It is a testament to the sheer creative force and prolific output of their last two breakout years that, though the members are only in their early 20s, Brockhampton has settled into a kind of artistic maturity on their new record, “Ginger.” In 2017, Brockhampton burst into the hip-hop consciousness offering a bold paradigm shift for its generation of rap — they were a racially diverse, partly queer clan of a dozen or so teens and barely 20-somethings, formed via the internet. They flexed charismatically, wallowed in their youth, and styled themselves as the new “All-American boy band.”
Led by solo artist Kevin Abstract, they all moved into a house in South Central Los Angeles, doused themselves in blue paint, and shot DIY music videos and short films. Their youthful, wild abandon came across impressively well.
In the span of seven months, they dropped three albums that made up the “Saturation” trilogy, a scatterbrained mosh pit of creative ideas that, like the group’s members, featured a controlled chaos of idiosyncratic voices and sounds that came together into a daring, consistently enticing whole. In its rage, joy, and zany bravado, the triptych presented a stunningly polished vision of inventive, moody youth. On last summer’s “Iridescence,” they officially entered the mainstream with a No. 1 album that was more sonically focused, but its melancholy and abrasive industrial overlay lost some of the whimsy and fun of their preceding trilogy.
With “Ginger,” their fifth record in just over two years, they’ve presented their tightest and potentially most memorable album yet. Across twelve tracks, the rap collective is noticeably more controlled and concise. Not coincidentally, the group’s two wild card voices, Joba and Merlyn Wood, typically providing the group with surges of rage or playfully wild energy, have largely quieted their typically outlandish voices and yelping bars. The undercurrent of anxiety — a hallmark of the group’s identity — is still present but holds new weight here, more mature and weary, and less a mark of their youth.
A strong opening stretch sets this tone with two tracks that are anchored, rather beautifully, by an acoustic guitar. “I don’t know where I’m going,” a voice echoes in the album’s opening seconds on “No Halo,” before Matt Champion, Wood, and Joba each offer superbly reflective verses. A feature from indie rock newcomer Deb Never, along with vocals from Bearface, tie the track together into something that feels lightly reminiscent of early Justin Timberlake (see: “What Goes Around Comes Around”). Following that is “Sugar,” a sweet love song that is possibly the album’s most immediately infectious track, and one of the group’s best ever pop songs. This opening pair, along with other poppy standouts — the titular track “Ginger” and “Love Me For Life” — presents a nice return to form for a group that has consistently crafted earworm hooks.
On “Boy Bye,” the group returns to purer hip-hop, and also re-introduces a sense of the kooky, playfully eerie beats that the group has often played with. “If You Pray Right,” for instance, is backed by cartoonish trumpets and unsettling synths. The bars throughout “Ginger” are solid — rising UK rapper Slowthai even makes a middling appearance on “Heaven Belongs to You” — and each voice holds its own valuable, distinct place, although Champion consistently shines the brightest with his effortlessly smooth verses.
The songs here are far less busy, for better or worse. The group’s manic energy has been toned down, and they’ve left less room for unpredictable leaps – which, on their previous works, could be either rewarding or excessive. But mostly, the extra space allows the meaningful moments to stand out more.
The discordant metallic feeling of “Iridescence” crowded an appropriately experimental, searching (and ultimately less satisfying) record — teenage angst was suddenly colliding with real life: burgeoning fame: burgeoning fame, a big record deal, and most publicly, the ousting of one of their core voices, Ameer Vann, who had been accused of sexual misconduct. (Other disputes with Ameer soon surfaced across cryptic online airings.) But on “Ginger,” when emotional insights appear, they land more acutely. Most notably on “Dearly Departed” a gorgeously stirring, hazy rock track, on which Dom McLennon, in perhaps the album’s most memorable verse, dedicates a scathing message presumably to Vann: “That’s just where you stand / That’s just who you are / That’s your cross to bear / You could talk to God / I don’t want to hear. / Motherf—r!”
Mcklennon’s verse ends with audio of him seemingly tossing a mic and shoving his way out of the room. It’s this kind of deeper vulnerability, now more palpable and less abstractly self-pitying (a drunken visit to a church on a strong Joba verse on “No Halo” has a similar effect), that makes “Ginger” feel like the strongest proof yet of the separate place the young collective is carving in hip-hop.
On the album’s spare, piano-laden closer, “Victor Roberts,” an extended verse from a mysterious new voice, Victor Roberts II, detailing a frightening childhood episode is followed by a gorgeous chorus: “Thank God for my b—s still sticking with me / Thank God when I talk I know you listen to me / Thank God that I’m built for the distance.” The ending feels like a cousin to a passage in “San Marcos,” from their last album, when a teenage choir sways and sings, “I want more out of life than this.” As wide-eyed as that song may have been, it was heartfelt and meaningful. And the closing moment here is, too. But it also feels richer, realer, and reaching something newly sublime.