It’s not uncommon for artists to announce albums before they’re done, lighting a fire beneath them, but Brockhampton challenged themselves even further with June release Saturation. “When we announced the album, we didn’t even have any songs done,” Merlyn Wood tells me over Google Hangouts. Around a month after releasing the first single, “Face,” the album came out. “I wasn’t surprised we got the album done as quickly as we did, I’m just surprised it’s as good as it is.”
It’s been a year since they moved from Texas to L.A., and Brockhampton have a lot to show for their efforts. They have a show on Viceland documenting Kevin Abstract’s first solo North American tour, they’ve built a lot of buzz from some inventive no-budget videos, and they’re finally moving to a house in L.A. big enough for all of them. They’re a long way from Texas, both in terms of growth and geography. “June 9, when we dropped Saturation, it finally made sense,” Ameer Vann explains. “We did something. I can, like, show people what I did here now.”
I wasn’t surprised we got the album done as quickly as we did, I’m just surprised it’s as good as it is. - Merlyn Wood
One week removed from the album’s release, I got the chance to speak with every member about their involvement and how Saturation to be. Across two late mornings, I’m treated to a virtual tour of their house as they go about their routine. Everyone seems to be on different schedules, with some just waking up, and others already recording material for Saturation 2, the follow-up they announced before the first album even dropped.
Ian Simpson, who most Brockhampton fans will know as Kevin Abstract, is the group’s creative lead. Even though he had a big say on the project, taking on something of an executive producer role alongside Romil and Joba, Saturation is very much about Brockhampton as a whole. He’ll be the first to say this, too, choosing to draw more attention to everyone else than himself.
Speaking about who he’s most proud of, he points to Dom McLennon and Merlyn Wood in particular. “Before we started the project we had this big discussion with them, because I felt like they could come into their own as artists a little bit more,” he explains. “The next day we started on Saturation, and you could just hear how hungry they are.”
Rounding out the rest of the vocalists in the group are Matt Champion, Joba, Ameer Vann, and Bearface. Ameer appears on the project the most out of everyone, and it’s his face on the front cover smeared in blue paint. Ian dubbed Ameer “the star of the tape,” but this is a project where everyone props each other up.
On the production side of things there’s Kiko Merley, Jabari Manwarring, and Romil Hemnani, although Joba and Bearface contribute production, too. There’s also Robert Ontenient, who works on the website side of things and recently co-authored an app they launched in time for the release of Saturation.
Henock Sileshi and Ashlan Grey are mostly responsible for the group's visuals, with Henock offering art direction and Ashlan photography. Each of the videos for the singles were directed by Kevin Abstract, but Ashlan filmed each one while Henock edited them. When asked about the direction they were given, they deliberately tease Ian, who’s close enough to still hear what they’re saying. “We make it up,” Henock says, grinning, before getting interrupted by Kevin from afar. “What you say, nigga? Quit lying!”
The whole Brockhampton family all have such good chemistry working together, and that much is evident off record as much as it is on record. Some of them are a little more quiet, while others, particularly Romil, burst with energy. During my time speaking with Romil, he is distracted a number of times and at points tries to distract me. “I didn’t sign up for this interview,” he jokes.
“It still hasn’t really hit me because it happened so quick,” Romil tells me. “We were just sitting in the living room like, ‘Let’s make a mixtape,’ and we announced it that night without having any songs. We don’t need to be overcalculated, let’s just do what we feel and put it out.”
This is the first time we actually felt like a boy band. - romil
While Romil does quite a bit of producing on Saturation, Jabari and Kiko, who make up the duo Q3, used the album as an opportunity to really prove themselves. “I wasn’t as involved with All-American Trash,” Kiko adds. Of particular note is “Gold,” which is now Brockhampton’s most viewed track on YouTube. Possessing a new-age N.E.R.D. vibe, the song is just as much a showcase for Q3 as it is the vocal talent.
“This is the first time we actually felt like a boy band,” Romil says of the recording experience. “It feels way more collaborative.” Ever since coming out with their debut track “Bet I,” which has since been scrubbed from the internet, Kevin has been quick to correct anyone looking to dub Brockhampton as a collective. Putting an emphasis on the boy band name time and time again, Saturation is the first time they’ve lived up to the tag.
“Pretty much everybody just kicked it into a gear we didn’t know they had," Romil says. "I mean, I knew they had it, I just didn’t expect it to happen like this. It was so quick and efficient.” Throughout each track each artist comes and goes, and one of the best examples of this is on the delightfully weird “Star.”
The production swirls and thumps with such a peculiar atmosphere, making it the perfect background for some truly goofy and strange lyrics. Featuring Dom, Ameer, and Kevin with some incredibly inspired pop-culture references and non-sequiturs, “Star” features one of the best examples of the group’s dynamic. “[Dom] wrote his verse first, and I thought, ‘[He] can’t have the best verse,’” Ameer says of the track. “So we just went back and forth and back and forth until we got those two verses."
I was sitting there listening to 36 Chambers while we were making [Saturation] - Kevin abstract
To some degree, this approach was inspired by Wu-Tang’s seminal classic, 36 Chambers. “I was sitting there listening to 36 Chambers while we were making it,” Kevin tells me. “At first I was kinda like, ‘Damn, we should probably rap about stuff more,’ because we were kinda just rapping about all this random shit. But listening to 36 Chambers I was like, ‘Okay, they were really sharing all these different ideas that represent what the fuck Wu-Tang was.’ So I figured, we could do the same shit in our way. That’s kinda how the project came to be.” While Saturation is far removed from the sound of Wu-Tang, the dynamic definitely carries over.
Dom explains this dynamic further, saying, “Everybody's energy when they’re really hyped about something makes me super excited. There’s verses I wasn’t even excited about when I recorded [them], but then Ian or someone else will hear what I did and freak out about it, inspire him to do something different on the song. There was a lot of cool moments like that, where we were just seeing how inspired everybody is by each other.”
When it comes to the videos they released in the lead-up to the album, it was just as much a collaborative process. Shot on zero budget on their street in South Central, the videos have such a charm and inventiveness to them. Robert, who fans were exposed to a little more this time around, opens each video with a short introduction in Spanish. “Ian was really inspired by Spike Jonze, and he got the idea to start the video with me from Jackass,” he explains.
Hearing Robert on the phone in Spanish to his family, Ian was inspired to put a spin on the trope. Instead of “Hi my name is Johnny Knoxville,” Ian came up with the idea to have each video start with Robert introducing himself. For the opening of the video for “Heat,” Robert walks into frame and says, “Me llamo Roberto, este es mi amigo Jabari. Nostros odiamos a la policía.” That’s “My name is Robert, this is my friend Jabari. We hate the police.” It sets the tone for the aggressive video beautifully.
Henock explains that the videos had pretty quick turnarounds, with each video being shot over one day and edited over the course of a few. Ashlan was tasked with some pretty challenging shots at times, particularly with the “Star” video, which might be the most ambitious of the bunch. “Shooting day was fucking wild,” he adds. “I was in the back of a fucking trunk, and Jabari was in there too holding the trunk open so I didn’t fall out and smash my head open.”
The video for “Heat” is the way it is because of necessity, as they originally planned to have a brawl in the street as each artist performed their verse. Realizing this would likely get the cops called on them, they opted for the one-shot result, with the camera looking like it’s getting hit between verses because of how fast they had to move the tripod at times. It wasn’t really choreographed, either, and that can be seen in the video with people running in and out of frame.
During each of the interviews, I’m treated to flashes of what life is like in the house. When I’m speaking to Merlyn he’s eating his breakfast, and when I’m speaking to Joba, he’s hardly even awake. Responsible for mixing the record and contributing some of the prettiest moments, Joba worked on Saturation every single day after work. “I’ve been having trouble sleeping,” he tells me. It’s almost noon in L.A., and it’s clear that no one is getting as much sleep as they should be, but Joba might be suffering the most.
“I mixed it in three days,” he says, straining his voice. “That definitely wasn’t my favorite part. Overall, man, I wish I were on it more. That isn’t anything personal… it’s weird, I’m not really proud of what I’ve done, but I’m proud of what my friends have achieved. We set ourselves a strict, stupid deadline and we met it. I’m just proud to be a part of it.”
We set ourselves a strict, stupid deadline and we met it. I’m just proud to be a part of it. - JOBA
Considering most of Brockhampton has yet to release solo debut albums, it’s nothing short of remarkable they got Saturation done as quickly as they did. Just before moving to L.A. last year, they put out their first mixtape with an equally tight deadline, but the result was nearly as cohesive. “All-American Trash was a lot more aimless,” Joba says of their debut mixtape. “I don’t think we really knew how to work together back then, but we didn’t know that. In hindsight, it’s very apparent.”
Generally speaking, everyone seems to agree upon that. “I think this album was a chance to understand how we work together even better than before,” Matt Champion explains. “We’d all work in the studio together, and help each other with everything, so there was a lot of camaraderie. I felt really comfortable being that personal with people around me.”
Ameer Vann echoes these sentiments when we speak. “My solo work is a lot of chiseling away, like a mine. It takes so long to make solo work, but with Brockhampton it just grows. It’s musical vomit, you just throw it up, you can’t resist the urge. We’re just trying to capitalize on how easily everything is flowing right now, we don’t really want to stop.”
After Saturation came out, Dom McLennon said on Twitter that his main inspiration is the rest of Brockhampton itself. Upon asking why, he begins to stand up. “I’ll show you,” he says, bringing the laptop with him. Walking through the corridor, he explains to me, “I just woke up, like, five minutes ago, and this is happening.” He knocks on the door to the group’s small recording space, where they’ve just begun working on the follow-up to Saturation. A portion of a freshly recorded song plays through the speakers as Dom spins the laptop around. “It doesn’t stop,” he says as he leaves the room.
It’s really ridiculous. Every time I go out to get some air, I come back and there’s like three or four new songs - Dom Mclennon
“It’s really ridiculous. Every time I go out to get some air, I come back and there’s like three or four new songs. The concepts get laid down so quickly, and from there everyone runs with the idea until something sticks.” While they remained tight-lipped on a specific date for Saturation 2, Ameer, Dom, and Matt all hinted that at this rate we could expect even more music not too long after that. “Basically what we’re doing is making songs non-stop,” Matt told me with a grin on his face when asked about a potential Saturation 3.
Ciarán McDonald, who goes by the name Bearface (a name he now thinks is “dumb”), didn’t get to contribute to Saturation quite as much as he’d like, either. Working on No Rome’s debut album in London, Ciarán was the only member not in L.A. during the creation of Saturation. He wrote and recorded his track, “Waste,” in one day. “Super last minute,” he explains.
Now that he’s in L.A. with everyone else, however, he promises he’ll be on the sequel a lot more. “I’ll probably be in the videos this time,” he promises in a comment that’ll be sure to delight those hounding him on Twitter for being perhaps the most elusive member of the group. Even if he isn’t as omnipresent as the rest of Brockhampton is on Saturation, he ends it on a brilliant note with the only solo track of the album.
It’s something of a personal moment, but even on the busier tracks there are moments like this. Speaking about his verse on “Trip,” Dom says it was the hardest for him to write, but also the one that came the most naturally. “I’m talking about self-harm, opening up about my past with it."
“It didn’t take a lot of time for me to write [it], but it took a decent amount of energy out of me... Vocalizing these things for the first time, not even just in my music, but amongst my friends.” Dom isn’t the only artist to go to places like this on the album, as Merlyn used “Milk” as an opportunity to speak about his experiences with dropping out.
“The music kind of speaks for itself most of the time,” Merlyn says. “I think I’ve said I’ve dropped out so many different times in so many different ways, cause this is actually my second time dropping out. I already had that line on ‘Flip Mo.’ I been dropping out. But for some reason, this is the verse that college students and people in school relate to.” He says that ever since the release of the album, people have reached out to him to say how much they’ve connected with that verse in particular.
WE’RE TELLING YOU; EXIST IN THIS SHITTY, FUCKING CRAZY, TERRIFYING SOCIO-POLITICAL CLIMATE AND BE YOURSELF UNAPOLOGETICALLY BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT WE’RE DOING - DOM MCLENNON
“I’m in a good place, and I feel that song [‘Milk’] is kinda positive. It explores the possibilities. I could have been selling coke, I could have been... I dunno. Like, I could have been carrying a briefcase. But instead, I’m here rapping. I’m fulfilling my dream, and that’s a personal choice I made. You can do all of the above, you can sell coke or become a businessman, that’s your choice. I’m putting it on the table kind of like College Dropout, you can stay in school or be a dropout.”
It’s evident they’re not just interested in bettering themselves, either, using their voices to speak about experiences that have helped shape them as people. “I hope ‘Milk’ helps people,” Dom tweeted after the album dropped. “We’re not telling anyone to go out and go to the next protest or march," he further explains. "We’re telling you; exist in this shitty, fucking crazy, terrifying socio-political climate and be yourself unapologetically because that’s what we’re doing. I don’t know how, but it fucking worked for us.”
Merlyn added, “The group ethic makes it so much easier to be true to myself. My friends give me the feeling that whatever I do is gonna be okay. Just lay down as many ideas as possible and we’ll find something that works.” At the core of the album is a lot of heart, but Brockhampton are just as interested in having a good time, too, showing many facets across the album. Ultimately though, Saturation is a tribute to friendship.
Throughout, it was a smooth process for everyone involved, even if it did get a little stressful at points. “This was a fun album to make,” Merlyn tells me, before naming his favorite moment during the recording process. “I remember one day, I woke up at like 8 A.M., and I heard noises in the back of the house so I went there. I was thinking it was motherfuckers that woke up before me and shit, but nah, it was Ian, Ameer, and Romil with these red bags under their eyes. They were like, ‘YO WE DONE LIKE SIX SONGS THIS MORNING.’ They were working in the studio, I went to sleep, I woke up, and they were still working.”
Ameer would begin to tell the same story, singing a hook that Merlyn made on the spot, cracking everyone up. “Bad juju coming, BAD JUJU COMING,” Merlyn sings with the biggest smile on his face. Just from talking to everyone, I get a sense that they are more family than friends. “It was so good to see everyone in the group play their role, play that character they built up, and really just own it throughout the whole project,” Kevin says.
They’ve at times referred to their cramped house as “the Brockhampton factory,” and while it’s clear what they meant from that in regards to productivity, it feels a bit of a disservice to label it as such. They’re already hard at work on their next album, like a manufacturer that just got a huge order in, but there’s a lot of care put into what they create, even if it comes out fast. Factories simply aim meet a quota, but thankfully, for Brockhampton it's about so much more than that.
Last year, Kevin went on tour with The Neighborhood, supporting them across North America and the U.K. I managed to tag along for the four U.K. shows, and speaking to him a year later, it’s clear he’s a lot more confident in himself than he was before. His answers to my questions are assured, but there’s still a lingering self-doubt.
“I honestly thought people weren’t gonna fuck with this album because of how weird it is,” he tells me. “But now I don’t even want Saturation 2 to be safe. At first it was gonna be safe and be good summertime music, but I kinda wanna keep making weird shit.”