Brockhampton Finally Scored Its Hit Single — And Shia LaBeouf Helped Make It Possible
How the self-described boy band's yearning "Sugar" hit the Hot 100, and helped get the group back on track.
Brockhampton’s rise in the music industry diverges from the flash of TikTok-fueled virality that has helped so many new artists break through on the strength of a single track. Rather than flip a hit into a record deal or amass a social presence too large to ignore, the group built its dedicated, largely late-Millennial and Gen Z fan base through the all-caps experimental hip-hop featured on the Saturation album trilogy. All three albums were released in 2017, with each gaining in popularity (Saturation III hit No. 15 on the Billboard 200).
The following year saw Brockhampton play to growing audiences, including festival appearances at Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, and land a $15 million record deal with RCA. In spite of the controversy surrounding founding member Ameer Vann, who was dismissed from the group following sexual misconduct allegations, Brockhampton soon notched its first Billboard 200 No. 1 album with its RCA debut, Iridescence, in September 2018. The full-length, which debuted with 101,000 equivalent album units according to Nielsen Music, figured to be the culmination of the inescapable rise of Brockhampton. Instead, it left the band members still in search of checking off one last box: a crossover hit.
“I really enjoyed Iridescence, but the album itself didn’t necessarily live on,” producer Jabari Manwa tells Billboard. Indeed, the project dropped to No. 88 on the Billboard 200 the week following its chart-topping debut. “I wanted to make something more accessible that would have more people going back to the album.”
Fellow producer Romil Hemnani echoes the sentiment, noting that Brockhampton sought to go back to its roots after Iridescence, focusing on “making fun songs together as a group and family.” Such efforts began at the top of 2019 — the band started more than 30 songs, tracks that Hemnani now refers to as “pregame warm-ups,” but ultimately suspended its efforts. They needed to search for new inspiration.
Then, Shia LaBeouf showed up.
Brockhampton leader Kevin Abstract invited the actor-performance artist-filmmaker over to the group’s 2019 temporary Los Angeles creative home in April to discuss promotional ideas for the former’s forthcoming solo full-length, ARIZONA BABY. The chat not only resulted in “#THE1999,” Abstract’s 10-hour, live-streamed treadmill walking stunt in Corpus Christi, Texas, but also got rapper Dom McLennon and Manwa back in the album-making mentality. “It was a really motivating conversation — he dropped a lot of gems,” says McLennon. “Right after, Jabari and I went downstairs and started working on music.”
Within 20 minutes, the two — along with the assistance of non-Brockhampton member Chuks Chiejine, who Manwa met while stuck for a month in London due to visa issues — had the foundation for a new track. McLennon immediately felt inspired to write and record, pointing to the beat evoking a nostalgia of being a hungry young artist working the graveyard shift at Target. And a few hours later, even though McLennon had already laid down his verse, Hemnani — drawing on advice he received from producer Michael Uzowuru (Frank Ocean, Beyoncé) — decided to pitch the song down two semitones, in an effort to discover new pockets for harmonies.
By the end of the night, Brockhampton sculpted the core of what has become its biggest hit to date — the longing, affectionate “SUGAR” — as well as two other tracks (“NO HALO,” “BOY BYE”) that’d ultimately wind up on the next album. A few other additions to the track would develop between that night and the August release of their fifth album, Ginger (which reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200), such as bearface’s bridge or the rearranging of chords leading into the chorus, but Hemnani remembers the wave of euphoria that swept over the band during the first playback of “SUGAR” on the evening of its creation.
“There was just so much joy,” he reminisces. “Everybody was jumping around, dancing and singing together. It felt like when somebody puts on your favorite song. I remember that moment really well.”
Adds Manwa: “Not too long after Dom recorded his verse for the song, I felt like, man, this could be a hit. I just needed Ryan [Beatty] to get on it and that’s all we needed — and that’s what happened.”
Brockhampton intended to release “SUGAR” as Ginger’s lead single, but once the track leaked in June, the group decided to wait to promote the song until after the album dropped. Three months after its release, the band officially announced the song as a single and in December shared its trippy, NSFW music video — which includes a murderous alien, a dejected cartoon sun and a fiery depiction of hell — directed by Abstract (the idea apparently came to him in a dream, his fellow band members note).
So far, “SUGAR” has peaked at No. 66 on the Hot 100, and currently resides at No. 69 on the most recent chart. And while Brockhampton hoped the song would chart alongside the release of the album, Hemnani says the band is even happier that it’s taking off now.
“It’s very reassuring to make something, feel like it has the potential to be great, and then it actually follows through. It’s motivating us even more to trust in our own ideas more because we can do these weird ideas that we think are good, and it’ll still connect with people. So let’s keep doing them.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the Feb. 1, 2020 issue of Billboard.