The conception of what a ‘boyband’ could be has been made and remade over time. Who came first? Historically, we can imagine the origins: barbershop quartets of the late 1800s, 1950s vocal groups who did not yet use the terminology; perhaps The Beatles, who check most of the boxes we’d think of (a group of male musicians, a particular public image, adoring/obsessive fans, making popular music). We get closer to today’s image with The Jackson 5, followed by Menudo and New Edition. Then finally the 90s trilogy: Boyz II Men, Backstreet Boys and NSNYC. Since then, younger generations have known the Jonas Brothers, various K-pop groups and of course One Direction. But we have to allow ourselves to further explore how a boyband can function.
2007 gave us Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA), a LA-based hip hop collective originally formed by Tyler, the Creator and friends. Along with putting out music, they were infamous for their Jack*ss-quality skits and behavior, and Loiter Squad, a ridiculous television show on Adult Swim. Having grown up with the group, their output has ‘matured’ (read: changed) in certain ways--the Golf Wang clothing line is huge, with many brand collaborations and quickly sold-out merchandise. Tyler’s Viceland television show Nuts + Bolts followed Tyler’s neverending passions and interest in creating/entrepreneurship in a way that reminds us that he is still goofy and endearing, though newly-grounded and focused. Many would compare BROCKHAMPTON to OFWGKTA-- a large LA-based group with many different sounds, an affinity for popular music (pop, hip-hop and rap) and a dedicated fanbase who notoriously depletes the online merchandise restocks in record timings.
The reason I want to call attention to the idea of ‘boybands,’ in regards to GINGER, is that this record shows us a new, solidified image of what an American boyband can look like. Time to update that list, Wikipedia!
The Saturation Trilogy (2017) was an amazing feat to behold--BROCKHAMTPON put out three great, full length studio albums in the span of 6 months. As much as I love many tracks off these albums, here I’m not convinced yet of BH’s functionality as a ‘boyband’ (claimed by Saturation III BOOGIE lyrics “best boyband since One Direction”) and still viewed them as a collective--a group of individuals coming together with great, though many times disjointed styles to produce interesting songs and records. With Iridescence (2018), they came back from an unexpected hiatus with a fiery, highly vulnerable and adventurous album from start to finish. This was the new BROCKHAMPTON, ready to part with insecurities, bad vibes and misfires of the past. And now we get the gift that is GINGER.
NO HALO: “Do I matter? I’m ecstatic, I’m depressed/ More like God’s special mess, never had no halo” paired with the slow summer jam beat and moody guitar ostinato paints us a successful image of what GINGER is; the presentation of a vulnerability beyond stereotypes present in the conception of boybands. It lacks the happy, ‘perfect, put-together’ tropes that we’d expect from a group of this category. BROCKHAMPTON is showing us that today’s boyband represents a new realistic youth, one that can be as joyous and silly as OFWGKTA, but also one that lives in a country/world that’s messy. A youth that is depressed, queer, dealing with issues and is honest about that. With the release coming towards the end of August, it’s a bit too late to be the ‘album of the summer,’ though it fits perfectly with that end-of-summer mood where things feel wistful and a bit sad. Like actual ginger, the album is bittersweet, and they’ve set that up on the first track.
SUGAR: SUGAR!!! The second this track started I knew it’d be a favorite, and it remained my favorite by the time the album was over. One of the things I enjoy most about BH are in fact the various styles each member is able to activate, and the different combinations we get to hear them in on different tracks. bearface and Kevin Abstract are the hook assassins, always sliding in with the sweetest melodic/lyrical content on most tracks, and in SUGAR they are so fortunately joined by Ryan Beatty. It calls back to an earlier boyband sound– I can almost imagine hearing this (neo?)classic love song amidst other RnB music of my childhood. Matt Champion’s smooth, cool flow sits perfectly on this track. And Beatty’s hook is both lyric & melodic perfection. *Chef’s Kiss*
BOY BYE: The third track on GINGER features a refined BH. The intriguing, playful beat has got every member jumping in on it developing a recurring theme of trauma. Everyone’s verse SLAPS (I especially like bearface’s “Trauma the price for the patience/ Character shaped like an arc”). Similar to music on previous BH albums, every member’s voice and verses are distinctly their own. However, I feel a newfound sense of cohesion amongst them--even while talking about different things, their flows and interactions with the beat build upon one another. Sometimes Merlyn’s entrances are either abrupt or energizing to a BH track, but here he simply adds to the momentum. It’s the most lit track off GINGER, though a bit more reserved than we’re used to hearing from BH. On that note, there doesn’t have to be an extremely busy & upbeat track on an album for it to be a good album. However, not hearing BH go brazy and make us want to rush the barricades at the live show is a bit of a “awww man” moment, because you know that they absolutely could make us want to do that.
HEAVEN BELONGS TO YOU: The album did dip a bit in the middle following those opening three tracks for me. Might also be because I must’ve listened to SUGAR at least 10 times in a row before moving on. I saw this contribution from English rapper slowthai as an interlude. It is an overly explicit statement of ‘religion’ as a recurring theme on GINGER, and continues the running thread of talking through depression/mental illness (“Like God can judge me, but only God can see” and “there’s a war in my head just like the Middle East”).
ST. PERCY: Kevin Abstract recently put out an amazing solo album ARIZONA BABY just a few months ago in April. It highlights his strengths as both a rapper and master of a more pop-py songwriting style. ST. PERCY opens with Abstract the rapper, laying down a strong first verse. Paired with the production by Jabari Manwa and Romil Hemnani, the track has a sinister, but forward tone. This is diluted a bit by the surprising but refreshing chorus sampled from D-Flexx’s “Only God Knows” (1997). The real treat in this strange track is Merlyn Wood’s ~early-Tyler the Creatoresque~ outro and the abrupt ending/transition into the next one.
IF YOU PRAY RIGHT: This is probably my least favorite track off GINGER. The repeated brass ostinato gives the track a bizarre carnival-tent feel that I’m not sure works with the religious content throughout the song. The gospel-infused outro is the most enjoyable part of the track.
DEARLY DEPARTED: This was an interesting moment on the record for sure. The whole track is dedicated to the trauma surrounding the Ameer’s impact on the circumstances he was kicked out of BROCKHAMPTON. There have been other tracks alluding to this, including the direct naming on CORPUS CHRISTI off Abstract’s solo album earlier this year. This is an important moment of healing and release for all of the remaining members of BH. (And there’s an emo guitar solo).
I BEEN BORN AGAIN: I think this track is just ok. Nothing particularly stands out as positive or negative.
GINGER: This is such a tender track. Abstract sings “Know you got your own sh*t and all of it together/ And you know you got your own space right here forever” in the chorus, acknowledging that everyone is dealing with something in their personal lives. If SUGAR was the love song, this is the breakup song. Matt Champion sings “I don’t even love no more/ I don’t even trust no more,” and the song’s lyrical content fits similarly with that familiar boyband sound (especially so with bearface’s entrance in the third verse).
BIG BOY: A nice nostalgic and melancholic track. I listened to GINGER for the first time while on a long train ride and this one made me want to look longingly out the window at the rain.
LOVE ME FOR LIFE: This is a great track--BH dips more heavily into the now popular trap music genre, which further expands our image of the boyband. Joba has a standout verse, ending on “Now where did I go? Where do we go? How do we grow? How should I know?” Then almost intuitively, Merlyn fills this introspective, sort of somber space following Joba’s verse with a moment that is more of an energetic, outward release. bearface closes the track with a pop-py outro, and the beat following it suddenly goes off--I wish there was more of it!
VICTOR ROBERTS: I am unsure how I feel about this final track, and the introduction of a new voice in the BH collaboration. It isn’t typical (historically) for a boyband to feature so many guests, but it can work for BROCKHAMPTON since they are tapping into more of a hip-hop style, where features are a prominent element of that type of music. Roberts has a very distinct voice, and on this track he engages in a lengthy narrative of his traumatic past. We get another great hook from Ryan Beatty though, and a beautiful bridge from bearface. The album appropriately ends with a short sample of fans cheering and clapping.
GINGER is for sure going to make my top 10 albums of 2019.