There are some who, to this day, side eye the description of BROCKHAMPTON as a boy band, but Kevin Abstract and his ragtag collection of rappers, singers, producers, videographers and creatives have proudly owned the moniker since much of the world first discovered them through the 2017 Vice documentary series American Boyband.
And why not? Hip-hop had never seen anything quite like them: multiracial, matter-of-fact straight and gay, equally adept at bar slinging and soulful singing, each member bringing his own skill set and distinct personality, with an audience that locked in on their favorites. They were capable of biting, rowdy tracks but also melodic songs bursting with love. It was a beautiful thing, and to experience them on record and (especially) live was to experience, yes, a boy band. But boy bands, by and large, aren’t meant to last, at least not ones with a breakout star in their ranks. Just ask ‘NSYNC.
BROCKHAMPTON is no more. As much as the believers hoped the group had many more years in them, the Angelenos announced in January that after a decade-plus and six studio albums, they were going on “indefinite hiatus” and that there would be one final album. Now, it’s here; in fact, two new albums are here.
Released on Thursday (Nov. 17), The Family is jubilant, sentimental, bitter, funny and confessional, but its title is somewhat ironic. Because as much as BROCKHAMPTON often operated as a family, a large (13 members, as of this year) and collaborative band of brothers, it was never a pure democracy. Kevin Abstract (Ian Simpson) formed it as a kid in Texas, moved it to Los Angeles and ran it — the creative buck stopped with him. (Throughout its history, he simultaneously released his own records. If he hasn’t taken off solo-wise at Justin Timberlake levels – yet – he’s well-primed to chart his own course.) And The Family is effectively an Abstract solo joint.
The rapper and singer recorded it in the spring, in the wake of their Coachella shows, in New York – a continent away from most of his bandmates – working only with BH’s bearface (Ciarán McDonald), member and in-house producer Romil Hemnani, and a collaborator, the producer boylife (Ryan Yoo). The lead vocals are all Abstract, and The Family is very much the frontman’s take on the highs, lows, thrills and disappointments of a wild ride. Suffice to say, Abstract pulls no punches.
It starts off celebratory and nostalgic. “Let’s take it back to when me and Ashlan was out front scheming, right on Jefferson” Abstract leads on “Take It Back.” Over a player piano, a high-pitched chorus, bounce and handclaps he recalls flashes of those heady days, when he asked on a Kanye West forum while still living in Texas if anyone wanted to form a band. (He recalled that moment in an epilogue letter shared on the same day.) “United we stand, divided we fall” was the mentality, Abstract recalls, but reality sets in as he lets us know what’s to come on the LP: “I had to save the truth for the last sh-t.” And the truth stings.
The Family is a glorious romp, veering from hard-hitting spitters to string-filled soul and hip-hop, laced with pitch-shifting and samples that recall Yeezus-era Ye. But lyrically, there’s shoot-from-the-hip real talk. Over throbbing beats on “Gold Teeth,” Abstract confesses, “Nowadays all I want to do is party / All I made this is to get out the deal, partly.” And of BH’s famous camaraderie? “Don’t ask me if the crew is still talking,” he blasts. “Do we see each other? Hardly / Did we suffer too many motherf–king albuuuums? Probably.” In the letter, Abstract also admits to the members having moved in “separate ways, and focus on our individual careers and passions.”
“Money changes everything,” Cyndi Lauper famously sang, and it seems it was a familiar tale of quick money and fast fame – a 2018 deal with RCA worth $15 million – that was at the root of BROCKHAMPTON’s harmony going south: “I guess blowing up isn’t all that” Abstract declares over the deceptively sweet melodics of “All That,” contrasting the old days with the present, saying “now we hate each other just to hang out.” On closer “Brockhampton” he adds, “I wish I would have known that signing would change sh-t,” and recounts a falling out with bandmate Jabari Manwa that forever changed their relationship, saying the love has “never been the same since.”
There are lighter moments, like Abstract sneaking boys in and out of the house on sparkling single “The Ending,” and reflective ones, singing on “37th Street,” “If I could fly through a California night, I’d end up back on 37th Street” (the location of BH’s formative South Central L.A. home). But he concludes he has to move on, and fesses up to now living in Calabasas, the Valley enclave synonymous with the rich and famous. From the hard-hitting indictment “Good Time”: “I got my bags packed, it’s time to leave” he spits, ready for “no more changes, no more due dates, no more fake sh-t.” Despite his mom’s plea — on the song “RZA” asking him, “Ian, why don’t you keep the band together?” – he’s done.
There’s plenty of mea culpa, too. Abstract blames himself for not always being there “for my brothers,” for getting caught up in his own fame, drinking and being distracted by relationships. “I know I failed you” he admits on “37th St.” On the soulful “The Family” he speaks of growing egos, competition turning unhealthy and his jealousy over other bandmates’ successes, even brutally admitting, “I don’t feel guilty for cutting your verse from this beat / For my lack of empathy.” In contrast, it’s followed by the gospel-tinged “The Prayer” with its sweet, sung hook: “I love these n—-s so much”
The Family’s most moving track is its longest and last, “Brockhampton,” a lights-out collage of memories and remarkably open confessions. It opens with watery strings and a heart-tugging “I miss the band already” – a line that was the title of an album teaser last month, featuring old black and white footage of the group that surely put a lump in the throats of fans. And if there are any dry eyes left by record’s end, there won’t be by the time Abstract pays tribute to his mates and their particular gifts, by name: “JOBA, you’re the most musical motherf–ker / Matt, I know you’re a perfectionist but now you’re free / Dom, ain’t nobody fucking with you lyrically / Merlyn, can’t nobody match this n—-’s energy / Bari, the world bout to see who you finna be / Ciarán, you brought the truth out of me.” Ultimately, though, Abstract is ready to turn the page, ending the 17-track record shouting “The show’s over, get out your seats!”
And for fans disappointed that they didn’t get to hear from the rest of the guys on this ostensibly final album? You’re in luck. Because the final final BROCKHAMPTON LP dropped as a surprise that evening. Somewhat cryptically called TM, its eleven tracks date back to 2021 and unfinished sessions in Ojai, California that were seen to completion this year and executive produced by fan favorite Matt Champion.
As affecting as the honesty on The Family is, the BH faithful should revel in TM, which features the collective in much of its familiar hip-hop abandon, at least on its first half. Abstract, Champion, Manwa, Dom McClennon, JOBA and Merlyn Wood flow seamlessly in various combinations, from the melodic trap of “Listerine” to a raucous “FMG” to the pop rock of “Animal” to the rapid-fire flow of “New Shoes,” on which all five feature. On turnt-up standout “Keep It Southern,” Wood declares “God made music so I could make money,” while Abstract offers a line that feels directed at the industry: “Tell them motherf–kers they cannot control your life.”
The record’s back half is largely quieter. A Champion falsetto opens “Better Thangs,” the gentlest song of the collection, in a seemingly romantic context: “I just found a comfort in you / I don’t want nobody but you.” But given BH’s dissolution, a later line about moving “on to a better thing” seems prescient. A dreamy, soulful hook and faded rap verses make for a memorable “Crucify Me.” But two songs featuring JOBA and Champion serve true curve balls. “Man On the Moon” begins softly, but quickly lunges into full-on dance-pop. It’s the closest BH has ever come to disco, and it’s an absolute blast. And despite its title, closer “Goodbye” doesn’t wallow in sentiment. Its airy synth-pop makes the line “it’s over” sound actually forward looking. By the end, when the track ventures into New Order terrain, you want to thank the guys for sending us off on a high note.
Will we ever hear from BROCKHAMPTON again? Who knows. The old “indefinite hiatus” always leaves the door slightly ajar, and in The Family’s “Take It Back” Abstract imagines reuniting “some time, in another life,” but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Even their Wikipedia article now refers to them in the past tense. Because I am comfortable being corny, I will end by borrowing from Dr. Seuss: Don’t cry because BROCKHAMPTON are over, smile because they happened. And wish each and every one of them the best.