The Boyband Manifesto: Brockhampton’s “Boogie” and the Death of Genre

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The Boyband Manifesto: Brockhampton’s “Boogie” and the Death of Genre

Photo courtesy of Timothy Michalik

Photo courtesy of Timothy Michalik

Photo courtesy of Timothy Michalik

Photo courtesy of Timothy Michalik

Niccolo Bechtler, Web Staffer

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Author’s note: I originally wrote this piece in sorta flaccid academic style last spring, when Saturation III was still a hot release and we didn’t yet know how hard Ameer Vann sucks. Nonetheless I stand by this song and my take on it (which might be rendered even hotter by Vann’s departure) since it encapsulates the height of Brockhampton’s full OG lineup, and got underappreciated in its time.

At the end of 2017, Los Angeles­ based alt-t­rap crew Brockhampton dropped Saturation III. Their third album in twelve months, it came at an all­-time high for the self­proclaimed boyband. Having grown ever more popular with each release, they were poised for the album to be their biggest yet. Of course an introduction to their ideology was in order—a kind of manifesto for longtime fans as well as new listeners; “Boogie,” the album’s first track, is exactly that. Taking a classic pop staple—the big single—Brockhampton puts an over­-the-­top twist on the banger by distilling their style­blending approach to music into a single song. The result is a strange earworm that summarizes Brockhampton’s mission to redefine pop and hip­hop.

“Boogie” is not gentle. It is not subtle. It does not ease listeners into Saturation III. What it does do is throw listeners into icy water and tell them to swim. A massive, blown­out 808 bassline drives the track’s distorted synth­sax melody forward, punctured by blaring police sirens and noise, which reinforce the song’s aggressive instrumentation. However, despite its abrasive sound, the beat manages not to be off­putting; I was humming the lead line almost immediately. “Boogie’s” sound—much like Brockhampton—is totally weird, but unapologetically itself.

Reinforcing this unorthodox style is the structure of the song. “Boogie” deviates from the verse­chorus­verse layout typical of singles. Instead, it’s made up entirely of hooks, each one introducing a rapper as well as one of the key values Brockhampton stands for. “What are the rules for breakfast today,” raps de facto frontman Kevin Abstract on the first hook, alluding to the song’s departure from structural norms. Just as “Boogie” removes itself from standard arrangement, Brockhampton avoids conventions from their two strongest influences—rap and pop.

Rap is an exclusive community, and elements of misogyny and homophobia find their way into many of the genre’s staple tracks. Hip­hop stars stereotypically rap about how many girls they can get with, or how afraid people are of them. How could you forget DMX’s seminal early 2000s hard­rap single, “Where the Hood At,” and its nuanced take on sexuality? (“I show no love to homo thugs”—yikes and a half.) Several members of Brockhampton —including Kevin Abstract—are openly gay, and others suffer from mental health issues; mainstream rap is typically sympathetic toward neither.

On the opposite end of the music spectrum are corporate­engineered pop boybands like the Backstreet Boys. Notably homogeneous, they make easy­listening songs that appeal to the lowest common denominator and avoid saying anything too scandalous. Where rap would reject Brockhampton for its vulnerability, pop wouldn’t touch it for fear of causing controversy. Look

at an NSYNC promo picture and their manufactured sameness stands out: A group of five Chadly white dudes, each one with almost the same persona as the others. This archetype is why Brockhampton chooses to call itself a boyband: In order to change the precedent, they need to subvert it.

“Boogie” summarizes this subversion by taking the musical extremes of pop and rap and turning them on their heads. With its dissonance and unusual instrumentation, the song’s beat would never fly in boyband pop. Likewise, the verse that multitalented vocalist Joba delivers would be too visceral for the pop world; “Break necks, I’m the chiropractor,” he raps, threatening haters. However, “Boogie” shows rappers in positions much too open for mainstream hip­hop. Abstract calls his crew “the best boyband since One D

irection,” a comparison no rap star would allow. “Boogie” depicts Brockhampton as too hard for pop, but too vulnerable for rap.

“Ain’t no stoppin’ me tonight/ I’ma get all the things I like,” Abstract sings in earnest, glorifying his crew and assuring himself of their coming success. In a way, these lyrics are classic examples of hip­hop posturing, making broad claims about the band’s hypermasculine power. However, they take on a new meaning when juxtaposed against lines like those from rapper Dom McLennon’s hook, where he observes that others ask “‘what the fuck is you on?’” when his boys enter a room. They act so weird that outsiders assume they’re all on drugs when they just behave normally. A big­name rapper from DMX’s old school would never be seen as so alienated, aiming instead to be intimidating. As such, though “Boogie’s” aggressive hooks distance it from pop, its openness removes it from rap.

Ameer Vann takes on the next hook, his flow intense but collected. “My n—as goin’ platinum/ Break necks, send you to the doctor,” he declares, sincerely hoping for his friends’

success and popularity. Simultaneously, though, he dares critics to come at the group, defending himself with a passion almost exclusive to rap.

Following Vann, Kevin Abstract and rapper Matt Champion trade verses. Abstract describes how his parents “did [him] wrong like a perfect step­son” referring to his difficult childhood, when his stepfather abandoned him and his mother refused to accept his sexual orientation. Though he was the best he could be, they rejected him. As Abstract leaves himself defenseless, Champion steps in for his friend. “Who the lame ass bitch wanna talk ‘bout us,” he demands, defending Abstract from critics and juxtaposing rap aggression with pop emotion.

Critics have not always supported Brockhampton’s blending of rap and pop. Pitchfork’s(ugh) review of their first Saturation album was notably harsh, bashing its style for ranging “from unfettered declarations of individuality to self­help ballads.” The review found their lyrics about isolation and depression too angsty to be on a serious rap album. Yet simultaneously, it criticized Matt Champion’s verse on “Boys” for being too typical, writing that his lyrics relapse into the same rap tropes that the group claims to avoid. By nitpicking the group’s style, the review supports outdated ideas of genre, not to mention that you could dig halfway to China with the holes in its argument. Just because a rap song has emotional lyrics does not make it any less serious. And simply because a Brockhampton rapper writes macho self­glorifications does not make him a hypocrite. Brockhampton blurs the lines between genres, and for a review to criticize the group just because the writer isn’t sure what to call their music is to miss the point entirely.

“Boogie” is not exactly a rap song, and it certainly isn’t a pop single. It is, however, everything that Brockhampton has ever strived to be. The song introduces listeners to the group’s goal of redefining pop and rap genres while exemplifying every value that it preaches. And with

the unprecedented success that Saturation III found on the charts, it looks as though Brockhampton is here to stay. The only question to ask now, as they approach their inevitable first number one single, is whether it’ll top the chart for hip­hop or pop. They make sure the answer is unclear. The one certainty we do have, as Kevin Abstract reminds us at the track’s climactic moment, is that there “ain’t no stoppin’” Brockhampton now.*

*As it turns out, while you might not be able to stop them, you can sure derail them with a scandal or two, a label change, and an album delay. That said, I’m looking forward to what Brockhampton will attack next as they regroup and evolve, and you should too.