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Albums Of The Year: Brockhampton's Ginger Lights The Past On Fire And Stomps It Out

The internet's first boy band marches from a complicated past into the hopeful future

As a spice, ginger can imbue a concoction with lively energy (even as it makes smoothies taste like gasoline). As the title of Brockhampton’s explosive fifth album, it signifies the bitterness and sharpness found in the music, a necessary slap in the face of both the industry and the self-described boy band itself, amidst group turmoil and an artistic dry spell. Ginger, one of 2019’s most important releases, shows how Brockhampton process trauma in real time. Neither one story nor a hodgepodge collection of raps, Ginger is an anthology of experiences that comprise one key takeaway: It’s OK to be lost.

The group’s mythos is whispered around as legend. The collective of rappers, producers, and artists connected in 2014 on a fan forum called Kanye To The. A few personnel changes and early, raw releases came and went, and eventually the group morphed from an Odd Future-inspired fledgling collective into a sprawling 17-member mini army led by openly gay rapper Kevin Abstract and celebrated lyricist Ameer Vann. They dropped three studio albums in 2017 alone, hilariously titled Saturation, Saturation II, and Saturation III, all with Vann on the cover, and catapulted to prominence off the strength of their scatterbrained takes on youth, self-love, and insecurities. Even if they smashed upwards of four to six vocalists on any given song, fans grew hooked on how the voices collided with each other. But the Brockhampton that made Ginger didn’t get to be what it is without controversy.

In 2018, Vann was accused of sexual misconduct by several women and ultimately removed from the group. Everything changed as the crew recalibrated to find a sense of identity not rooted in the guy whose likeness covered their albums. Saturation IV wasn’t released; the group instead dropped Iridescence and, as opposed to being loud and angsty, probed deeper into what it means to just be. Previously all housed together as one collective unit, they separated into new living spaces and linked back up for studio time. Thus, Ginger: wider and more direct than ever, brimming with Brockhampton’s energy, honesty, and unquestionable don’t-give-a-fuckness.

For the first time in the band’s life, Brockhampton’s stylings sound therapeutic. No longer as aggressive and prickly as the mosh pit-ready cadences of Iridescence, Ginger is defined by a vast array of cathartic emotional output. “If You Pray Right” is a tight study of religion that kicks off with resident rap purist Dom McLennon referencing those belief systems that he’s familiar with (“Spin my words around as if you wanted a mandala for Nirvana / Singing a sonata towards our karma”), and later, the group’s most free-flowing emcee, Joba, makes a wise crack at worship (“At the door, bruh, Jehovah, you ho bitch”). Between these quick references are bars that revisit poor upbringings and other painful memories that jumble together for a Rubik’s Cube of feelings that continuously fold into each other as more voices join into the fray. Collectively, they explore feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, from Abstract’s dubious chorus to the questioning verses from Merlyn Wood – who wonders about people that copy the crew’s blueprint.

This anxiety leads to somber introspection, and on “Love Me for Life,” an ordinarily spry beat gives way to staunch emotional musk. There are only three verses (from Abstract, Woods, and Joba) and a refrain (from Bearface), making it much tighter than a full posse track of conflicting thoughts. On it, the rappers dive deep, exploring feeling more than ever before. Joba describes himself as “sensitive, abrasive, stab you in the face” and pairs it with a description of being lonely like Dracula in a cave. The rappers unburden themselves, letting problem after problem go and addressing a looming issue on one of Ginger’s most revealing tracks.

“Dearly Departed” is beautiful and soulful even as it tackles trauma, loss, and the missing presence that looms large over the entire group, Vann himself. Abstract opens it up with questions posed to the universe, the most damning being, “What's the point of having a best friend if you end up losing him?” He opens the pathways for Joba, McLennon, and Matt Champion to use the past to power their questioning of reality in each rapper’s respective verse. The maturity from past, directionless posse cuts with everyone looking to be the lead is clearly evident.

With six diaristic vocalists on the track rapping in the same direction, “Dearly Departed” is the album’s center, tackling the group’s restructuring in distinct ways. For Abstract, it’s a hell he has to keep recording to get out of. Champion’s confused now, trying to figure out who’s really in his corner and it’s got him in a darker spot than ever before (“Wake up sweating at night, mind in a flight”). McLennon, meanwhile, wants you to know is that he’s been tossed into this hell, too – and he’s fucking pissed.

There’s a real frustration here that doubles as catharsis. The entire album revolves around this open, honest, and cleansing scene. Brockhampton have been able to deconstruct the group and rebuild its identity tighter than ever before.

Years removed from their ragtag online origins, Brockhampton are discovering new things about themselves. Ginger is a masterclass in collective cohesiveness that comes on the back of trauma and traveling in a new directions. It’s a necessary peg in the band’s ascent to reckon with its problems and use them to catapult past raw emotional devastation. Trauma is hard enough for one person. For an entire collective, it’s nearly unimaginable. It’s been a long road, but Brockhampton have finally figured out how to drive on it.

Find all of MTV News's 2019 Albums of the Year right here.