Brockhampton started with a modest goal. Texas-born rapper, singer, and producer Kevin Abstract only wanted to start a band, an “all-American boy band.” The gifted friends and collaborators he found along the way — some from Texas and others from Connecticut, Florida, Ireland, and elsewhere — flouted boy-band convention. They represented a variety of races, regions, and sexual orientations. They worked out their issues in their art, making music about the quest to find happiness where predecessors in the field sang songs about teenage relationship drama. Brockhampton songs take unexpected twists thanks to the emotional honesty of their lyricists, the creativity of their producers, and the uniqueness of the individual members’ minds and voices; as time passed, the collective would use those differences to its advantage, structuring daring changes around these shifts in perspective. A willingness to grow and change paid off in 2018, when Iridescence, the group’s fourth album, debuted on top of the Billboard 200 chart, and also the next year, when fifth album Ginger’s R&B confection “Sugar” impacted the Hot 100, lingering long enough beneath the top 40 to earn Brockhampton its first legitimate chart hit and platinum-selling single.
It hasn’t necessarily been the smoothest ride. In the wake of allegations of abuse and the firing of rapper Ameer Vann three years ago, everyone seems a little more guarded than they were a few years prior. The loss of Russell “Joba” Boring’s father last year was another hard hit. On this spring’s new Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine, Brockhampton ponders the big questions about life and the afterlife while reining in the last two albums’ structural complexities but also giving more shine to Jabari Manwa, longtime producer who’s also a gifted singer and hook writer, and Texas rapper SoGone SoFlexy, who is signed to Kevin Abstract and producer Romil Hemnani’s new label, Video Store. Roadrunner brings us full circle, as a clan of rap-forum friends dreaming of pop stardom nearly a decade ago now rubs elbows with the likes of Danny Brown, Lil Nas X, Shawn Mendes, A$AP Rocky, and others. Roadrunner is Brockhampton’s leanest, rawest release since the Saturation tapes that put them on the map for a lot of fans in 2017, but, to hear Kevin Abstract tell it, the show’s almost over. “2 Brockhampton albums in 2021,” he tweeted in March. “These will be our last.” I spoke with the guys as they prepped for a release-night performance, livestreamed via tech start-up Moment House, about the process of creating Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine and the past, present, and future of Brockhampton. The music may speak to dire times, but spirits were high.
I’m curious what the story behind the new album title is about.
Joba: Just always being on the go, always just looking through life, observing what you can, taking what you can in, and interpreting things as you see them. “New Light,” to me, was speaking to the state of the world and finding new hope. “New Machine” is about a resolidified family unit that isn’t afraid of anything.
Family and faith come up quite a bit on Roadrunner. You’ve touched on both in your music before, but now, there’s a different weight to it. Is that a result of the difficulties of the last year?
Joba: Sometimes you’re reminded after … I feel like a lot of distractions were stripped away from humanity. What else do you really have other than family and faith, or the lack thereof? People need each other, and it’s been a time of separation for everyone.
Meanwhile, 2021 is a year for reconnecting and figuring out how everyone survived. Last year, most of you were pretty quiet on social media, though. How was 2020 on a collective and individual level for each of you?
Matt Champion: We feel like it was the first time we really took a long time to make an album. Normally, we pump the shit out really quick. We made a bunch of albums, and we made a bunch of songs, and it was constantly going back and forth. It was a lot. I mean, everybody was feeling this whole new way of living. Taking two years to make an album and being in that mind-set is a whole different thing.
You said two years?
Romil: We started working on [Roadrunner] when we turned Ginger in, I think.
Romil: “Bow Wow” was made, like, a week after Ginger came out.
Joba: Just for myself, 2020 was a very strange year. I remember right when the pandemic hit, I explored with psychedelic drugs in my search for God. And ultimately, I don’t know, it was like a downward spiral. It was a year of confusion.
That’ll do it. It’s like being fired out of a cannon.
Joba: I didn’t know what I was searching for. But you know what it led me to? Family. My friends helped me — there’s something really beautiful about that.
Your mullet, by the way, is magnificent.
Joba: Hell yeah.
Since you made a lot of music before you arrived at the songs we’re hearing on Roadrunner, what made this particular collection, this particular mood, feel right for the moment?
Dom: It just felt really intentional. All of the music felt like it needed to be part of our history, if that makes sense. I’m super proud to say that this is the stamp we’re putting onto this timeline that we’re creating.
Are you thinking that way about your legacy? Do you look at your catalogue as something people are going to reflect on as a whole in the future?
Dom: I think that when people look back, they’ll realize [our work] was better than they thought it was, for sure. Once that nostalgia starts hitting, they’ll start thinking back, like, Holy shit, there was a lot of content here that we overlooked.
Do you feel overlooked sometimes?
What attributes to that feeling, you think? On paper, you’ve done a lot. You had a No. 1 album …
Merlyn: I don’t know how to explain it without sounding salty, but I feel like in certain areas of pop music, we’re too hip-hop, and in hip-hop, we’re too “alternative.” It’s the story of all our lives. We just don’t quite fit in either box. We don’t belong, and nobody really wants to own us except us.
Joba: I feel like people instinctively have something to prove. It starts at a young age, growing up in school. School is fucking weird. I don’t know how I made it through, honestly. [Everyone laughs.] It’s like a playground of comparisons. It’s okay to be misunderstood. I think being understood is overrated.
They don’t teach you that in school. I didn’t really grow up with the luxury of feeling “understood,” and it took me getting older to figure out that you can do your own thing and not necessarily make sense to other people, and that can be all right. But I’m curious about the music that didn’t make this album. What did the other stuff sound like?
Joba: There were some really great songs. A lot of poppy shit.
Kevin: Yeah, our goal at first was to make a pop album.
Is that still the aim for the next album?
Kevin: We haven’t really talked about it yet.
This album has major throwback hip-hop vibes. What drew that out of
Kevin: Going left. We just had our biggest song ever happen, and it was very R&B–friendly. I think we’re all like, “Let’s just switch it up.” And we love rap music, so it was cool to get back to rapping and doing shit that felt just different, really. It was more challenging. I think we got comfortable making softer, more melodic songs, which we still love, and you can still hear on this album.
The bars are tighter this time than maybe ever before. How do you get to a better place as an MC?
Kevin: We freestyled a lot for this album, not for the lines that made it in, but we’d rap with each other, freestyle with each other, trade bars, and just push each other. I feel like that’s how it used to be with the first three albums, and with Iridescence a little bit. So we were just getting back to that.
Dom: I’ve had to spend a lot of time over this past year studying and going back to the drawing board. I kept rethinking how I approached the way I was rapping, what I was rapping about, and how I was rapping about it. Having that time to be able to figure things out, to be able to really refine things, that’s definitely one of the privileges that this time gave me.
Merlyn: I … read books. [Romil chuckles.]
That’s real. Reading really opens up perspectives and changes your approach.
Merlyn: I was in HK’s room watching this Pharrell interview from a long time ago. Pharrell goes to EB Games at the mall and says, “It’s essential that the plastic bag look like the ruffled sheets at the end of your bed when you don’t want to get out bed,” or some shit. I’m like, “Bro, that’s like so poetic.”
Dom: I remember right before I wrote “Chain On,” there’s three or four different things that I read. But one that stuck out the most was this piece by Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin called “Authoritarian Leftists: Kill the Cop in Your Head.” It illuminated my brain.
Whatever you did that week, you caught air on that “Chain On” verse. I’ve been playing that a lot. Do y’all listen to a lot of older rap?
Kevin: You n- – – – make fun of me [for that], bro. Bari and Merlyn make fun of me.
Jabari Manwa: We do listen to a lot of older rap. I feel like you can hear it in the album. Throughout the making of [our Technical Difficulties singles series], I was really big into Beastie Boys and Dr. Dre.
Kevin: The Chronic.
Jabari: Whereas, with the album that we had before, I was listening to Lil Baby, Lil Uzi, Cardi B, a bunch of shit. But that didn’t resonate with what was going on in the world. I felt like we had to go back and study a lot of those older songs because they had a lot of meaning in them, as opposed to shit going on today. I feel like we were trying to meet that quality, that timelessness a lot of those records have.
Dom: When I think about artists like Mavi and Earl and shit like that, there’s a lot of different folks, like Fly Siifu, who are making really, really interesting rap in the vein of this old-school style, but the subject matter and lyrics are completely different. That shit’s inspiring. Even Wiki and shit like that — there’s a sense of urgency to it that’s super interesting that gets captured in that style. I think we were able to tap into that.
I think people in the future are going to look back on this era as a crazy time for independent rap. There’s incredible stuff happening every few weeks in that field. To the point about old-school rap, though, I do hear Dre vibes in the beats. Also, you’ve had guests on Brockhampton albums in the past, but this new one has maybe the most outside participation you’ve ever had on an album. How did that come about?
Kevin: For me, that was also a nod to Dr. Dre. My favorite Dre song is “Xxplosive,” and you don’t hear him on it at all.
Romil: We just wanted to bring people into our world. That’s what we do, man. We challenge ourselves. Plus, we’re fans of all these people who are on our album. Why not make music with people you’re big fans of?
Kevin: There are songs [on Roadrunner] that feel like Brockhampton songs without having that many Brockhampton members on them, like “Count on Me.” That was a cool challenge for us.
Production was more collaborative on this album than it was the last time, right? There were only two or three of you credited as producers on Ginger. But here, there’ll be four and five people on a beat.
Kevin: I think it goes back to going left, trying something new, and seeing what happens. Getting people we’re familiar with and people we’re not familiar with into the room and creating.
Joba: I feel like we also weren’t afraid to sound bad or say something wack. We went back to throwing the mic around the room with the loudspeakers blasting. That energy is so electrifying. There were a lot of moments where you’d be throwing the mic around the room. I’d be on the bass. Someone would be on the synth. It was very live.
You went from mentioning Shawn Mendes in a song to getting him to contribute vocals to “Count on Me.” He almost never does features. How’d you pull that off?
Kevin: He’s just one of our friends, really. We were sending him a bunch of the music as we were working on it, and he liked “Count on Me” enough. We sent it, and he sent back vocals same day.
With “Count on Me” and “Bankroll,” you got two features out of A$AP Rocky, who seems to only do music whenever he feels like it. What do you do to get these people out of their elements?
Merlyn: A’ight, so boom: I walked into the backstage area of the Sydney Opera House [at Listen Out Fest 2018], and I’m like, “I can roll a blunt bigger than anybody inside of a backwood.” Then I found out A$AP Rocky don’t smoke backwoods. I learnt a lot from him. He taught me, like, how not to lose clothes on tour: Don’t take them on tour. [Everyone laughs.] That’s literally some shit I’d go to sleep and dream about, seeing Skepta and A$AP Rocky at the Sydney Opera House and being on the side of the stage when that happened. Then we just transmuted that energy to the studio. I feel like with Romil, you could make ten different types of albums. Romil is a fucking engine.
Romil: Aww, thank you. Very sweet of you.
Merlyn: We were just going crazy in the studio. A$AP Rocky was suave, cool.
Romil: Bro … I’ve never met somebody who smells so good.
Low-key, when you meet famous people, there’s little details people don’t always notice. Up close, their skin will be fantastic, or they’ll smell great, stuff that doesn’t translate to pictures.
Romil: Can’t smell a picture.
Kevin, I saw you on AustinShow’s Love or Host on Twitch with Lil Nas X, and I’m curious what your thoughts are on his very unsubtle queer hip-hop anthem reaching the top of the charts.
Kevin: It was inspiring. I love it. I love Lil Nas, bro. I haven’t been this moved by a queer artist since Frank [Ocean] put out that letter. I’m super inspired, and I want to do more [with him], honestly.
Does “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” make you want to be more open about your sexuality in your own music?
Kevin: For sure, yeah.
Are you conscious of how that stuff goes over?
Kevin: Yeah. On this album, I low-key tried to do it less.
Kevin: Just because I felt like I’ve talked about it so much before, you know what I mean? I want to say it in a different way. But my viewpoint on shit hasn’t really changed.
So, Brockhampton’s releasing two albums this year, and you’ve said that they will be your last. Is this thing kind of running its course, or is everyone just itching to get out and do different projects for a while?
Kevin: We’re itching, bro. Everyone wants to do other stuff. It’s gonna be cool.
Merlyn: Yeah, I’m gonna be a firefighter.
Romil: We’ve been a band for a long time, longer than people have known the name Brockhampton. Everyone just kinda wants to do their own thing.
But is the group over, or is this like Wu-Tang Clan in 1995? Like, “We’re doing solo projects now, but we’ll be back together in a few years”?
Kevin: It’s more like the Wu-Tang thing.
You know your fans will hold you to that.
Kevin: It might be over, actually.
Romil: Maybe not.
Kevin: Maybe it is over.
When we linked in 2018 around Iridescence, I was impressed with your commitment to keeping a group this large together. More heads equal more considerations. I guess I’m saying I’m proud of you, and I wonder what’s left for this group.
Kevin: More ideas, more storytelling.
Dom: More experiences.
Joba: Yeah, more life.
Kevin: Pushing boundaries. Doing new things.
Historically, what happens with boy bands is either audiences’ tastes change too quickly for them to keep up, or the members start to feel really limited because they’ve been cast into narrow roles — the “front man,” the “bad boy,” the “mysterious one.” I like to think you mostly avoided that.
Kevin: I feel like we avoided it because we changed so often. The group is always evolving.
Merlyn: People within the group are evolving, too. I wasn’t singing at first. [Bearface] is spitting.
In the spring, you’re playing a month of European dates. Are you nervous about touring during a global panned pizza, and will your American fans get to see you again?
Romil: I’m excited. I’m vaccinated, so I got 5G, and I’m ready. When you play a show, that’s the one place you can tangibly see how people are connecting to the music. I miss that, and I’d love to go on tour again when it’s safe.
Joba: There’s so many new songs. I think everyone’s always really excited to. I just hope everyone can do it safely.
Bearface, do you have any words of wisdom for the Bearface hive? You’ve been quiet.
Bearface: I’ve got no words of wisdom. You’re looking at the wrong person.
Romil: I’m a proud member of Bearface hive.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.