The Lowdown: Sometimes a hype becomes an institution. Look at the Wu-Tang Clan, U2, Stevie Wonder, Drake. Increasingly, Lana Del Rey, Odd Future. All of these once-improbable entities went from not existing to changing popular music entirely. BROCKHAMPTON first seemed like a fount of online excitement. Their major-label debut, Iridescence, topped the Billboard 200 last year, and their proudly, defiantly gay leader, Kevin Abstract, made history as the first “out” rapper to do so. This was following three different albums in 2017 named Saturation. As of 2019, rap’s premier “boyband” have as many musicians as the Wu, nine. And as with any hype-leaning institution, each successive release leaves people wondering what they can do for an encore, and more than half of that wonder is if they can encore at all.
The Good: BROCKHAMPTON move as a remarkable unit, but their excess has been their charm for the most part: three albums in a year with a lot of exciting new voices to get used to all at once. A major-label debut with more turns than a Rubik’s cube, from drum ‘n bass to power ballads. Because excess is still excess, it feels like a best-case scenario that Ginger is the tightest thing the group’s ever done. This is a disciplined record of songs that sound like their components were all strung together by dialogue and decisions made in the same room, rather than endearingly disjunctive collages. They’ve also grown somewhere musically: loads of acoustic guitar and singing (“Sugar”!), a welcome crack in the boyband window for female vocalists, most prominently Deb Never on the lead “No Halo”. There’s a pronounced gospel influence on the closing “Victor Roberts” that builds on the last LP’s “San Marcos”. They sound like they’ve taken their Vyvanse.
The Bad: “Good” and “bad” are difficult signifiers with this group because, truth be told, their albums are remarkably similar in quality. This doesn’t necessarily make them consistent, though. BROCKHAMPTON just tend to move horizontally rather than vertically, leaving more tabs open with each release. But those of us waiting for more than a sum of parts are getting restless for an evolution more formal than personal, like better songs and a less flawed ratio of great ideas to ideas that are simply fine. The 12-minute run from “Boy Bye” to “If You Pray Right” on Ginger may well be their finest musical sequence, folding in the addictive, distorted bass of “St. Percy” and the great, drunk New Orleans brass section on “If You Pray Right.” Small advances are good advances. But with a group this prolific, it’s hard to not notice how interchangeable the tunes on each release of their rapidly forming body of work are. Also, Ginger simply lacks an obvious jaw-dropping lyric like Saturation II’s “Junky” or Iridescence’s “Weight” (or for that matter, Abstract’s astonishing solo “Big Wheels” from earlier this year).
The Verdict: Because BROCKHAMPTON is such a hype, such a cult item, so fervently beloved, so boiling over with musical ideas, charisma, good mental-health advice, emotional intelligence, whatever have you, it’s hard to temper expectations for their music. They’re a great group, right? So why aren’t they making classics? Few working artists saddle the listener with thoughts about how they really should’ve made an Album of the Year right now, which is even more flagrantly absurd considering they’ve only been making public ruckus for two years. They’re just so good, without ever transcending. Since Ginger contains more fresh ideas than almost every great rap album of 2019 combined, once again it’s hard to pin down why it feels like such a relief when it finally ends, why traditional technicians like Dababy and Megan Thee Stallion and their fellow hype-turning-institution, Cardi B feel like they deliver more satisfying fulfillment of what they promise.
Essential Tracks: “Boy Bye”, “If You Pray Right”, and “St. Percy”