Unity in The Community: BROCKHAMPTON, Odd Future, And The Return of The Rap Crew
What hip hop needs is more groups
A few months ago, BROCKHAMPTON released their grizzly, imaginative sophomore record, SATURATION. The momentum building up to SATURATION’s release seemed meticulously planned, starting with January’s thoughtful non-album loosie “CANNON,” and continuing with the release of four bangers through the month of May: the groovy “FACE,” the overly aggressive “HEAT,” the laid-back yet braggy “GOLD,” and the ridiculously catchy “STAR,” which boasted weirdo visuals and one of the coolest first verses heard through the year so far, delivered by member Dom McLennon.
The album dropped at the beginning of June, unannounced but saturated in its own wave of hype. Numerous singles and music videos trickled onto the internet, flooding everyone’s news feeds and grabbing the attention of the coolest publications. A mere two months later we’ve already been teased with last week’s “GUMMY” and this week’s “SWAMP,” laying the ground for a follow-up album, SATURATION II. (why BROCKHAMPTON didn’t go with OVER SATURATION is either a missed opportunity or an obvious plan for a third entry.) Unsurprisingly, both new songs are bangers, and both continue the trend of allowing each member to shine, artfully blending the crafty styles of a wide array of zany, engaging personas. The group seems as polished and creative as ever.
Managers Christian and Kelly Clancy, who once helped push Odd Future into stardom, deserve some of the credit for BROCKHAMPTON’s viral attention. But the group dynamic is the rea l source of their power. BROCKHAMPTON debuted on the scene in March of 2016 with their All-American Trash mixtape, while group frontman Kevin Abstract garnered his own exposure through the solo effort American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story, which dropped in November of that same year.
All-American Trash served as a taste of things to come from the massive 17-member group (according to BROCKHAMPTON’s Subreddit, only 12 members actually produce, rap and sing, while the others are photographers and visual artists). Like any good tape, All-American Trash suggested what BROCKHAMPTON could deliver on a future project, showing they had both songwriting potential and personal chemistry. Ever since its release, the crew managed to realize their individual talents and find their strength as a unit.
SATURATION is proof of the collective’s maturation and understanding of its own musical abilities. On the album, we see obvious standout performances; Ameer Vann slides onto his selected tracks, spitting verses that firmly assert themselves on songs like “BANK” and “GOLD,” while shining on his desolate setup for the song “MILK.” Kevin Abstract acts best as the deliverer of hooks throughout SATURATION, bridging songs together, often with Auto-Tune, and piecing together verses like glue for his rap brethren to step up—never does Abstract overshadow his partners, but he certainly doesn’t fade toward the background either. Merlyn Wood sticks out with his abrasive and short verse on the hard-hitting “BUMP” and explosive, aggressive Jamaican-accented place on “HEAT,” giving an unhinged quality to the group’s overall sound.
It’s not just the lyrical talent or delivery that makes SATURATION great, but also the sheer range of styles and ideas that seem to bounce off one another. Though 12 of the group’s members help craft BROCKHAMPTON’s sound, it feels like the entire project was a true collaboration reflecting each and every member of the collective. Song structures, verses, hooks, beat changes and bridges seem carefully planned out on SATURATION, and it’s obvious every idea was discussed within the collective mindset.
Rather than having one standout member spit a few solid verses and hold a song together for another to ride their coattails, no member is ever heard putting out a lackluster verse. If any member on SATURATION performed poorly, that verse didn’t make the album. And this is exactly what sets rap groups like BROCKHAMPTON, Flatbush Zombies, Injury Reserve, Divine Council and Migos apart from other collectives like Bruiser Brigade, Terror Squad, even A$AP Mob and Odd Future—the ability to weed out the bad and place what works best into a spot where it appropriately fits.
In a semi-recent No Jumper interview with Injury Reserve, members Stepa J. Groggs and Ritchie With a T discussed their dynamic as emcees who are in constant competition with each other. Further into the interview, Groggs had no problem admitting Ritchie was better at writing hooks and Ritchie had no issue revealing he was constantly at battle with Groggs for who had the strongest bars. The formula for Injury Reserve’s trio is both simple and effective: Parker Corey makes the beats, Ritchie crafts the hooks, and Groggs exchanges verses with Ritchie to ensure they both rap their asses off.
No Jumper host Adam22 asked the group about their slap shot toward Rapper Big Pooh from North Carolina hip hop group Little Brother on “S On Ya Chest.” The lyrics in question:
I guess Groggs is Phonte, and I am early Ye
‘Cause I ain’t Big Pooh man that nigga kinda lame, yo
“Big Pooh never beat Phonte on a song. They’re the only rap group where one nigga wins every single song. That didn’t happen with Tribe, OutKast, De La Soul. This is the only rap group where one dude bodied the other dude the whole time. I was just like, I’m not gonna be that guy in this rap group.”
No one rapper should strive to be a Rapper Big Pooh.
Today, Injury Reserve stands as one of hip hop’s strongest groups, steadily picking up steam since their jazzy 2015 debut, Live from the Dentist Office. Much like Flatbush Zombies in 2013 with their second mixtape BetterOffDEAD, Injury Reserve further proved their rapping worth on their sophomore release Floss, which dropped in late 2016. They’re a strong unit who compliment each other with style, strong lyrical delivery, and subject matter, and they’ve also been known to put on energetic shows comparable to the DIY-punk rock scene. And in 2017, they may be comparable to another solid trio that remains a powerhouse in hip hop: Migos.
Say what you will about Migos and their lyrical content, but their chemistry is undeniable. Migos is an example of an energetic group in hip hop with a dense sense of style (not just fashion), dynamic and hilarity. If the Beastie Boys had grown up in the south as young black teenagers, were devout followers of Gucci (Mane), Future and the internet aesthetics of Soulja Boy, they would no doubt become the charismatic performers Migos are today. Their trio’s presence is so dominant and in-your-face that a song featuring a verse from just one member of the group automatically FEELS like a Migos song. There’s no doubt that when Quavo or Offset eats, Takeoff does as well, all being fed from the same Versace-lined golden plate at their family dinner table. They’re tight as a unit and rap entity, as if no blood relation or romantic relationship has ever been any sort of a distraction amongst the members of Migos. They are bound together and influenced only by each other—and expensive fashion.
One of the strongest rap groups—if not, the strongest—ever to exist is Wu-Tang Clan. At the end of their 1993 masterpiece “Can It Be All So Simple,” Method Man, RZA, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon are heard speaking in an interview about their crew’s dynamic. Raekwon breaks down every member of the group and what they bring to the table: Method Man is the relative stoner, U-God is a philosopher, ODB is the group’s wildcard. Then he compares GZA to the backbone of Wu-Tang, as Method elaborates and compares Wu-Tang Clan to that of the giant anime mecha Voltron:
[GZA] the head, let’s put it that way
We form like Voltron, and GZA happen to be the head
You know what I’m sayin’?
By today’s standards of rap, if the A$AP Mob were Voltron, Rocky would be the head, repositioning himself after the passing of the great Yams (rest in peace). Ferg serves as the torso. Nast, Ant, Twelvyy, and TyY could most definitely hold their own piece of Voltron, becoming dedicated limbs for the giant space robot. Affiliate Da$h is strong enough to hold his own mecha while Playboi Carti might be the mechanical pinky toe.
On A$AP Mob’s 2012 debut mixtape, Lords Never Worry, we were given the first taste of the collective’s rapping ability. Most of the group’s (rapping) members appeared on the track “Full Metal Jacket”: Twelvyy, Da$h, Ant, Ferg and Nast. Rocky sets the song off with a fiery first verse, but immediately the song falls flat from Twelvyy’s second verse, before eventually being picked up again by Da$h and dropped yet again from Ant. Most of the group’s first project was plagued with subpar performances from its lesser-known members. Rocky was only on a handful of the album’s 18 songs, giving his fellow A$AP camp the opportunity to shine, but unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
The A$AP Mob’s LP follow-up, Cozy Tapes Vol. 1: Friends, had the promise of showing growth from the Mob. Enlisting the help of a plethora of other rappers—from Tyler, the Creator, to Juicy J, Key!, Lil Yatchy, and Lil Uzi Vert—the project sounded overly complicated. Putting out an LP littered with guest appearances did not help define the identities of a 13 member group, though admittedly it did carry the theme of Friends the. And even though only about half of the members in A$AP rap (unless they suddenly want to), Friends felt less like a cohesive creative collaboration between its other in-house members, and more like showing off your LinkedIn network. That will be the mob’ challenge for A$AP Mob’s Cosy Tapes Vol. 2: to demonstrate the power of the group itself.
A successful crew project is about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. When we flip it back to 1988 and remember the first truly great posse cut in hip hop with Juice Crew’s introduction on “The Symphony,” things still feel authentic, gripping, powerful. Every member of involved felt important and needed: Marly Marl kicked the track off with an introduction and set the pieces with his flip of Otis Redding’s “”Hard to Handle,” Masta Ace grooves through his verse, Craig G followed up and spit his stat-quo, Kool G Rap rips through the track his buttery flow and cadence, while Big Daddy Kane hits a nail in the coffin and solidified the song as a certified classic. The song went on to be the lead single for Marley Marl’s debut album, In Control, Volume 1, which featured other members of the Juice Crew scattered throughout.
When Odd Future truly broke into the rap scene by way of internet in 2011, there was enough content by each of the group’s members to host a month-long listening party. Odd Future was climbing their way to the top by self-releasing free mixtapes online from 2008 through 2011. By the time Tyler, the Creator had finally broken into the mainstream with a performance of “Sandwiches” live on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon at the top of 2011 alongside Hodgy (Beats), Tyler already had a solo mixtape released and an album on the way. Hodgy had a tape, in addition to three entries as MellowHype, his group with production partner Left Brain. Earl Sweatshirt had a tape, Mike G had a few tapes, Domo Genesis had a tape, Frank Ocean had a tape, and the collective as Odd Future had a few mixtapes as well. Not to mention singles and projects from within the group as different monikers and production teams, like The Jet Age of Tomorrow and The Super D3shay.
It was momentum and hype that kept Odd Future’s buzz going for as long as it did, as well as the group’s huge pool of music being readily available to sift through. But soon after the smoke cleared, it became apparent that the collective didn’t bloom as well as fans had anticipated. When the hype faded, the mixtapes we were given didn’t sound as solid as we once thought they did. Today, they’re kind of dated, cringey. That might be partially due to each rapper blowing up as they were still maturing and finding their own voices, but years later, we’re still really just paying attention to whatever Earl, Tyler and Frank Ocean release. Domo released his solo effort a little too later, unfortunately, though his album was a solid entry into his discography. The others are either silently releasing music, or just no longer feel necessary. They’ve softly faded away as artists.
On Divine Council’s awesome self-titled debut 2016 EP, members Lord Linco, Cyrax!, $ilkmoney and ICYTWAT sound confident, delivering raps with their own style, while still managing to blend well with one another. Their sound is exclusive to them and only them. The Fugees were undeniable as a crew, with Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, and Pras Michel not only excelling in their distinct ways as lyricists, rappers and at times singers, but also their ability to craft songs together. Fugees always sounded like they genuinely needed each other to form a stronger song structure, melody, hook or verse. With A$AP Mob we find ourselves waiting for Ferg, Rocky or Nast to rap, then zoning into the instrumental when another member steps up to the plate. With a Bravehearts song, we wait for a Nas hook. At least G-Unit had great rappers, full of their own ideas and character.
And while an argument could be made on the difference of a “collective” and a rap “group” – one being a project to launch solo careers of members involved, while the other as a stronger entity as a rap unit – why have weaker partners that weigh down the stronger rapper(s)? Other than the “this is my brother/sister/friend/family and we all eatin'” aspect of the come-up, why owe someone who will only damage your brand name or character? Why have a St. Lunatics, Bravehearts, Dipset, Bruiser Brigade or Terror Squad, when Nelly, Nas, Cam’ron (I guess Julez, too), Danny Brown and Fat Joe (and Remy Ma) are dominant enough personas on their own? What benefit would Nelly possibly have gained from a City Spud or Murphy Lee feature?
No one rapper should strive to be as good as City Spud.
As a rap entity, BROCKHAMPTON has the right idea for a forceful rap group who needs to be taken seriously. They’ve realized strengths and weaknesses of every member and utilize them where they’re needed. They experiment and take in the creative ideas of each member, but also consider them.
It feels like upcoming group Secret Circle (Wiki, Antwon, Lil Ugly Mane) seems to understand this, as they’re obviously taking influences from each other and putting out what makes each of their styles great for an actual group effort. Antwon has the humor and absurdist verses, Wiki has the sly flows and witty punch lines, while Lil Ugly Mane steers the direction and mood for the crew. And as standalone artists, they’re different and a little less cartoonish, but still great in their own ways. Long-timers Pro Era are still tapping into what works best for them, putting out hip-hop that feels like it’s matching the aesthetic and competitiveness of the early ‘00s or late ‘90s.
Hopefully more collectives (or groups, if you find them different) can learn from crews like Fugees, Wu-Tang Clan, De La Soul and Injury Reserve, and understand the best ways to debut into the genre as a powerful force together. Now if we could just get that Black Hippy album…