There’s always a weird energy worming its way through the Big Apple on 9/11. An ambivalent mixture of melancholy, pride, mourning, hopefulness, leeriness, and togetherness courses through the city, weaving throughout the dense metropolis to affect individuals in different ways. It seems everyone knows someone who was touched by 9/11, so it’s hard not to have a reaction to it. Some people embrace the uneasiness and head straight into it by visiting the 9/11 Memorial or observing two moments of silence at the times the planes went into the Twin Towers. Others avoid it for whatever reasons, bury themselves in work, stay away from the 24-hour news cycle, skirt pieces of reflection online. If you were looking to avoid it yesterday, there was no place better to be than the Brockhampton concerts at the Highline Ballroom. And that’s not just because the vast majority of the crowd and the members of the band themselves are too young to remember what happened 16 years ago.
Last night there was a special force-field of youthful exuberance, optimism, and inclusiveness that surrounded the venue, where fans lined up hours in advance of the 8PM show (they performed again at 11PM) to be the first to enter. And merely a couple numbers into Brockhampton’s nearly 20-song set, it became easy to see how the band went from playing just eight shows in two years to selling out decent-sized venues across the country. But you had to be there.
Part of the singular appeal stems from their narrative. You can’t help but wonder how a collective with not one member over the age of 24 and just one mixtape and two albums released 11 weeks apart has ascended so quickly — especially considering this group was forged largely online. To think that this multifaceted, 17-member crew consists of high school friends and recruits from what started on a Kanye West fan forum is intriguing in itself. They’re not signed to a label. Everything is done in-house from start to finish. They’re not industry plants. They haven’t done a lot of press. They’re not social media experts. They’ve simply released a lot of music really quickly and let the music speak for itself. And then there’s that genius branding of themselves as a “boy band.”
By controlling how they were viewed by the public and critics alike, they’ve avoided having any true historical counterparts. New Edition and offshoot Bell Biv Devoe were the first true boy bands to incorporate rap in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but it wasn’t their focus. From a hip-hop group or collective perspective, pioneer crews like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation are probably the closest predecessors to Brockhampton. They had the multidisciplinary factor with graffiti writers, break dancers, DJs, and MCs in the crew, and labels wouldn’t touch rap then with a 100-foot pole, so they were independent. But those groups would rather have died than be considered anything close to pop. Because Brockhampton embrace pop wholeheartedly, they manage to avoid comparisons to and the lyrical expectations of the Wu-Tang clan, Native Tongues, or even the Diplomats. Odd Future are their closest contemporaries, but Brockhampton are far more accepting.
At the Highline, Brockhampton’s audience certainly looked the same as an Odd Future crowd would have circa 2010, but I doubt you would hear an Odd Future crowd deafeningly scream “’cause not enough niggas rap and be gay” in unison. There is an irresistible infectiousness in the combination of the collective’s openness, inclusiveness, diverse makeup, and youthful ebullience — and it feels earnest. So earnest it approaches naïveté, but doesn’t quite get there.
So the first chorus of “yee-haw”s from the crowd (which is certainly the first I’ve ever heard at anything resembling a rap show) may seem suss, but you see why they were already moshing to set-opener “HEAT,” as the group’s founder and leader, Kevin Abstract, kicked things off. Romil Hemnani has proven his versatility behind the boards handling the majority of production on both Saturation and Saturation II with sensibilities similar to those of Ryan Lewis, where he incorporates and leans toward other genres but can still keep the flavor poppy. Some of the spitters in the squad are more talented than others, but none of them take their bars lightly. But the politics of the group are the most inviting element.
The crowd felt free to surf a girl who was just trying to see better from her friend’s shoulders during “QUEER” right after “skinny boy, skinny boy where your muscles at?” People who had probably never moshed before cleared out space and hurled their bodies at each other. The love went beyond hooks and into the depths of verses on deep cuts. Every direction was followed, minus a few unwanted interjections when Abstract quieted the crowd. They had crazy energy for “Junky,” simultaneously moshing and spitting every lyric. The energy re-upped for every song, but hit its peak when the group performed “STAR” for the third time in a row and Abstract said, “I just gave my nigga head.” Because Abstract is free and open with his identity, so is the rest of the group, and so is the crowd. When you see a new generation of rap, pop, or whatever fans inspired to celebrate individuality despite what is socially accepted because of the music they like, you can’t help but feel hopeful that shit might get better, even beyond music.
Is Brockhampton the best boy band ever? No. Not yet. They gassed themselves with an overly ambitious setlist and odd pacing. They were only coordinated on a handful of songs. Members on stage who were not performing a verse would just stand there, do some kind of awkard-ass dancing, or hold full conversations if they weren’t going to be front and center for a while (that left whoever was spitting his verse out to dry). But stage presence will work itself out as Brockhampton get more shows under their belt. What matters most is that they can offer their fans something they can’t get from any other collective — freedom. The freedom to be themselves, even if it’s just for an hour or so. If you can get that same feeling through their recordings, it can be with you all the time.