In the minutes leading up to his Nov. 12 performance at Camp Flog Gnaw, the Tyler, the Creator–curated music festival and carnival at Exposition Park, Kevin Abstract stands in a black hoodie, checkered shorts, a headband, prescription glasses and mismatched shoes, his face contemplative beneath his curly, rose-tinted hair. With the slightest smile, he flashes me a peace sign. I ask him if he's nervous. He says yes.
Just outside his private world of anxiety, Abstract's friends buzz and mingle around him backstage. Most are members of his hip-hop collective, Brockhampton, a self-described "boy band" he helped assemble online while living in his hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas. Their debut album, All-American Trash, is among the most underappreciated independent hip-hop records to come out this year.
Some female friends of the all-male group are dressed as cheerleaders in makeshift costumes they picked up from local thrift stores, practicing their onstage routine. Others ready props, such as an American flag that's been flipped upside-down — a symbol of their despondence just days after the reality of a Trump presidency was announced.
"I am everything Donald Trump is against," says Abstract, a black, bisexual 20-year-old. "That's why we wave the flag onstage, because it's waving this flag around my identity and who I am as a person. I think it's powerful, waving a flag around your identity. Like, I know I'm not what you want me to be. I know I'm not what everyone says I'm supposed to be. But I'm gonna say what I want, and this is me, and I'm gonna be American whether you like it or not."
Though he didn't intend to drop his sophomore album in conjunction with the results of the election, American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story, released Nov. 18, couldn't have come at a more perfect time. Lead single "Miserable America" is an anthem of depression, apathy and estrangement, backed by beaming production and a bombastic choir chanting, "I don't care." Abstract raps, "My mother's homophobic/I'm stuck in the closet" and adds that his boyfriend's parents "love gays but they hate niggas." The track turns Abstract's experiences of rejection for his skin color and sexuality into a rallying cry for millions attempting to navigate a world that is still further from true progress than many of us realized.
"I want to speak for people who can't speak; they're afraid to speak," Abstract says. "They can play that song and sing it back and feel empowered."
That's the whole reason he went into making art in the first place: "The more I do this, the easier it is for someone who's struggling, you know?"
Sonically, the album is a departure from his much more aggressive, drug-focused debut, 2014's MTV1987, which first brought Abstract attention as a solo artist and landed him on tour with popular alt-rockers The Neighbourhood. American Boyfriend's textures are much poppier and often guitar-driven, though the album morphs from one genre to another nearly as many times as there are songs. Abstract drops spoken monologues into an intoxicating blend of jangly, early-2000s pop ("Yellow"), cinematic synths ("Runner"), chaotic noise and rootsy neo-soul.
He cites Frank Ocean, Kanye West and Tyler, the Creator as major influences, and notes how surreal it is to be invited to play a festival put on by one of his heroes. "All these black superheroes that I grew up with ... they spoke up, and then it allowed me to have this interview with you, it allowed me to perform here. I'm just thankful for that. And that's why it's such a big issue for me to make sure my music is getting out to people who need it right now."
Lyrically, American Boyfriend touches on topics ranging from drugs, depression and broken homes to love, insecurity and the current state of the world. On album opener "Empty," Abstract lists off the things he hates about himself and the various places he can't seem to quite fit in. On closing track "Echo," he eulogizes himself as a bad son, helplessly watching the mistakes of his past unfurl.
The format of the album — its initial self-loathing expanding outward to the world around him, then retreating back to internal anguish — follows the same circular format as many of Abstract's favorite coming-of-age films, such as Palo Alto and American Honey. The latter film's story reminds him of Brockhampton's journey from Texas to South Central L.A. this year.
"The film is about this group of kids who are driving around the U.S. and selling magazines — the most random thing — but it's a passion, a weird passion," he says. "But it's also because they had no other way out, really."
For Abstract, music is his "way out." His art is freedom from a judgmental world and the confusions of youth. "It comes from just dealing with sexuality, identity and trying to figure out who you are at a young age, when a lot of people that are supposed to be in your corner and backing you are telling you that's not the way to go."
Kevin Abstract is no longer the teenager he was when he began working on American Boyfriend, but he plans to continue writing from the perspective of that part of his life. "You don't stop feeling like this once you reach a certain age, you know?" he says. "Those memories are always there, and it just kind of keeps going."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Abstract's ability to put poetic words and beautiful music to those emotions is what makes him a gifted artist. His ability to do it in a way that makes people think is what gives him the potential to be a voice for his generation.
"Someone told me earlier, when people are watching my set, half the time they're [lost in thought], because they've never seen anything like it," he says. And it's true: Those in the crowd at his Flog Gnaw set not singing along to his every word are staring up at Abstract and the choir of friends with mouths agape, trying to piece together the image of an upside-down flag with the words flashing on the screen behind him: "Helmet Boy" — Abstract's one-time Twitter handle — "is nervous ... Helmet Boy is anxious ... Helmet Boy is scary."
"I'd rather you think about it for a little while, rather than just put it in a box," he says. "No matter how long it takes for this to catch on, it's something that happened and it exists. And it makes me — I don't want to say comfortable, but it makes me a little bit more comfortable about my art. Not my position [in the world] but just my art."
[Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately described the cheerleaders at Kevin Abstract's Camp Flog Gnaw performance as being made up of members of Brockhampton. They were friends of the group, not members. We regret the error.]