‘ARIZONA BABY’: A kiln of turmoil and exploration of empathy

Wednesday, May 8, 2019 - 8:28pm

RCA Records

RCA Records Buy this photo
NOSELL

“I feel like I’m currently writing songs and music and albums from hell.”

This quote is from a voice memo Kevin Abstract momentarily posted on his website three nights ago, following the release of his album ARIZONA BABY on April 25. Abstract is living in a what he calls his “Lauryn Hill moment,” a period of time characteristic of Hill’s experience post-Miseducation, caught in a place where releasing music becomes an obligation as opposed to a joy. Abstract, the driving force behind boy band BROCKHAMPTON, claims everything after albums SATURATION I, II and III has been his Lauryn Hill moment.

Therefore, ARIZONA BABY comes from Abstract’s hell. More than just the voice memo, Abstract tweeted three days after the release of the album, stating he’s at his lowest point and plans on leaving the country to work on improving himself.

Even with the knowledge that Abstract feels ARIZONA BABY could have been an obligation and an unfinished thought, its vulnerability and consummation of Abstract’s former selves makes the album feel fully realized. It brings to life a complicated and tangled development of circumstances that leads to darkness, asking listeners to feel empathy and engage in the practice of saying: “Hey, I know it’s dark in here. But you’re not alone.” These sentiments square with Abstract’s motto for ARIZONA BABY (posted in promotional videos and on merch): “Teach me Empathy.”

The album starts and ends with pleasantly unsettling beats, deeply rooted in aggression, as if encasing some of the “softer” tracks in between these two fronts. The opener, “Big Wheels,” continues Abstract’s pioneering of hype and aggression behind non-heteronormative lyrics, while the outro “Boyer” slaps with an alien-like beat, referencing his childhood friend from Corpus Christi and the constant depression Abstract has experienced since high school.

A review of the work of art that is ARIZONA BABY remains incomplete without an analysis of the corresponding videos dropped with the album, one of which is titled “The 1999.” In it, Abstract live streams himself walking on a treadmill for 10 hours in front of his childhood home on BROCKHAMPTON Street in Corpus Christi, Texas. Extremely demonstrative and a tad melodramatic, the 10-hour video fully fleshes out the track “Corpus Christi,” which Abstract identifies as his favorite song he has ever made. “Corpus Christi” serves as the core of ARIZONA BABY, pulling the other tracks close to it, gravitationally.

At the end of the live stream, Abstract lies on his lawn, completely exhausted and surrounded by fans, an image which elicits empathy. The track “Corpus Christi” mirrors the end of the live stream lyrically: “I’m sorry Dom, I prolly shouldn’t be putting all our problems on the front lawn.” “Corpus Christi” is threaded with fibers of Abstract’s past and current turmoil (e.g. Ameer leaving BROCKHAMPTON, feeling hate from the group, growing up in environments hostile toward homosexuality, tensions with his sister), which weave together a set of circumstances that allude to Abstract’s current state of sadness.

“Corpus Christi” embodies the ideology of ARIZONA BABY in that it’s a personal kiln. This track, and the album as a whole, create an insulated heating chamber of hyped-up strain and confusion. Focused on Abstract’s tensions, with a specific focus on growing up gay, this “kiln of heat” is Abstract’s truth. His goal is to teach himself and others the quality of stepping inside the kilns of others and being like: “Damn, it’s hot in here. I understand. It will be okay.”

In Abstract’s efforts to “Teach me Empathy,” he has released some summer songs. “Peach,” featuring Dominic Fike, encapsulates the summer mellowness of the light blending through green leaves, and surely references the infamous peach scene of “Call Me By Your Name”. “Georgia” follows suit with its pleasantness. Abstract skillfully uses autotune to make the chorus sound as if it was from a child, which he then juxtaposes with lyrics mentioning cars and weed. The autotune, along with references to “The 1-9-9-9 is coming,” explores endings, loss of innocence and what it means to leave behind a troubled childhood on Brockhampton Street.

In the same way, the album examines other endings: of BROCKHAMPTON, of childhood and of turmoil. As of now, it’s hard to tell if Abstract sees a beginning in this ending. Although he may not feel similarly, his openness to subjection on ARIZONA BABY feels like a genesis.