Heath Ledger With Some Dreads…

Can we talk about Kevin Abstract for a second?

I just watched a compilation of straight guys reacting to his verse on STAR (BROCKHAMPTON) and laughed my tiny yet perky ass off. Highly recommend looking it up if you’re curious to see what homophobia looks like when it’s caught off guard.

That’s what Abstract likes to do, catch you off guard. Clifford “not the big red dog” Simpson, better known by his stage name Kevin Abstract is the ringleader of California boy band (yes, they’re taking ‘boy band’ back) BROCKHAMPTON as well as an artist in his own right. BROCKHAMPTON gained a lot of traction from their first mixtape, ALL-AMERICAN TRASH, but that tape was all american trash in comparison with their 2017 SATURATION Trilogy – three albums on which Abstract delivers verse after unapologetic verse about his sex life, his family, and his alienation.

Take JUNKY for example, from SATURATION II. Abstract’s opening verse cuts hard and calls out the stigma around his work, he screams: “why you always rap about being gay?” and he vehemently answers “because not enough ****** rap and be gay!” Not to mention telling us he does the most for ‘the culture’ by just existing, which is pretty true, actually. Not only is he a crusader for the normalisation of homosexuality in the rap scene, he’s also at the helm of the most diverse and innovative rap collective in the game. It’s rare to ask how many members a band has and get an answer of “well… at least fourteen.”

But so back to this normalisation for a moment. A lot of people will quote Kevin Abstract saying “I don’t want to be a queer icon” but rarely do we hear his next utterance, “I want to be an icon.” This one quote sums up the entire Abstract Ethos, it’s emblematic of the painfully obvious fact that an icon doesn’t have to be an icon for one sexuality, or gender, or race, I mean wouldn’t it be really weird and unnecessary if we all started calling Prince a ‘black icon’? YES! It would! Hence Abstract’s resistance to such boxes, to such confines, Kevin Abstract will be an icon for anyone who will let him.

Speaking of which, his new solo album, ARIZONA BABY has got me jazzed, despite one or two reservations.

Here’s a quick review, although just briefly while I have you, what on earth is up with everyone using full capitals for their track and album titles. Tyler, the Creator, BROCKHAMPTON, Denzel Curry, XXXTentacion, even Jay Prince is doing it! And I had so much respect for you, Jay. I did. But you’re just like the rest of them.

Anyway

In his solo career, Kevin Abstract has always reminded me of Childish Gambino. No, not because they make similar music, and no, not because they both have awesome stage names. Abstract reminds me of a young Childish because they’re both outcasts, they’re both filmmakers, musicians, reluctant rappers, dorks, and because they both emit a similar energy which may be characterised as suburban frustration. But while Gambino’s early work falls a little flat for me, being riddled with denial, contradiction, and insecurity, Kevin Abstract’s chops on ARIZONA BABY are explosive and fresh, being riddled with acceptance, exploration, and, okay, insecurity.

The record opens up by slapping you in the face with Big Wheels, a track which clocks in at well under two minutes with only one verse – a recent signature of Abstract’s. “I’m a power bottom like a Free Mason” is one of maybe six lines that made me pause the song to check the lyrics, all of which are sharp, provocative, and tension-building as the beat refuses to drop into anything worth dancing to until the very end of the track, where Abstract pulls off one of the most delightful and unexpected transitions of 2019.

Track two, Joyride, is a meandering auto-tuned series of staccato rap verses, catchy hooks, angelic backing vocals, old-school prodigy style drums, and TRUMPETS! TRUMPETS EVERYWHERE! Talk about a strong start, I adore the production on these opening tracks, Abstract’s blend of traditional Jazz and funk influences with his typical vocal manipulation and synthesised backings is nothing short of timeless.

Following this explosion of groove, however, the record begins to walk a slippery slope. First I’d like to note that most tracks are lyrically fantastic, Corpus Christie takes us on a journey pretty much all the way from Childhood to present day, detouring through past relationships, anxieties, and even directly addressing his fellow BROCKHAMPTON members and discussing the group’s separation from ex-frontman Ameer Vann. Use Me and American Problem are two more lyrical successes, Use Me in particular having one of the hardest verses on the record, but these tracks’ production can feel pretty underwhelming at times, and the voice pitching is a little off from Abstract’s usual mastery. It doesn’t always contrast nicely with the instrumentals like a squeeze of lemon might contrast with an avocado, instead, on Mississippi, the weakest track for me by quite a way, his voice can feel like a monotonous and slightly jarring addition to an already fairly bland backing, like if you poured custard over an avocado. But, much like avo-custard, this track is still at least decent. 

Of course, nothing on this album can rival the hit track Peach, featuring everyone’s new favourite soft boy, Dominic Fike. I do love Peach; the track is, I assume, named after my girlfriend’s hamster, and it’s infectiously catchy. Fike seems to have a knack for producing hooks which stubbornly hang around in your head like a house guest overstaying their welcome. In addition to the hook, Fike also provides some background guitar noodling which is nice but, to be honest, I could take or leave. Gotta love the backing vocals from BROCKHAMPTON members Joba and Bearface, who complete Peach’s vocal quartet nicely, complimenting Abstract’s bassy verses.

Oh Kevin, I sigh, all I’ve ever wanted from you was some consistency, and you’ve managed once again to miss the mark. This album is a collection of great songs which bump shoulders with each other – cohesion would do wonders for ARIZONA BABY, but the record is certainly not bad. 

Editor’s Rating: 6.9/10 (ha!)

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