No one can fake the level of chemistry flowing between these guys.
It’s tough to pinpoint the moment when confidence becomes arrogance. We like our entertainers magnetic, sure of their skills and able to produce work that excites us. There’s a Kanye-sized moment, though, where the bravado goes too far. We somehow expect both genius and humility in the same package, but we can’t really define what we mean by “humility.” The result is a weird, paradoxical attitude toward the people who populate our screens and headphones: If they’re not great, why would we bother; if they say they’re the greatest, who do they think they are?
Enter Brockhampton. The L.A.-based boy band (more of a hip-hop collective, but the label is theirs and a large part of their persona involves insisting that they go by it) has taken the world by storm this year, churning out two incredible LPs with a third one on the way, all fittingly titled Saturation. Their work is by turns brash, smooth, hyper-confident and self-aware. Of its 17 members, 8 are vocalists, and while they often call themselves “America’s favorite boyband,” they possess a distinct playfulness that sands over their more braggadocios edges. Kevin Abstract, whose solo record American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story was one of 2016’s finest, is gay and often raps about it, notably on the singles “Junky” and “Star,” where he talks about fellating Sean Mendes. Matt Champion has a verse on Saturation II about his frustration with misogyny in hip-hop. Rather than succumbing to them, these guys are subverting hyper-masculine stereotypes so hard that their confidence scans as endearing instead of grating.
As it turns out, though, that confidence is well-earned. Their September 12th set at The Middle East Nightclub in Cambridge’s Central Square was a dizzying, diamond-sharp 90 minutes. It felt like watching a Rolling Stones farewell tour and a bunch of guys in their 20’s hanging out in their living room at the same time. Their roots as an essentially self-started collective became immediately clear: there’s no “X-Factor” or Swedish pop mastermind around to back this boyband up. They had to rise to prominence by themselves, on the backs of their skills and savvy, and their live set more than proved their chops. Even the stage design was a nod to their homegrown vibe—in front of a raised DJ booth sat an oversized orange couch, sort of a Slacker-meets-Nickelodeon decision that perfectly encapsulates their entire schtick.
Playing an even mix of songs from Saturations I and II, the group made full use of The Middle East’s fairly limited space, often climbing whatever they could grab as if it were a jungle gym. A tiny, bleach-blonde Merlyn Wood continuously scaled the side-stage bannister and leapt into the crowd, lemming-style, at one point reemerging onstage with a blunt and without a shirt. Matt Champion, too, ripped off his shirt from atop a loudspeaker. Kevin Abstract swung his pair of autographed Converse into the screaming masses, and that was hardly his most exciting moment.
Not 10 minutes into the set, Abstract kicked off the evening’s stage banter with a true doozy. “How y’all doing?” he asked, to a rapturous response. “Two things: First, I’m gay.” Doubly loud cheers. “Second…FUCK PITCHFORK.” Utter cacophony. It was a reference to the band’s ongoing feud with the music giant whose response to the Saturation cycle has been lukewarm at best. Clearly it struck a chord, as the house started chanting “FUCK PITCHFORK” in response. Through the rest of the night, clad in his iconic caveman SpongeBob sweatshirt, Abstract remained an audience liaison, imploring the obscenely enthusiastic crowd to “shake that motherfuckin’ ass” and teasing them by asking “y’all even heard of a little record called Saturation I.” At one point on both Saturation and American Boyfriend, Abstract muses that he’s the brokest pop star in the world. It sounds a little silly on wax, but after Tuesday’s show, it clicked into crystal-clear focus. He has the charisma, the flow and the canny lyrical wisdom of a bona fide pop star, and, so far, his boastfulness has hardly gotten in the way.
Brockhampton can’t survive on Kevin Abstract alone, though, and that’s what elevated the evening from memorable to exceptional. No one can fake the level of chemistry flowing between these guys. As legend has it, the whole group used to live together when they started making music in Texas, and they’ve remained together during the move to L.A. After just over a year of producing together, they’re easily the most promising group in hip-hop. Here’s hoping the house never splits up, and their glistening confidence never tips over into excessiveness.