BROCKHAMPTON’s SATURATION, groundbreaking representation
April 28, 2021
****DISCLAIMER: This paper uses sensitive language present in the artwork including slurs, the artists using these slurs are reclaiming them and should not be viewed as offensive.
BROCKHAMPTON is a rap collective and boyband created online, formed in Texas, and hailing from all over the world. They started making music in 2016 with their debut album, All-American Trash, but 2017 would prove to be the year to truly make BROCKHAMPTON. In 2017 the band released the SATURATION trilogy of three albums, totaling 48 songs, and a host of music videos, merchandise, and social media campaigns. No group of this format had ever released content in this manner, especially with these motifs, themes, and musical techniques. This paper, however, will look to focus To begin to understand the phenomenon as a whole, you must begin with the albums.
The trilogy begins with SATURATION, released on June 9th, 2017. This album was preceded by a long list of singles. The tracks released previous to the entire album are “Face”, “Heat”, “Gold”, “Star”, “Boys”, and “Fake”, which initially concerned some critics as six singles on a 17 song album could leave nothing left for listeners on the album. All of these doubts were put to rest after the release of the full album. The album contains a fusion of rock, R&B, and rap with unique products across the board. The standout tracks are HEAT, a harsh abrasive rap banger with a deep, resonating bassline that discusses life in a rough neighborhood, GOLD, an upbeat rap song discussing self-confidence and materialism, FAKE, an upbeat scythe beat-driven song with a funky bassline about how the music industry silences artists, MILK, a deeper hip hop cut influenced by 2000s pop about self-acceptance and becoming an adult, and lastly WASTE, a crooning rock ballad about memory and being forgotten. This album received criticism from the likes of Pitchfork giving it a 6.5/10, but heavy praise from independent reviewers with notable critic Anthony Fantano giving it a 9/10 and making multiple top internet creators top albums of 2017 lists. This album laid the foundation and set the stage for the trilogy with its intimate themes, very personal verses, and experimental and exciting instrumentals.
The sequel, SATURATION II, takes the themes and ideas behind SATURATION and refines them with alternate influences introduced. The album was made in only a handful of weeks and was released on August 25, 2017. This album musically is very similar to the previous iteration, but with a more refined sound. The notable cuts off of this album include QUEER, a hard-hitting piano and guitar beat combo about each member’s unique qualities, TEETH, a soul-inspired and brief cut where member Ameer Vann discusses growing up black, SWAMP, a catchy rap cut with an infectious chorus, JUNKY, an offputting string sampled beat with extremely personal verses from Kevin Abstract and Matt Champion, FIGHT a heavily oriental-influenced beat discussing racism and blackness, and finally SUMMER, another rock, and a pop-inspired ballad about youthfulness. Overall, this album contains similar styles, motifs, and techniques to SATURATION, but contains much more intensely personal lyricism and themes. It also received widespread critical acclaim with many preferring it to its predecessor and ranking very highly among many internet music critics’ top albums of the year. Guest appearances from Ryan Beatty and Dijon on the album also set precedents that would be continued through the group’s career. All in all, a very solid and meaningful sequel that allowed for the growth seen on the final installment in the series.
Saturation III, the final album of the series, is widely considered to be the most musically experimental and, by some, the best of the three individually. The album was made again in an extremely tight time frame, ultimately being released on December 15, 2017. A similar style to the previous two albums in terms of influences, layout, and themes was taken musically in a completely new direction. This album exudes pop influence which permeates the hard, loud, contemplative, and chill cuts throughout the album. Highlights include BOOGIE, a song with a beat made from police sirens and some of the most energetic verses of the trilogy that is all about the band and its identity, JOHNNY, a brash saxophone sampled beat with members discussing drug addiction and tough upbringings, STUPID, a synth and guitar sampled track originally titled “F*GGOT” about sexuality and race, BLEACH, the first BROCKHAMPTON song to reach mainstream popularity which features low guitar, backup vocals, and an iconic record scratch sound effect that discusses each member’s individual struggles, HOTTIE, a borderline pop song about life, friendships, and relationships, SISTER/NATION, a wildly experimental song with an insane beat switch halfway through that discusses mental health and neurodivergence, and lastly STAINS, a catchy drum-driven track about how differently the members life could have ended up if not for music. This album is all over the musical spectrum from pop to hard-hitting rap and everything in between. The themes of personal struggles, politics, and youth are ever-present but packaged spectacularly in this unique conglomeration of sounds. The most critically acclaimed of the three, this album received high praise from traditional and internet music critics alike. Saturation III debuted at number 15 on the Billboard 200 and was ranked highly on multiple ‘album of the year’ lists and even appeared on multiple ‘album of the decade’ lists in 2020. A musically fantastic and unique closer to such a special and innovative trilogy.
This trilogy put BROCKHAMPTON on the map musically, critically, and academically. The public response to this album was massive with the group quickly gaining a good-sized and extremely devoted fanbase. These fans drove a lot of the discourse of the importance of these albums in the larger paradigm of hip-hop, the music industry, pop culture, and subsequently society as a whole. To properly frame these albums it is important to create a frame of reference and paradigm to view them through and within. This begins with understanding the group that made the albums. Who is BROCKHAMPTON?
The music journalism wing of BBC radio, BBC 1Extra radio, partnered with BBC writer Sam Moore to pen a feature titled “Brockhampton are changing music – here’s everything you need to know”. The interview with the group delves into the origins of the group describing how they all initially met on an internet forum for fans of Kanye West. The group began when a current member and leader Kevin Abstract posted asking if anyone would want to make a band. Abstract recalls that “I just always wanted to be part of something where I felt like I belonged”. The other members shared this sentiment with bandmate and producer Jabari explaining that “I just believed in [Kevin]. It felt like the right thing to do”. Moore isolates the slogan of “Best boy band since One Direction” as a coy summation of the band’s energy rhetoric. “We just want to uplift people, inspire people and get people through their day,” Abstract exclaimed in the interview. The band, at the time of making the SATURATION trilogy, includes 13 members. The musicians and rappers include Kevin Abstract, Merlyn Wood, Dom McLennon, Matt Champion, Joba, Bearface, and Ameer Vann. Other members include producers Romil Hemnani, Jabari Manwa, and Kiko Merley joined by a creative team including Henock “HK” Sileshi, a graphic designer, Ashlan Grey, photographer, and Robert Ontenient webmaster and primary skit performer. This wide array of talent, identities, and backgrounds is what allows BROCKHAMPTON to make such unique content.
Societally, music’s effects are much wider than people realize. People spend hours every day listening to music and the themes and lyrics within those songs have cognitive repercussions. In a study titled “Effects of Songs With Prosocial Lyrics on Prosocial Behavior: Further Evidence and a Mediating Mechanism” researchers found that exposure to prosocial songs “increased the accessibility of prosocial thoughts, led to more interpersonal empathy, and fostered helping behavior.” Music with positive messages and content can and will have a direct effect on the behavior of the people listening. This inherent carnal effect of music also applies to the representation seen within this music. Researchers Dixon, Zhang, and Conrad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign chose to analyze Rap music and its consumption within the context of the perceptions of African American men. This research was conducted via an online survey sent to African American students at the school from introductory communication courses, African American organizations, and campus flyers. According to the team, the questions were meant to “survey assessed individual demographic information (on) collective self-esteem, consumption of rap music videos, identification with the individuals in the video, belief that rap music videos degrade women, and Afrocentric identity”. Overall, the study concluded that “participants can use their cultural lens and ethnic identification to identify rap content which can potentially empower them” and that representation actively aided their self-esteem and cultural identity. The team concedes in their conclusion that their sample size was small, however, the correlation in the data was strong and would most likely continue into a larger sample size. Overall, Dixon, Zhang, and Conrad further confirm the importance of representation, especially for Black men, in rap music and the multitude of positive benefits this representation can illicit. Representation of the LGBTQ+ community is also important as denoted by Dr. XinLing Li in her book “Black Masculinity and Hip-Hop Music”. She starts by discussing the inherent straight and masculine framework of the music industry. Pioneers such as Queen and The Village people helped show representation, however, their use of cross-dressing and falsetto did more to meld socially prescribed gender roles than to create new and representative spaces. Li notes that “forms of queer resistance are often melancholically portrayed and relegated to the feminine, they are likely viewed as an emotional escape from, rather than a challenge to, the masculinist reality” which means their platform is still lower in the overall music industry. Rap, unlike other genres, has a legacy of coming from marginalized communities and viewpoints as well as a legacy of personal storytelling. These are used as “gay rap parries the homophobic rhetoric of commercial rap, it also addresses the personal issues gay people face on a daily basis” in a populistic and accessible art form. Li argues that rappers possess a unique societal ability to generate “a new kind of resistance by turning masculinity against itself”. This demonstrates the importance of LGBTQ+ representation in rap to change the music industry and help people have narratives and themes to relate to. Overall, music and representation are extremely powerful, and facilitating positive messages and figures can actively improve people, their self-esteem, and enact positive social change.
Musically, Brockhampton’s groundbreaking nature can be seen within the music and production, the lyrics, and the personal narratives within both of these elements. This piece of art is innovative, unique, and has no real sonic precedent. Nicholas Roa notes how the production and vocal mixing of the Saturation trilogy “has been praised for their quality and creativity”. The three main parts of which are the use of pitch shifting, panning, and auto-tune. Pitch shifting is a process that is used by producers to raise or lower the original sound recorded. This effect can be used in multiple facets, but Brockhampton wields this tool as “Abstract and other members’ vocals are pitched up multiple times throughout the project, making the album’s tracklisting exciting, though unpredictable at times”. A great example of this is the track “STUPID” on Saturation 3 in which Kevin Abstract and Matt Champion have alternately pitched vocals which creates a unique contrast within the song. Panning is an audio effect in which a specific sonic element is sent to or switched between left and right speakers. This effect, most obvious when listening to headphones, has only recently become widespread in use. On the song “QUEER” the production team uses panning to create space on the track for the loud vocals, abrasive beat, and ad-libs by placing the ad-libs sonically on the very left and right meaning they don’t interfere with the main track. Lastly, autotune is an important element of the Brockhampton sound. Although far from the first group to utilize autotune, Brockhamtons incorporation of this tool into their signature sound is unique. A good example of this is the lower autotune on the track “SWIM” which keeps the song very cohesive and smooth as well as the track “RENTAL” in which the effect is used to a more classic style to aid Abstracts singing on the chorus. Overall, Brockhampton uses these and the many other tools at their disposal to make very innovative music. Roa concludes that “(it is) impressive enough that they released three albums in one year, but it is the quality of the mixing that speaks volumes. Anyone could release three albums in a year, but not everyone can do this with the high quality of production that they have. As each album was released, the quality of the mix improved”. The production is just one aspect of the pure quality and groundbreaking nature of this trilogy.
The lyrics and personal narratives within are a shining example of representation and positive messaging put forth by the group throughout these albums. Race places a large role in the personal narratives as the rappers Merlin, Ameer, Dom, and Kevin are all black. An important moment for Ameer happens in the song “TEETH” off of Saturation II. This song features soul-inspired backing with a combination of choir vocals, piano, and heavy bass lines which borrows heavily from the traditional African-American art forms of soul, gospel, and funk. The lyricism on this song is what makes it so special. Ameer details life growing up as a black kid and the situations it put him in. He starts with the line “I done been in trouble ’bout as long as I remember” denoting his troublemaking as a child but following it with “My momma tried to help me but I hardly ever listened” showing it was his fault. This leads to his mother “(sending) me to them white schools” to potentially get him away from the ‘bad influences’ of his neighborhood. In these schools “I learned that I was different” and faced prejudice not uncommon with POC in predominantly white schools. The next line is very powerful as Ameer says “They told me I’m a nigga, well, now I know I am”. Here, Ameer looks to reclaim his blackness as a point of pride in the face of this prejudice. He goes on to wear some of these attempted insults on his sleeve throughout the verse proclaiming himself “a project baby” and
“A free-lunch felon” essentially reclaiming these racist and derogatory phrases. He finishes the verse by saying “Me and all my niggas getting stars down on Sunset Boulevard, But niggas from the Southside with Xan bars and gunplay, Niggas on that “Someday…”, If you shooting for the stars, you only headed one way” which advances his message that like him you’re going to face prejudice but he made it out and so can you. Another example of these themes is present on the NATION part of the song SISTER/NATION, musically one of the most innovative songs on the SATURATION III album. Kevin, Dom, and Ameer all have verses on this song which has a very spacy beat using a synthesizer with a steady drum set accompanying. The lyrics discuss very personal narratives from each member. The standout verses are from Ameer and Dom however which both discuss being black men. Ameer starts his verse by saying “I hate them quiet suburbs, I hate those picket fences, I hate the separation” alluding again to the suburban white schools he was forced to attend as a kid. He then delves into a story discussing how “they called me; “Nigga”. I fight, I got suspended, my teachers saw me hit him. So they ain’t listen to me, and from that moment on, I would learn that I was different, I would grow to see the difference. Second-guessing my decisions, Black bodies come up missing”. This story is one not too uncommon sadly and is extremely relatable to thousands of people. Ameers’ realization at the end that black bodies are treated differently in this nation is one many kids come to realize at a very young age. Dom picks up these themes and personally relates to them in the next verse asking “Wonder how the world would be if I had no face, If I had no heart, if I had no skin. And I was just thoughts, reminiscing.”. Being in a black body changes the way you experience the world which both men and million around the world heavily relate to. He ends his verse by repeating this phrase twice that “In the eyes of the law, I’m a problem. In the eyes of the blogs, I’m a paycheck. In the eyes of the world, I’m a icon. In the eyes that I own, I ain’t start yet, I ain’t start yet”. These verses demonstrate an important representation of the black struggle using traditionally black art forms and further important narratives on life as a black man that are often underrepresented in pop culture. This ties directly back to the research that black men “can use their cultural lens and ethnic identification to identify rap content which can potentially empower them” and that representation actively aids self-esteem and cultural identity. These verses’ representation of these narratives and experiences actively better the lives of people and their cultural perceptions.
This lyrical representation is also talking about issues surrounding the LQBTQ+ community. These narratives are presented by Kevin Abstract, real name Ian Simpson, who is the sort-of frontman for the group. Kevin identifies as gay and frequently discusses his personal struggles regarding this topic in his music. This can be seen blatantly on the track JUNKY off of the Saturation II album. This song has a very abrasive and loud instrumental with high-pitched strings and heavy base providing the background for this verse. Kevin begins his verse with the line “I spit my heart out, lookin’ out for my best interests. He gave me good head, peepin’ out while the windows tinted”. This openness with his sexuality is an important theme that is continued throughout the verse. He then continues “I say shit when I rap and y’all niggas barely listen. I do the most for the culture, nigga, by just existing.” which expresses his view that simply being gay and rapping helps the culture. He then delves into a personal narrative detailing that “I told my mom I was gay; why the fuck she ain’t listen? I signed a pub deal and her opinion fuckin’ disappearin’”. This lyric represents the complex nature of Kevin’s relation to his family due to his sexuality and that his success has affected how he is viewed. Abstract then pivots the conversation posing a question “Is it homophobic to only hook up with straight niggas? You know like closet niggas, masc-type? Why don’t you take that mask off? That’s the thought I had last night” This line discusses Kevin’s complex relationship with his sexuality and a larger conversation within the gay community about the separation between masculine and feminine gays. The context is that some gay men will exclusively date masculine (“masc”) men and Kevin is questioning whether this attitude is acceptable. He then pivots again describing a question he always has to field as a gay rapper; “Why you always rap about bein’ gay?” which he responds to with the line “Cause not enough niggas rap and be gay”. This swift and accurate dismissal of such a belittling question is such a positive and memorable moment in the trilogy. He goes on to explain that “Where I come from, niggas get called “faggot” and killed, So I’ma get head from a nigga right here. And they can come and cut my head off, and And my legs off, And I’ma still be a boss ’til my head gone”. This unapologetic and bold attitude in the face of prejudice is so powerful and sends a very positive message. This verse and song as a whole are so important for its representation of LQBTQ+ issues and vehement pushback on harmful stereotypes and norms within music. Kevin exemplifies this rhetoric throughout the trilogy. On the song STUPID, which was originally titled FAGGOT, he drops the bar “I’m a faggot, I say it, I scream that shit like I mean it”. This reclaiming of derogatory language is such a positive example of actively combatting homophobia. Kevin’s work here ties is an exemplification of Li’s argument that rappers possess a unique societal ability to generate “a new kind of resistance”. This resistance actively fights prejudice and looks to make rap, music, and pop culture a better and more representative space for LGBTQ+ people.
Lyrically and musically, Brockhampton paves the way for a new generation of rap music that looks and sounds like it never has before. Their progressive and impressive lyricism with such intensely personal narratives follows the important rap traditions of storytelling and fighting oppressive systems in a whole new and revolutionary fashion. Accompanied by fantastic and innovative music and production, this trilogy sets itself apart from all other music of the time. This paper does not even have the time to address the other groundbreaking facets of this trilogy such as the music videos, merchandise, and accompanying documentary, all of which further and expand upon the work done within the albums themselves. BROCKHAMPTON’s SATURATION trilogy of albums is truly a rap and musical landmark that presents an unparalleled representation of underrepresented people in music the social, pop culture, and societal effects of which should be discussed for decades to come.
BBC. “BBC – Brockhampton Are Changing Music – Here’s Everything You Need to Know.” Accessed April 14, 2021. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/4dWk4px5j03HHPMBj1jhx8N/brockhampton-are-changing-music-here-s-everything-you-need-to-know.
Dixon, Travis L., Yuanyuan Zhang, and Kate Conrad. “Self-Esteem, Misogyny and Afrocentricity: An Examination of the Relationship between Rap Music Consumption and African American Perceptions.” Group Processes & Intergroup Relations 12, no. 3 (May 1, 2009): 345–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430209102847.
Greitemeyer, Tobias. “Effects of Songs With Prosocial Lyrics on Prosocial Behavior: Further Evidence and a Mediating Mechanism.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 35, no. 11 (November 1, 2009): 1500–1511. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167209341648.
Li, Xinling. Black Masculinity and Hip-Hop Music: Black Gay Men Who Rap. Springer, 2018.
Roa, Nicholas. “The SATURATION Trilogy: The Importance of the Vocal Mix,” n.d., 28.
BROCKHAMPTON, TEETH (BROCKHAMPTON Factory, Van Nuys, Los Angeles, California, USA, 2017), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4h9lRBtCvHg&ab_channel=BROCKHAMPTON-Topic.
BROCKHAMPTON, JUNKY (: BROCKHAMPTON Factory, Van Nuys, Los Angeles, California, USA, 2017), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_M235JEf_WA&ab_channel=BROCKHAMPTON-Topic.
BROCKHAMPTON, STUPID (: BROCKHAMPTON Factory, Van Nuys, Los Angeles, California, USA, 2017), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ui9sIEBFyyE&ab_channel=BROCKHAMPTON-Topic.
BROCKHAMPTON, SISTER/NATION (: BROCKHAMPTON Factory, Van Nuys, Los Angeles, California, USA, 2017), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1iI4A0ToGI&ab_channel=BROCKHAMPTON-Topic.