Apparently, “the best boyband since One Direction” is a genreless hip-hop collective out of San Marcos, Texas. At least that’s what BROCKHAMPTON — a 13-man conglomerate that bridges steely rap and crooning R&B — wanted to convince the audience at this year’s Governors Ball music festival.
A sea of young people camped in front of the venue’s biggest stage, BROCKHAMPTON’s crowd seemed to understand they were about to witness something unique. The audience on Saturday held plenty of rapt, die-hard fans, screaming every word to each song and waiting restlessly for the band to unveil the giant black tarp covering a lump in the center of the stage. But right along with them were people who had no idea what they were getting themselves into, eyes wide with excitement as the band unveiled another trick or launched into another of their strange, dense, and infectious songs.
The very beginning of the set gave little away about what was yet to come. Bearface, the pseudonym of Irish-born vocalist Ciarán McDonald, climbed out solo onto a giant crane. As it lifted above the stage, he sang the soulful intro to “SUMMER,” a closer for the second of their four studio albums.
Bearface kept his eyes mostly closed, his long bangs hanging over an empty expression. A cross between Drake and a more sullen Ed Sheeran, he sings with a unique kind of privacy. Even towering above the crowd, he seems to be performing for just one person. Singing the refrain, “In the heat of the summer, you know that you should be my boy,” he inflected the sparse lines with emotion, clearing the stage for the energy to come.
As Bearface climbed back onstage — to the audience’s wild delight — the tarp finally lifted to reveal a gigantic, metallic gold spaceship. Likely signaling a “new era” in their meticulously-curated branding universe, the spaceship held each of the night’s remaining performers clad in identical silver space suits.
The groupmates sauntered out onstage coyly, until group leader Kevin Abstract grabbed the spotlight and yelled out the first lines of the dance-worthy hit “BOOGIE” off of SATURATION III. Leaping several feet in the air, he grabbed full control of the audience from his first note as they jumped up and down on his command.
The energy was almost exact for the entire hour and 15 minute set. They managed to maintain the all-caps, always-on intensity of their discography by leaning on each other, switching focus to ensure no single member wore out. Variety came not from modulating tone, but, as they moved the spotlight around, from showcasing each member’s individual energy. This variety was on prime display as they used their biggest hit, “BLEACH” to transition to their more contemplative songs about two-thirds of the way into the set. As each member performed a verse about their specific areas of vulnerability, they ricocheted from Matt Chamberlain’s made-for-pop choruses to Merlyn Wood's impromptu, dance-heavy verses, to defiantly-weird, sour raps out of Joba.
Kevin Abstract doesn’t hog the spotlight, but he’s still an inevitable standout, and not just because it was his infamous post on a Kanye West Reddit thread that first brought the group together. Perhaps he’s impossible to look away from because he never stops moving, wrapped up in a world-on-his-shoulders kind of pensive frustration as he sprints or paces around the stage. His smiles never seemed quite comfortable, and occasionally his exaggerated facial expressions recalled Childish Gambino’s performance choices in his “This is America” music video.
In a rare — perhaps singular — moment of quiet, as the band wound down to their finale, Kevin stepped out on stage with nothing backing him but a bit of piano. Alone in the spotlight, he sang a verse off of “WEIGHT” from their newest album crooning, “and she was mad ‘cause I never wanna show her off / and every time she took her bra off my dick would get soft / I thought I had a problem, kept my head inside a pillow screaming.” Kevin was not quiet about his sexuality — “I’m more like Troye Sivan / with a whole lot of mela-nahn,” he rapped on “JESUS.” Surrounded by the 13-man family he created, he seemed bolstered in his decision to come out as gay in the often-homophobic rap world by the brothers who stood all around him. As he wanted it, BROCKHAMPTON is for everyone, and Kevin wouldn’t let stigma against homosexuality in the rap community keep him and his new family from going stratospheric.
It’s fitting that a band that’s managed to capture the millennial ethos like few others — indifference, ambiguity, variety, and vulnerability — formed around an innocuous Reddit post. There’s something so distinctly “young” amount them, a Billie Eilish kind of stylized nonchalance. But don’t let their gimmicky origin story deceive you — Brockhampton may be fresh-faced, but they’re here to stay. They’re not just some Soundcloud one-hit-wonder, but out for mainstream dominance. They like to call themselves “the best boyband since One Direction.” “Boyband” would seem a bit of an odd moniker for a group that’s more rap-heavy and hard-hitting that any of their preteen-favorite predecessors. But to BROCKHAMPTON, it’s all part of the brand. Amid all the weirdness and supposed indifference, there’s an inescapable competitive edge. They’re out to be the best, to “redefine the word ‘boy band,’” and to take on any limited definitions of masculinity the world tries to force on them.
—Staff writer Joy C. Ashford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.