Ian Simpson has had a tiresome past two years. In 2017, he lifted his eclectic boy-band BROCKHAMPTON into mainstream prominence, releasing four albums (“The Saturation trilogy” and “Iridescence”) that defined their exciting approach to hip-hop, R&B and pop music.
This rapid rise of popularity resulted in a multi-album record deal with industry staple RCA Records. Simpson, known more widely by his stage name “Kevin Abstract,” found himself touring the nation, recording at Abbey Road Studios in London and confronting the controversy brought on by former BROCKHAMPTON member Ameer Vann’s sexual misconduct allegations.
The 22-year-old recording artist has had to grow up quickly, and “Arizona Baby,” his first solo album since 2014, reflects on this with a wave of nostalgia and genre-bending musicianship. “Arizona Baby” is an unapologetic expression of vulnerability, exploring Abstract’s relatable struggles of self-identification, uncertainty of the future and regret over the past.
The music found in this 11-track, 32-minute album is a natural progression of sound and style, representative of an artist who has sharpened his focus and realized his strengths. Abstract embraces the listener with a seamless blend of hip-hop grittiness and boyish pop balladry. The transition from “Use Me” to “Peach” is a prime example of this.
Kanye West’s influence and “Life of Pablo” production style is heard in “Use Me,” which immediately begins with a gospel choir sample exalting a surrendering: “Use me for your service!”
An indignant Abstract raps a stone cold verse detailing the resilience that was required of him during his youth. The song goes through an instrumental shift, and Abstract doubles back with a faster, fierce finish to his verse, giving way to a chorus that punctuates the song perfectly.
On the other hand, “Peach” plays into Abstract’s pop sensibilities, enlisting the help of Dominic Fike and BROCKHAMPTON members Joba and Bearface to deliver an infectiously catchy tune that touts a lovesick attitude, but pushes a message of acceptance in the face of romantic uncertainty.
In the same vein, the track “Baby Boy” is unabashedly sentimental and regretful, expressing the difficulty of legitimately moving past romantic relationships. Both of these tracks highlight how well Abstract can construct sweet pop anthems just as readily as sticky hip-hop jams.
The songwriting can get sappy and awkward at times. The track “Corpus Christi” is guilty of this by having a tone imbued with melodrama. The song comes off more as a preteen journal entry than mature reflections of his life, being performed in a monotonous singsong intonation that grows boring quickly.
The instrumental is equally bland, but luckily this is the only instance on the album where a composition falls flat. There are also several songs that achieve the same sense of nostalgic meditation without being too juvenile. “Georgia” and “Crumble” both dive into Abstract’s past effectively and create sympathy with ease.
“Arizona Baby” is a needed catharsis for Abstract. He is clearly unhappy to some degree and the medium of music is his therapy. Those who listen to his music may vicariously experience this sense of release, particularly those that experience common Gen Z dilemmas: depression, consequences of self-identification, exclusion and the anxiety of never knowing where tomorrow will go.
These sentiments, wrapped around a tight-knit set of tracks, creates one of the most memorable music experiences of the year so far.