BROCKHAMPTON has had a year.
The self-styled “hardest-working boyband in show business” conquered 2017, releasing an unprecedented three studio albums in their eclectic Saturation trilogy, garnering critical acclaim and a fiercely adoring fanbase for their vibrant, proudly weird strain of hip-hop iconoclasm. Their meteoric rise to fame seemed magical until May, when allegations of sexual abuse were leveled against Ameer Vann, one of the group’s founding members. The group released a statement detailing Vann’s removal soon after, cancelling the rest of their tour dates and a planned album to, as the statement put it, “go home and regroup.”
BROCKHAMPTON made an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in June, a month removed from Vann’s exit, debuting what would become iridescence’s penultimate track “TONYA.” The performance was nowhere close to the celebration of success it might have been, revealing a group of young artists wrapped in sadness and confusion, uncertain of their future and how to step into it. As the mournful chords of the song loomed above, each of them seemed to keep their face downcast, their steady flows tinged with something like exhaustion, compounded by the song’s sighing chorus: “I been feeling like I don’t matter how I used to.”
iridescence, their fourth studio album, picks up from here, in the next chapter of BROCKHAMPTON’s story. Instead of looking for answers in the mess of the last six months—what BROCKHAMPTON is now, what their popularity means, what they’re meant to do going forward—the album chooses to embrace the chaos, rushing headlong into the space between their newfound fame and the ways they feel they’ve failed. The result is something disorienting, unpredictable, and heartbreaking all at once. Brash and defiant as it is nihilistic and afraid. It’s also, in true BROCKHAMPTON fashion, utterly riveting.
The album doesn’t begin so much as it explodes. The moment “NEW ORLEANS” rips iridescence open, it’s clear the effervescent patchwork production style the group cultivated on the Saturation trilogy is gone. iridescence sounds primal, the careless abandon of previous projects replaced by an urgent, hard-edged industrial sound, in the same universe as Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory, or even Yeezus. The album is laced with a kind of desperate paranoia, as Kevin Abstract’s hook, “Tell the world to stop tripping, I’ll / build a different house with different functions,” sets up the album’s most insistent question: Who are we now that we’ve arrived?
Again, the album isn’t interested in answers, just living in the flux that comes with the questions. Everything about iridescence speaks to ambivalence and doubt in their new status, manifesting in a barely suppressed rage that powers the album’s breakneck tempo. You can hear it in Joba’s claws-out “Never asked for the drama, but I’ll turn it into dollars” on “BERLIN,” or Matt Champion’s pleading “Don’t forget me” on “VIVID.” They’re scared of what’s to come and what it will do to them, unsure of whether everything they’ve gained is worth what they’ve lost. iridescence is the sound of BROCKHAMPTON struggling to keep the faith.
This fear of lost control comes to a head in the cataclysmic “J’OUVERT,” a nightmare banger that delights in the very vices they fear so much (Though Joba’s verse on “J’OUVERT” might be the album’s lowest point, devolving into a fairly disturbing Eminem impression). Merlyn Wood gets his own gloriously caustic grime track on “WHERE THE CASH AT,” but even his perennial weirdo-interludes serve to inject levity, even absurdity, into the album’s sense of dread. Dom McLennon, always the group’s most fearless writer, arguably runs away with the album, flexing bulletproof wordplay and showmanship while spinning acidic verses on his crumbling faith in BROCKHAMPTON: “If people trust you, they don’t need to question your decisions / You never needed them if they make you another villain.” Leaving behind the tag-team cohesion of previous albums, iridescence sees BROCKHAMPTON let loose like never before, pushing themselves and their abilities without diminishing the other members. The effect is dizzying, and it’s meant to be.
The only breath afforded to the listener on iridescence comes on “SAN MARCOS,” a windswept track daydreaming about easier times, undergirded by bearface’s earnest emo-crooning. After pinballing between angsty imposter syndrome and outright self-destruction for most of the album’s runtime, “SAN MARCOS” showcases each member of the group musing on how to cope with where they are now. The album version of “TONYA” right after, even more crushing this time around, spells out this conflict most succinctly on Dom’s verse: “My shelter sheltered me from things I needed to commit to / The way it stands to me / A victim of Stockholm in my friendships and family.” The album takes on a tragic, even ironic air in this way. They’re trapped by the dream they’ve built for themselves
The truth that iridescence speaks to is simple: no one else can do what BROCKHAMPTON can’t help doing. Sonically and thematically, they stand on ground that is otherwise uninhabited in modern rap. The problem now is the bizarre self-awareness that comes as consequence of their fame: iridescence sees BROCKHAMPTON picking their celebrity apart as fast as it spills forth, culminating in an album as hypocritical as it is introspective. But this is the life BROCKHAMPTON always wanted, and they’re in it now, for better and for worse. They—and iridescence—cannot imagine any other kind of life.