What Happened To BROCKHAMPTON?

For a brief moment, BROCKHAMPTON were the hottest band on the planet. Now, it feels like the supergroup has lost its way.

brockhampton photo

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Back in March 2011, a post by Kevin Abstract titled “Anybody wanna make a band?” found its way onto the Kanye West fan forum KanyeToThe, drawing attention from a few that took notice — leading to the formation of the hip-hop group known as AliveSinceForever.

A couple of years later, now with a few more band members, the group rebranded as BROCKHAMPTON and dropped their debut mixtape ALL-AMERICAN TRASH in August 2016. It was met with tepid reactions but still had enough inklings of potential that garnered a small but passionate fan base.

Their meteoric rise to global superstardom kickstarted less than a year later with their debut album SATURATION. Backed by the bold and vibrant lead singles of ‘FACE’, ‘STAR’, ‘GOLD’ and ‘HEAT’ — BROCKHAMPTON had the online hip-hop community in a chokehold as people fell in love with the raw energy in their music and the DIY nature of their aesthetic — from the music videos, to their cover art, down to each piece of merchandise. They were a group that relished in relatability, and fans latched onto them in droves.

Boosted by a major co-sign from “the only music critic who matters” Anthony Fantano, there was no stopping BROCKHAMPTON’s momentum. SATURATION II continued with the group’s penchant for bangers, while SATURATION III wrapped up the trilogy on a high note — capping off a 2017 that saw them becoming the definitive hip-hop collective of this generation.

The #1 Boy Band in America…For a Time

The cracks began to appear in 2018, when sexual abuse allegations directed against founding member Ameer Vann derailed the group’s then-planned follow up record PUPPY. It was as much of a shock to fans as it was for BROCKHAMPTON, as seen in the disheartening performances that followed and the eventual cancellation of their supposed ‘victory lap’ tour run.

The expulsion of Ameer was a decision that rocked the group. Iridescence, the eventual followup to the SATURATION series, then became a record that everyone had their eye on. How were they going to replace Ameer’s grounding presence? Are they going to address the allegations head-on? Will they still be the same group fans fell in love with? All questions that fuelled the anticipation for the album — for better or for worse.

Still, backed by a shiny new $15 million record deal with RCA, BROCKHAMPTON smartly leveraged this spotlight. Enlisting the help of big names like Jaden and A$AP Rocky for its promotion, the group became legitimised in the mainstream — which placed the drama surrounding the record even more in the spotlight. It created the perfect storm, and it resulted in the group landing their first (and only) #1 debut on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart with 101,000 copies sold.

Their most recent effort, ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE, barely cracked 30,000.

A Long Break, And A Chart Shift

An easy scapegoat for ROADRUNNER’s lack of success can be blamed on RCA’s alleged unwillingness to provide a marketing budget (according to a now-deleted Kevin Abstract tweet). Surprise dropping lead single ‘BUZZCUT’ with Danny Brown and then inconspicuously announcing the album on Twitter two days later, this “promo cycle” felt half-baked. Even more so when the album had almost zero promotion internationally.

Still, that theory doesn’t hold that much water considering they had sold more records while independent (SATURATION III did 36k copies in its first week).

It was a two-year wait between ROADRUNNER and their last album GINGER, the longest fans had ever waited for new material. Sure, there was the Technical Difficulties compilation that dropped in 2020, but the music itself didn’t leave much of an impression and YouTube exclusivity killed off any notion of longevity. Between then, BROCKHAMPTON just…went into hiding. With a lack of features, both as a group and individually, they collectively fell out of public consciousness.

Another reason for ROADRUNNER’s lacklustre chart success wasn’t the fault of the group — but rather Billboard itself. On their earlier albums, taking a leaf out of the Travis Scott playbook, the group released not one but eight (!) merch drops, each with over a dozen pieces that came bundled with a digital copy of the album, all in the aim of boosting sales.

It helped that everything was made as dirt cheap — like t-shirts that went for $15 and $10 hats. That accessibility led to high sales and with said merch bundles, BROCKHAMPTON scored one of the best first-week debuts of 2018 (79k out of 101k were pure album sales).

Countless artists similarly started abusing this method. Thus in October 2020, Billboard decided that enough was enough and announced a ban on merch bundle sales. A rule that effectively put an end to grossly inflated sales numbers. Though it doesn’t mean artists are any less popular because of it (their merch will still sell anyway), it’s an accurate representation of their commercial relevance.

Removed from the early hype of their career and a with a general lack of exposure from a marketing standpoint, ROADRUNNER’s poor numbers don’t seem as shocking as at first glance.

And A Change In Attitude

Ever since Ameer was kicked out, the group’s music became a lot more downcast. BROCKHAMPTON was publicly reeling from the loss and betrayal they felt — songs like ‘TONYA’ and ‘DEARLY DEPARTED’ see members airing their personal grievances on the issue.

It placed their career under a microscope. BROCKHAMPTON fans are famously devoted, following the outfit’s every move and listening to every rumour on the grapevine. To a lot of fans, the group seem to hold themselves to high moral standards — so any instance of controversy would completely dismantle their reputation.

While on their two-year break, there were whispers on social media of allegations of grooming and sexual abuse surrounding some of the members — in one instance, a fan was found to have faked allegations just to draw attention to the scourge of ‘fake news’. It all got a little murky, and the whole debacle confused fans and soured BROCKHAMPTON’s reputation.

You could chalk it up as the price that comes with fame, but it’s difficult to deny BROCKHAMPTON had lost a lot of the youthful charisma and goodwill they had built up since 2017.

Iridescence showed vulnerability in contrast to SATURATION’s bombastic tracks, while GINGER built upon that emotional base and explored the trauma of each member. ROADRUNNER then sees them coming to terms with the need to face their fears head-on.

It was only natural for the music to reflect this, taking on a more art-pop and R&B direction. Within five years, their sound had progressed to a point where it would be unrecognisable to the casual fan. For listeners who lacked the investment in the group’s personal growth, it would have seemed that BROCKHAMPTON had traded in the zest for cheerlessness.

BROCKHAMPTON had lost a lot of the youthful charisma and goodwill they had built up since 2017.

Artistic evolution is never a bad thing, but BROCKHAMPTON’s change has been extreme — generating a tonal whiplash that split the fanbase between old and new. It wouldn’t be uncommon to see complaints about why they don’t sound like ‘GOLD’ anymore or that they sound too “corporate” and “polished”. Fans just weren’t given enough time to digest the projects before the band moved onto the next one.

This is what makes ROADRUNNER feel like a missed opportunity. BROCKHAMPTON themselves must have been aware of this growing chasm in their fanbase, resulting in the wildly inconsistent tone between the album’s two halves. The run from ‘BUZZCUT’ to ‘WINDOWS’ feel like classic BROCKHAMPTON but with a bit more gravitas, while the remainder of the record twists into an indie pop epic that would have been arguably the group’s best album yet.

Maturing, But To What End?

At the end of March, Kevin Abstract posted a tweet announcing that ROADRUNNER and its followup would be BROCKHAMPTON’s last albums.

If this retirement announcement holds and ROADRUNNER is actually their penultimate album, it’s a mellow note to end on. Artists that choose to retire have usually done it all — be it achieving every sales goal possible, perfecting their craft, or even just running their sound into the ground. Or sometimes they just burn out.

Yet BROCKHAMPTON still has a long way to go — as critics love to say, they’re still ‘maturing’. Despite doing more than most within a similar timeframe, the group still exudes the impression of an uncut diamond. A conclusion so abrupt doesn’t really feel earned. Instead it feels like they’re giving up — throwing in the towel before the final bell.

If ROADRUNNER’s sales are any indication, BROCKHAMPTON’s career might end with a whimper, not a bang.

Jensen Ooi is a freelance music journalist based in Melbourne and Malaysia, find him on Twitter at @jenericjensen.