Kevin Abstract’s 'American Boyfriend' is Unlike Any Record You’ve Heard This Year
This meditation on life's formative teen years presents a rare opportunity to return to these sacred and often broken memories.
High School (or Sixth Form College if you're British) is perhaps the only time where innocence and personal growth collide in the most beautiful way possible. It's a period of learning: about yourself, your body and others, who you want to be when the vast expanse of years ahead of you arrive. Or, if you're so inclined, how to transform an apple into a temporary apparatus for getting really, really stoned.
The adage that "these are the best years of your life" often falls deaf on young ears, especially if they're attached to a body that's having a shitty time. By the time you're an adult though, the high school experience starts to permeate through your consciousness with alarming sentimentality, as though the scientific stuff that courses through your veins has collated with every formative, hormonal moment to make you who you are. As though your blood is as important as every one of your past experiences. These are the memories that inform American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story, the latest and best record from Kevin Abstract.
For those unaware, Abstract is a twenty-year old musician from Texas. Released in 2014, his debut album MTV1987 is a palette of vulnerability and vision. But this latest record is at the apex of everything that's come before – presenting teenage storytelling at its most vivid and cinematic. Of course, Abstract isn't the first person to use art as a means to capture how it feels to come of age; 90210, the entire pop-punk canon, the iconic documentary High School Revisited and every teen film released in the mid 2000s have all presented teenage memories in their own varied shades. But American Boyfriend is unique. Arguably, it's one of the most nuanced and touching documentations of the gloriously testing period that forms the experience of growing up and becoming yourself.
Inasmuch as it features co-production from Frank Ocean collaborator Michael Uzowuru, defies traditional pop song structure and genre, and tells of Abstract's experiences with another man, American Boyfriend is this year's Channel Orange. The record is a journey through black masculinity and LGBTQ identity, and on a macro scale, it's also about discovering who you are through the simultaneous pain and joy that seems so fresh and real when a relationship forms and breaks down at a young age. Ultimately, American Boyfriend is an album built on a bedrock of teen angst, desire, nights spent longing for the one person who could potentially make high school more bearable.
The conflicting emotions flowing through the record emerge immediately on opening track "Empty". It starts off slow, like a marching band treading their way into formation. "I hate my yearbook photo, I hate my passport, I hate my last name", raps Abstract, presenting an alienated and lonely character – one recognisable from our collective childhood, whether through experience or the memory of the one kid who spent every lunch sat alone on the bleachers. Then comes the salvation, the light at the end of the tunnel: "I think about you all the time. I've waited for you all my life. I need you right here by my side". This is sung in a long, defiant drawl, as though that sense of longing has stretched out, made its way onto the record and into your ears.
The battle between being frustrated with the present and dreaming of the future continues. Tracks are peppered with lyrics like, "He was everything I dreamed of" and, "Got your name across my chest". But on others, like "Papercut", there's a sense of inner conflict. On that track, Abstract raps: "The harshest of all times, can't tell my family I'm bi / Can't tell my mother I'm gay / The hardest part of my day is wishing I was fucking straight". The details of Abstract's story are specific to his experience, but the dichotomy between desire and reality is also a universal one. As Abstract reaches toward his own destiny, sometimes getting there, sometimes falling short, the result can be heartbreakingly raw. Listening to American Boyfriend can make you feel like you're reliving every challenging, disappointing and fulfilling moment of your teenage years. Again, and again. And again, and again.
In a way, American Boyfriend even sounds like high school. In an interview with Nylon, Abstract said, "I want this shit to not only exist on the Internet, I want it to exist in the real world, even though the Internet is pretty much the real world, I want my shit to be played in like classic American restaurants." The result is an almost cinematic sound, one that easily manoeuvres between the music you might hear in TGI Fridays at 9pm on a Wednesday night, rap, and, at times, the poppier breed of emo. The snapshot perfectly captures the sporadic listening habits of the teenagers who will grow up with this album.
Abstract takes us on a journey through his own identity on American Boyfriend, as he works it out for himself. One interlude, titled "Flintridge", encapsulates the self-doubt that enters one's mind at such a young age, and can linger into adulthood. By the time the album finishes though, he's reached a conclusion, an acceptance of sorts. On closing track "I Do (End Credits)", he raps: "I ain't sorry about shit / This is exactly who I'm supposed to be / Motherfucker, this is me".
It's this acceptance, and the journey toward it, that makes us who we are. It's the fabric of our identity, our being. Whether your experience is similar to Abstract's or different, the worst parts of these high school memories, the frustration, is always gladly forgotten. But the good parts continue to inform, complete and torment us. The memories are close enough to touch and feel, but they're also stretching further away from the present with each day. American Boyfriend excels because it presents a rare opportunity to return to these sacred places. There is no other record like it this year.
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