If you’ve ever heard of Texas-based rap collective Brockhampton, a staple of their mythology is their image as a boyband. The group branded themselves with the term on their merchandise, featuring slogans like “American’s Favorite Boyband” and “The Hardest Working Boyband in Show Business.” To those who aren’t fans, it’s hard to envision the group, 13 members strong, as a boyband, since they elect to include the producers and creative team as official members of the group.
Though that’s the point — Brockhampton always sought to challenge the usual conventions of what a boyband looks and sounds like. Their surprisingly natural group dynamic comes alive most notably in their live shows, either in concert venues (remember those?) or even virtually. In April, they held a virtual release show for their new album ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT NEW MACHINE at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio in Malibu, Calif.
The release show was a compilation of new songs, fan favorites, and bonus tracks from the album. It had the feel of a music festival — lots of moving parts, tiny vignettes and references to their previous work — but it still felt fresh and current. The only things missing were the fans and the rush of seeing one’s favorite band live.
I’ve previously seen Brockhampton in concert — in fact, they were my last concert before the pandemic took hold. The energy during their Heaven Belongs to You tour with rapper Slowthai and hyperpop duo 100 gecs was a spectacle. It’s hard to forget that Chris Rock and Paul Rudd were in attendance at the Friday night show on November 22, 2019 at New York’s Madison Square Garden. That night was electric — together, two back-to-back shows drew at least 2,000 people.
But how do you translate the energy and feeling of a live show — the crowd singing along, watching the lines around a concert venue with excitement — into a virtual production with an audience stuck at home? How does new music, intended to shake a room, get converted into a virtual experience? For Brockhampton, achieving that feat means utilizing the tools in their playbook that make for a great live show, and adapting them. The multi-stage production came together with the help of Momenthouse, a company founded in 2019 that helps artists create ticketed livestream experiences for their fans.
The trademark of a Brockhampton live show lies in the introduction. Take the 2018 Camp Flog Gnaw set. It was a fall night at Dodger Stadium in L.A., a night filled with technical difficulties, and Brockhampton fans wondered if they would even come on at all. Then, the lights went dim, and Queen’s “We Are The Champions” started to play. For me, it was way past midnight, I was miles away in New York, watching the livestream of the festival, thinking I should finish my all-nighter and sleep. But when “NEW ORLEANS” began to play and rapper Dom McLennon popped up out of nowhere, I danced around my dining room as if it were festival fairgrounds. I’d do the same in the nosebleed seats a year later.
So now in 2021, how does Brockhampton start their show? By covering Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” with Brockhampton’s primary singer, Bearface, arriving on a horse. It’s important to note that these are two songs that are distinctly different ways to open a show — “NEW ORLEANS” is a song that shakes a room, while “You’ve Got a Friend” is a calm folksy singer-songwriter tune with much slower energy. As the camera zooms out, background singers appear within frame. As it ends, you don’t know what to expect. But, later, as a garage-like part of the set appears, frontman Kevin Abstract launches into ROADRUNNER’s lead single, “BUZZCUT,” and one by one, the rest of the main performance crew arrives onstage: Matt Champion, JOBA, Merlyn Wood and Bearface. With this record, Jabari Manwa, one of the group’s producers, has become part of the performance team. So this virtual show was the first we saw of him as a singer, removed from his usual behind-the-scenes post.
At the conclusion of “BUZZCUT” — which goes on without an in-person appearance from rapper Danny Brown, a special guest on the track — the group goes into “CHAIN ON,” the only song from last summer’s Technical Difficulties project to make it to the album. (Technical Difficulties was a summer-long string of quarantine-era singles that the group released and then quickly removed from YouTube, though some fan copies still circulate.) The newer version of “CHAIN ON,” which still features rapper JPEGMAFIA like its original version “chain on/hold me,” is a much more polished version of the track.
From there, the group launches into “WINDOWS,” which features rapper SoGone SoFlexy, who is signed to producer Romil Hemnani and Kevin Abstract’s new record label venture, Video Store. The six-minute song is the album’s centerpiece and features verses from everyone within the performance team: Jabari, Kevin, Matt, JOBA, Merlyn and Bearface — along with an appearance from Ryan Beatty, a frequent Brockhampton collaborator. During the live version of the song, Beatty isn’t there.
Afterwards, the group goes into “OLD NEWS,” featuring newcomer Baird, and then into “BANKROLL.” The track is an interesting part of the Brockhampton mythos. Originally, it was a demo featuring A$AP Rocky that was in a promotional video for their 2018 tour. Now, the updated version of Bankroll features A$AP Rocky and A$AP Ferg, and is much more upbeat and complex. After that performance, they ran through fan favorites from the Saturation trilogy — their famed three-album series from 2017 — and their 2019 album “GINGER,” including “BLEACH,” “BOY BYE” and “GUMMY.”
From this point, the show takes a more solemn turn, as the group debuts the first live performance of “THE LIGHT.” This song, accompanied by a live band, serves as the emotional core of ROADRUNNER, as JOBA reflects on the passing of his father. It’s a moving moment that continues into “Texas Watchin Me,” an unreleased track from Kevin Abstract’s solo album Arizona Baby, and a reprise of “CHAIN ON,” complete with freestyles from Merlyn and Kevin. The live band is present for this acoustic break, along with the new track “WHAT’S THE OCCASION.” Brockhampton then moves to what is their most commercially successful track to date — “SUGAR,” which was a summer hit on TikTok in 2020.
The rest of the show is a potpourri of upbeat songs that didn’t make the cut on ROADRUNNER (“PRESSURE/BOW WOW” and “SEX,” which have since been released with a deluxe version of the album); some cuts from the album, including “WHEN I BALL,” “I’LL TAKE YOU ON,” and “COUNT ON ME,” and one more track from GINGER called “NO HALO.”
The show closes with the energetic “DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY,” an early fan favorite from the new album. The visual for the song shows the band traveling to a studio-style set behind the main stage and dancing around a party bus filled with multicolored lights. Though the song’s energy is similar to previous bangers like “BOOGIE” or “NEW ORLEANS,” Brockhampton closes the show quietly on a nondescript street. All the band’s performers sit on the pavement, performing “THE LIGHT PT. II,” an optimistic epilogue to JOBA’s earlier reflections.
“The light is worth the wait / I promise, wait / Screaming please don’t do it,” are the opening and closing lyrics of the song. Considering the show opened with “You’ve Got a Friend,” one of the show’s major themes is community. In this album, there’s a hope in their music that persists despite chaos and despite loss. ROADRUNNER, and the accompanying live show, reminds us as fans and as people that we need companionship to survive in these times. And if music comes from it — if we can make a moment that brings joy to not just ourselves but to others as well — it makes persisting in light and in joy all the more worth it.
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