Before BROCKHAMPTON became the world’s most beloved Western boy band, they were a curious indie collective whose All-American Trash mixtape barely made a dent outside of their minuscule, fervent cult following. While their best work was ahead of them, the pre-SATURATION era was its own kind of special: a rare moment where a tight-knit collective of gifted creatives felt hungry, optimistic and pressure-free. Those who remember that golden period will be getting a sense of déjà vu looking at the year of 99 Neighbors, a surging group whose big stage breakout may be imminent.
99 Neighbors boasts eight musicians, plus photographers, designers and videographers who fall under the banner as official members. At the centre of the group are three core members: producer Somba, rapper HANKNATIVE and Sam Paulino, who pulls double duty as a singer and rapper. Together with a rotating cast of collaborators, the group released Television at the top of 2019, a quirky album that garnered modest acclaim, and are now rolling out singles ahead of their first major label project.
Their latest release, Ripstick, encapsulates why 99 Neighbors could be rap’s next big thing: HANKNATIVE’s hook is catchy and ready-made to be blasted back by festival crowds, while Swank and Sam Paulino whip and weave through a rumbling Somba beat reminiscent of Injury Reserve’s Parker Corey blended with Romil Hemnani.
The dynamic between the trio of vocalists is engrossing. HANKNATIVE is a nimble rapper whose radiant charisma flips mundane lines into memorable punchlines. When watching his slight frame dance and float through the group’s music videos, it’s hard to believe he’s from the same band as Swank, a raspy voiced acolyte of Mac Miller and Lil Peep in both appearance and subject matter. Though not one of 99 Neighbors’ core three, Swank’s been a fixture on all three releases post-Television, injecting another dose of lyricism and energy into the group.
The middle ground between HANKNATIVE and Swank is filled by Sam Paulino, a powerhouse singer and rapper. As a singer, Paulino’s tender and buttery. As a rapper, his voice drops into a husky pur and he’s a Swiss army knife on the mic. Be it drawing laughs when he calls his companion “stupid thick, spicy like sriracha” on ‘welcome to chili’s’, spinning a story about meeting the devil on Redrum or packing a fistful of flows in a punchy verse, Paulino possesses versatility that few others have.
99 Neighbors is making incredibly polished music, but their journey is only just beginning. The success of Television brought them some write-ups on tastemaker blog Hillydilly and Cole Bennett’s Lyrical Lemonade, but the group’s profile has rocketed in the past few months. They cracked official Spotify and Apple Music playlists, they landed a feature on Keeping Up With the Kardashians and nailed a string of vaunted festival appearances at Lolapolooza, Music Midtown, Mad Decent Block Party, Rolling Loud and Made in America.
They’ve also inked a major deal with Warner Records, becoming the first act to join the label’s collaborative imprint Nice Work, spearheaded by Pat Corcoran. Corcoran’s biggest claim to fame remains managing Chance the Rapper’s trailblazing ascent as an independent artist, but he’s been involved with Knox Fortune, AlunaGeorge and was one of the first to get the ball rolling on Dominic Fike’s impressive rise.
The potential for the group is thrilling and it’s not hard to imagine their music hitting new heights as they accrue experience and exposure. Equally exciting is following them in the present: catching a group in its infancy, in the midst of a fast rise. There’s palpable joy and hunger in their music. Every verse is a proving ground for the hordes of new listeners hearing a 99 Neighbors cut for the first time and every new song could be the release that takes them from a cult following to something much, much bigger. They’re already progressed from an eclectic debut album with some jaw-dropping standout moments to three delightfully consistent singles that feel like a big step up. What’s next is unclear, but 99 Neighbors look poised to make a splash sooner rather than later.