The hyped hip-hop collective make their UK debut with a fun-first show that livened up the tired, unattainable ideal of the boyband
90s nostalgia has hit saturation point. From the oversized aesthetic of its fashion, to a return to analogue cameras and pre-internet mobile phones, the decade’s influence is as wide-reaching as it is needlessly retro. But for every oh-so-trendy remodelled Nokia 3310 and wide-legged trouser, there’s another 90s trope that’s best left to memory. Case in point: the boyband.
The 90s was undoubtedly the era of the boyband. From Backstreet Boys to Boyzone, N*Sync to Take That, the decade was awash with groups of chisel-jawed, baby-skinned hunks, belting out bangers and ballads alike. This trend bled into the 00s and beyond – it’s almost impossible to imagine the landscape of modern pop without the likes of One Direction. But in sheer scale, the 90s music industry’s obsession with the boyband is unparalleled. Understandably, it quickly became a phrase encumbered with negative connotations – manufactured, soulless and supposedly lacking in creative klout, the ‘boyband’ concept has never quite recovered from that turn-of-the-century boom. Where golden oldie boybands like The Beatles are revered, modern day ones are often reviled.
Enter Brockhampton, a currently-14-strong collective, who emerged in 2015 and whipped up attention throughout 2017 with a string of home-recorded Saturation releases, DIY music videos and a fully-formed, clean-cut aesthetic. What’s more, they readily welcomed the ‘boyband’ tag – on Saturation III track BOOGIE, their de facto leader Kevin Abstract dubs his collective the “best boyband since One Direction”. They were ‘woke’ too, as the teenage tabloids so gleefully declared – using their platform to tackle racism and homophobia, their socially-conscious output felt inescapably current. Unafraid to declare their love for all things shiny and pop-focussed (Abstract is a proud stan of twee crooner Shawn Mendes, for one), but still sharing the frenzied energy, political brains and creative eclecticism of modern hip-hop (they all met on a Kanye West forum, after all) Brockhampton’s attitude to the ‘boyband’ tag felt as fresh as their blindingly clean white tees.
This week Brockhampton made their UK debut, with a two-night residency at Koko in London. Tickets for both shows sold out in seconds, and subsequently popped up on resale sites at more than five times their face value, while the impossibly long queue snaking through Camden ahead of night one baffled several onlookers. The screams that greeted Brockhampton’s (fashionably late) arrival on-stage, meanwhile, could pierce steel.
Abstract took to the stage alongside co-vocalists Merlyn Wood, Ciarán ‘bearface’ McDonald, Dom McLennon, Matt Champion and Russell 'JOBA' Boring (whose shock of dyed blonde hair bore him resemblance to a peak-fame Backstreet Boys’ Aaron Carter), each of them showcasing an individual vocal style and personality beneath the matching white tee. Every diehard Brockhampton fan has their own favourite member, but this show was a testament to the power of the whole collective, band and fans alike.
From the second their opening song 1998 TRUMAN whirred into life, Koko was awash with pure euphoria and teenage carnage – Abstract’s countless calls for mosh pit after mosh pit were granted with gusto. On stage, meanwhile, every moment of Brockhampton’s live set felt primed for the arenas boybands are so often fast-tracked to. They wheeled out synchronised arm-waving for QUEER, and took to swings hanging from the ceiling for a crooning run-through of BLEACH, only standing to sing their respective verses, Westlife-style. Each situation somehow avoided feeling contrived or choreographed, though; the group hopped, skipped and flailed about the stage at random – bar bearface, who skulked around at the back. “If you’re having the best time of your life, close your eyes,” Kevin Abstract demanded at one point and, as a thousand fans proceeded to do so, the countdown that rings in recent single 1997 DIANA acted as a brief breather, before the crowd once again sprang to life and belted back every word.
Amidst all the madness, there were glimpses of the political edge Brockhampton have been widely praised for, too. SISTER/NATION saw Wood take centre stage alone, fist aloft, for a stunning refrain of “Power – African power!”, and when Abstract left the stage, he called for the crowd to repeat after him, screaming “I’m gaaay!” at the top of his lungs to rapturous applause. Elsewhere, though, it was a fun-first UK debut from the troupe, a set-closing BOOGIE hammering home that point, with mosh-pits and crowd-surfers filling Koko’s floor.
It’s that sense of fun that carried Brockhampton’s first time on British shores – and one that livens up the tired ideal of the boyband at large. In an age that sees masculinity in crisis, a generation of young boys unable or afraid to express themselves, Brockhampton’s message feels vital. While the boybands of yesteryear felt like untouchable, plastic deities, Brockhampton’s DIY success is reliant on their relatable, everyman status. Turning their emotional fragility and youthful naivety into a unifying mantra, they’ve quickly become the quintessential boyband for a new era disinterested in ego and idol worship. As the group respond to deafening calls for an encore, and grin their way through a second run-through of 1997 DIANA, the shared atmosphere is one of pure elation.