Album Reviews, Arts & Entertainment, Music, Pop Rhetoric

Can Matt Champion move beyond his boy band past?

A quick look at the Y-intersection’s collection of baggy pants, tiny sunglasses, tote bags, and ironic baseball caps indicates an unspoken truth—many of McGill’s trendiest students may have been fans of Brockhampton in their heyday. The “best boy band since One Direction” was a groundbreaking force in hip-hop in the late 2010s with a DIY approach to songwriting that highlighted both the variety of each member’s style and the unity of the eclectic group—but it was the band’s distinct visual style and emphasis on inclusion that won the hearts of young listeners. With openly gay frontman Kevin Abstract at the helm, the racially diverse, self-labeled “boy band” wrote deeply personal verses covering their experiences with racism, patriarchy, poverty, and homophobia. Brockhampton challenged the very notion of a boy band or rap collective by designating all the performers, producers, designers, and photographers as members, underscoring this collaborative approach with a curated aesthetic across their videos and performances. Even today, anyone wearing overalls in public might be part of Brockhampton.

However, well before their breakup in 2022, Brockhampton began to fade from relevance as their boundary-pushing act lost steam. Ameer Vann’s sexual assault allegations and departure from the band following 2017’s acclaimed SATURATION album trilogy cast a shadow over Brockhampton’s subsequent releases and eroded their cohesive boy band image. While their first post-Vann single, 2018’s “1999 WILDFIRE,” is a strong contender for the group’s best song, and 2019’s “SUGAR” went platinum and sparked an early TikTok trend, the group slowly fell out of fashion with their young audience. Even if you can still rap Brockhampton member Matt Champion’s opening verse on “SWEET” word-for-word, you probably aren’t following any former member’s career closely enough to know about Champion’s new album, Mika’s Laundry, which released on March 22. 

Today, Brockhampton’s frequent collaborators continue to outperform them and appeal to Gen-Z listeners who have long left the group behind. McGill students are far more likely to favour artists such as Dominic Fike, who filmed a music video with the group and featured on Kevin Abstract’s Arizona Baby in 2019, or rising indie artist Dijon, who produced for Brockhampton early in his career. Dijon now lends his own musical credibility to Champion’s album with a feature on “Aphid” and assorted production credits.

Champion’s first solo release since 2017 is an ambitious R&B album that artfully incorporates complex production and wide-ranging vocals into a creative, modern sound. Still, he mostly fails to move beyond the boundaries of his former and current co-creatives. Champion produced the album with Henry Kwapis (lead producer for Fike’s Sunburn and much of Dijon’s discography) and much of Mika’s Laundry feels a little too inspired by those more progressive artists; the vocals on “Everybody Likes You” are effectively a thin impression of Dijon’s more soulful style. Other songs reveal the constraints of Champion’s boy band past—“Gbiv” could pass as an outtake from Brockhampton’s GINGER

Champion’s personal voice stands out more when he moves further from his previous sound. On “Dogfish” especially, his skill as a rapper and singer shines over the adventurous, groovy production and highlights the best qualities of his performance throughout the album. His collaboration with BLACKPINK’s JENNIE on “Slow Motion” stands out among the lineup of features by combining JENNIE’s soft vocals and Korean R&B style with currently trending jungle and garage drum beats. With more than seven million streams since its single release three weeks ago, this collaboration could show promise in the mainstream market for Champion’s solo career. 

Brockhampton proved to be more of a fad than the legacy-building supergroup they claimed to be in their prime, and Mika’s Laundry certainly isn’t a sign of their return to relevance. Does the fact that Brockhampton has grown “uncool” mean that we’ve left their members behind for newer artists and trendier directions? Maybe. Would Matt Champion make a ripple without his past in the once-ubiquitous boy band? Probably not. Mika’s Laundry isn’t perfect, but its best moments show promise for an interesting career—if Champion can shed the weight of his Brockhampton past.

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