closure remains possible for the tormented souls. In the process, the troupe trade zany room-rocking antics for a syrupy dose of heartbreak, the result may be their best-written album to date, but it tends to weaken the boy bands arsenal, stripping their unpredictable ragtag approach for a more tame outfit. Kevin Abstract recently advertised that BROCKHAMPTON had two projects, ‘ROADRUNNER’ included, before suspension, and I can only hope that the collective’s send-off burns as brightly as this, a testament to the group's turbulent talent.

ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE - BROCKHAMPTON - 8/10

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