Somewhere in the vicinity of 8:45 p.m. on Sunday night (Oct. 21), the sardine-packed floor of Terminal 5 —New York’s cavernous venue for artists that have arrived — went bananas, while the stage was still empty. A fog machine was pumping for all it was worth. Spontaneous chants had already broken out — “Jo-ba! Jo-ba!” “HK! HK!” But it was what appeared on the stage’s giant screen that set the 3,000-strong crowd off. A live backstage camera captured a good portion of the members of the BROCKHAMPTON goofing around. They weren’t saying much — a trademark “Me llamo Roberto” from web designer Rob Ontenient, a “What’s up New York?” from band leader Kevin Abstract — but they didn’t need to. Such is the adoration for music’s most remarkable success story of the past year.
“There’s hope yet” is what I tweeted on the day last month that BROCKHAMPTON’s fourth album, iridescence, claimed its extraordinary first-week No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 — the most unlikely album chart-topper of 2018, and a refreshing statement of what is still possible in a music world that too often rewards the familiar and contrived. And it’s what I say with even more conviction after having seen much of the album and many standouts from last year’s album trifecta SATURATION brought to rapturous life on the first of three nights at Terminal 5, another check mark moment for Abstract’s Collective That Could.
BROCKHAMPTON seem to rack up next-level accomplishments by the month. What a year-plus it’s been since I first saw the band of brothers on their “Jennifer’s Tour,” showcasing SATURATION I and II, then again in February, doing the same with part III, on the “Love Your Parents” trek — both shows were in venues much smaller than T5 and the other several-thousand capacity halls they’re currently hitting. This past summer produced another torrent of output — besides iridescence there was the string of singles “Tonya”, “1999 Wildfire,” “1998 Truman” and “1997 Diana,” their own Beats 1 radio show Things We Lost In the Fire, yet more music videos and a Tonight Show appearance. There was also a documentary feature capturing a tumultuous few months and the recording of iridescence, called The Longest Summer in America, which recently screened in movie theaters nationwide. To debut the new record, the group live streamed a concert from the other side of the world, in Auckland, New Zealand.
It’s a level of output which is made even more incredible when you consider that it happened in the wake of BROCKHAMPTON’s greatest test to date: the spring departure of core member Ameer Vann, in the wake of sexual abuse allegations, an experience painfully cataloged in a Billboard feature in July. That they’ve soldiered on and flourished even while losing a crucial voice and longtime brother says a lot about the band’ — and specifically Abstract’s — determination. For good reason, the guys struck a note of solidarity in titling the new tour “I’ll Be There.”
So when they took the stage to the string-drenched opening strains of “Weight” — exactly a month after the release of iridescence — it was on a note of reflection, addressing the growing pains head-on. “I really miss the old days, before the cosigns,” Abstract sang, in blue pin spotlights. “I really miss them cold days before the road signs.” But when the song kicked in, Terminal 5 took off, the crowd exorcising demons right along with a flailing Joba (“Pressure makes me lash back”, “Sippin on my pain/ Smoking on my pain”) and Dom McClennon, the crew’s most gifted lyricist, capable of remarkably vulnerable and ferocious bars, sharing his mom’s advice, “don’t let those who don’t know you start dictating your fate,” and admitting “the road to peace is filled with snakes, you got to keep your cool.”
While the group’s official membership is a baker’s dozen that includes producers, designers and videographers, on stage it’s the group’s rappers and singers: Abstract, McClennon, Joba, Matt Champion, Merlyn Wood and bearface. In the past, BROCKHAMPTON have sported matching jumpsuits and, for their breathtaking Coachella 2018 set, flak vests. For this tour, it’s black bowling shirts. “New Orleans” came next, fierce and urgent, the taut and electronic lead track from iridescence on which all six weigh in: bearface riffing on cheap gold chains and the green marks they leave on your neck; Joba, mental as ever — he in particular excels on the new album, and with his new blond bowl cut it’s like watching an unhinged version of an early-Backstreet Boys Nick Carter; Merlyn Wood’s gritty voice declaring “I’m living in my prime, man, what can I say? If the service is an hour, I’m an hour late.”
Then followed a run of Saturation fan favorites: “Zipper,” and “Queer,” against a video in green and red, images of video games and boxing. The song served up the Brock balance of thrashing and tender, as Matt Champion railed “Don’t go runnin your mouth” and faithful fans sang along with Abstract’s melodic chorus, “as long as you stay right here, right next to my side,” and then “Gummy,” the Saturation II bruiser in which Abstract sends up one of the most common knocks on him — that he’s too “sappy,” “He needs to act his age, he ain’t acting like a grownup,” the lyric goes, or for that matter, “like a soldier.” On the contrary, Abstract is the field marshal of the most inspiring army that 2018 music has to offer.
It’s in this part of the show that you first notice how BROCKHAMPTON have handled what had to be the most vexing question for this tour: how to address Ameer’s absence. Vann’s distinctive voice was always the most masculine of the crew, his bars the most aggressive and biting, the most inclined to confront racism and black power (also, not for nothing, they were also the most sexual), nowhere more so than on “Gummy,” where his verse delved into slavery, religion and hustling.
To hear it skipped over here — jumping from Merlyn’s “cash don’t mean shit” to Dom’s “How I‘m gon’ move at your pace? I’m busy setting the tone” — was noticeable. But they could hardly drop the song. It’s too powerful. The celeb name-checking “Star” came next — far and away the most-performed BROCKHAMPTON song due to the fact that they used to do it multiple times per show, just ‘cuz. The color scheme was pink and blue and once again, the crowd didn’t miss a word. The boys could have handed over the mics and they would have happily finished “Gummy” themselves.
“Where The Cash At” featured wild men Matt Champion and Merlyn, whose fiery flow was a reminder that with Vann’s departure it’s even more on Merlyn to deliver the hardest of the band’s repertoire. During another pause to vibe with the crowd with the house lights up, Abstract picked out a comely blond guy in a Yale sweatshirt down front, and asked “Do you hear what I hear?” by way of an intro to SATURATION II’s “Sweet.” The gentle “Bleach” and the good-time iridescense track “District” shone, and another of those communal moments came on “San Marcos,” named after the Texas town that birthed BROCKHAMPTON in its early days. It had thousands singing in unison, cameras on the audience, “I want more out of life than this! I want more!” — the sort of promise believed in, fervently, by the young.
The main set concluded with “Fabric,” the taking-stock closer off iridescence, a song born of the band’s whirlwind past year: Kevin had things to get off his chest about the way he and the group are covered in the media; Merlyn decried the “monsters” that “swarm round”; Dom likened himself to Nikola Tesla; Joba and bearface crooned and growled, respectively, the effects of their new fame, as Abstract chimed in on the hook, with thousands of the faithful helping out: “You don’t understand why I can’t get up and shout.”
The encore took BROCKHAMPTON back to the “Nineties” — the decade in which the group’s members were born. “1998 Truman” the summertime free-for-all that speaks to the guys’ new fishbowl existence, Matt and Dom taking on the haters and Joba featuring a rapid-fire rejoinder to those who doubted him — “these superficial people from my past,” reminding the doubters “I just pursued this shit/ While you chose to settle down and have some kids,” Merlyn’s raw addition, “Gimme no drugs, lend me some love/ Tonight when I’m in this club,” and as ever, bearface with the melodic, moving coda: “Won’t you come this close to me?” There was the lighthearted “1999 Wildfire” with its Andre 3000-indebted “la la la la la la la la,” and finally, “Boogie,” the rowdy jam that gives a middle finger to those who hated Abstract early on, and in the process forged one of the most never-say-die creators in music.
Conspicuously absent from the I’ll Be There Tour set list were the confessional “Junky”; fan favorite “Jello”; notably for bearface fans, the wistful “Summer”; and maybe most surprisingly, from iridescence, the sweet, R&B-styled “Thug Life”, the irresistible “Berlin” (bearface: “Baby boy, tell me why you looking grimy as shit?”) and Abstract’s love letter to boyfriend Jaden Walker, “Something About Him.” But that’s okay. There will always be more BROCKHAMPTON songs to clamor for, because they are nothing if not prolific. As Abstract mused on “1997 Diana,” he has “five more albums inside my mind,” and there’s probably more than that.
It is possible — likely, in fact — that old hippie-minded socialists like myself look at BROCKHAMPTON and project onto these diverse, multi-ethnic, queer-friendly creatives an idea of pure collectivism, imagining a cooperative of artists working in that house in Los Angeles toward a common good with nary an eye to commerce, believing that, unlike that hip-hop collective from a generation ago who declared that cash ruled everything around them, this very 21st century group prioritizes something more than dolla dolla bills, y’all. But that would be naïve. The group’s RCA deal is worth a reported $15 million. They’ve gone from “Cash don’t last/ My friends don’t lie to me” on “Gummy” to “Where the Cash At” on the new record. Abstract has in the past cited inspirational models that include Apple and Facebook, not exactly art-for-art’s-sake NGO’s. Their marketing is on point, their merch extensive, impressive and not cheap — there was a line at least 60 kids deep to buy gear.
Still, the takeaway, watching from a balcony in one of New York’s premier music spaces, is that this is something different, special and so very important to right now. In a bitterly divided world that seems to get more so by the week, I’m thankful there is room for something as beautifully unified as BROCKHAMPTON. So whether or not it is a brand, a product, a launching pad from which one day Abstract will have propelled himself into a C-suite office, presiding over a multimedia mega-corporation, for now I am buying what he and his boy band are selling: dedication, compassion, and a loving and inclusive do-it-yourself brotherhood.