Status Ain't Hood

JPEGMAFIA Makes Murky Lo-Fi Rap Into Something Exciting

When the lanky, pointy-jawed wrestler Edge debuted in the WWF in 1998, looking like a Rob Liefeld drawing, he was an evil, grinning goth in a leather trench coat, the acolyte of a wrestling vampire who’d spit blood into the air on his way to the ring. Over the years, Edge’s character changed. He became a tag-team prop comic, a crash-and-burn ladder-match specialist, and a scheming sex maniac. By the time his injuries forced an early retirement a few years ago, he was a fairly bland down-the-middle hero. And his entrance music changed, the way wrestlers’ entrance music almost always changes. But the entire time, when he’d walk to the ring, you’d hear the same thing first: a muffled, echoing woman’s voice saying, “You think you know me.” The message was clear: We did not know this slippery, mysterious man. And when that sound clip plays, a few seconds into the Baltimore art-rapper JPEGMAFIA’s new album, Veteran, the message is pretty much the same.

JPEGMAFIA is, among many other things, a total maestro at the art of the pro wrestling reference. On his place in the world: “Black man, white fam, I feel like Jason Jordan.” On his toughness: “I’ll whip that ass like Sasha Banks.” (He’s the first male rapper I’ve ever heard comparing himself to a female wrestler.) Rappers have been using wrestling as punchline-fuel for decades, but the “you think you know me” serves a different function. It shows up over and over on Veteran, like a producer’s tag. And the whole time, it’s a statement of elusiveness, an enigma’s mantra.

JPEGMAFIA was born in Brooklyn, and he lives in Los Angeles now. He’s lived a bunch of different places, thanks in part to a four-year stint in the Air Force. (He served a tour of duty in Iraq.) But he considers himself a Baltimore artist, even though he only lived there for a few years. Listening to him, it makes sense. Baltimore, where I’m from, has had an insanely healthy DIY art-music scene for as long as I can remember; it goes a lot deeper than the bands who made it out to get mainstream-indie press in the last decade. (When I lived there, the whole warehouse scene was almost overwhelmingly white, but it’s apparently become much less so in recent years.) The energy I associate with Baltimore’s whole warehouse universe — the slapdash venues in dilapidated storefronts and rowhouses, the weaponized irreverence, the bands pulling up in vans to play five-minute guerrilla sets outside other bands’ shows — is all over JPEGMAFIA’s music.

As a producer, JPEGMAFIA draws on noise and industrial, and he cites Throbbing Gristle as an influence. But the way he uses those sounds is worlds away from what I hear in Death Grips, the group to whom he’s most often compared. JPEGMAFIA messes around with noise and rupture and confrontational transgression for the sake of it, but he does it playfully, as if he’s just enjoying some grand, cosmic joke. He’s also more rooted in head-slap rap music than Death Grips or their peers out there in the noise-rap ether.

JPEGMAFIA has produced for and done shows with Brooklyn’s Elucid, one of the rappers on the weirder edge of New York’s boom-bap underground. And he’s absolutely happy to threaten to fuck you up. But the way he fuses that art-kid sensibility and that rap intensity is fascinating. There’s a moment on Veteran where JPEGMAFIA barks, “Feminist, pistol-whip your bitch first, that’s chivalry.” But the word “bitch” fades out into a cloud of static, as if he thought better of using it but couldn’t bring himself to discard a nasty line like that. A lot of his lines fade out like that. He won’t let his tracks fall into any kind of groove. Anytime you think you know what’s going on in his music, it wriggles away from you. If SoundCloud-rap is an accepted genre, Bandcamp-rap should be one, too, and JPEGMAFIA should be its standard bearer.

I’ve read a few pieces where writers claim to hear shades of Baltimore club music in JPEGMAFIA’s music. I don’t hear that at all. Baltimore club music is music for dancing, and that is not the case with JPEGMAFIA’s music. But I do hear one similarity between what he’s doing and Baltimore’s great homegrown strain of low-tech house music, and that’s a gleeful willingness to completely plunder culture for anything that works. I’ve heard Baltimore club remixes of all types of wild shit — the Royal Crown Revue, the Darth Vader Imperial March, the “Uncle Fucker” song from the South Park movie. JPEGMAFIA does the same thing as a producer; he’s happy to grab, for instance, that “you think you know me.” And he does the same thing as a rapper, too. JPEGMAFIA’s references are truly weird and funny and fascinating. On one track from Veteran, he snarls, “Bitch, I shop at Whole Foods like I’m bougie.” On another, he says he’s got the “AR built like Lena Dunham,” and I don’t even know what that means.

There’s a lot of righteous political and racial rage in JPEGMAFIA’s music, and he exaggerates it for effect. (On a mixtape a couple of years ago, he told every dead cop in the Dallas massacre to suck his dick in the afterlife.) Even there, though, there’s a playfulness at work. Most of the time, he keeps us at arm’s length, daring us to decode his jokes. This is a rapper with a song called “I Might Vote 4 Donald Trump” and another called “I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies.” My favorite line from Veteran is a total roller-coaster of synaptic connections: “Word in the street, you’re a libtard / Word in the street, you’re a Bill Maher / Word in the street, you fucked Tomi Lahren / Word in the street, I know my real mom.” It’s not easy to keep up with this level of free-associative reasoning. But it sure is fun, as long as you never think you know him.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. YG – “Suu Whoop”
He was trying to make party records for a while, and that was fine. But YG really becomes YG when he is stomping holes in our collective ribcage.

2. 03 Greedo – “Substance”
The great thing about DJ Screw’s music — what made it psychedelic — was the way it took all the sounds of rap music and forced them to melt into one another. Twenty years later, 03 Greedo is finding entirely different ways to do that same thing. It’s inspiring.

3. Valee – “Miami (Remix)” (Feat. Pusha T)
Valee has been developing his weirdly fussy rap style for a few years now, and it’s not like Pusha adds anything to it, other than padding the song out. (Valee songs tend to be less than two minutes long.) But it’s still a cool song, and you can hear Pusha delight in his new power to lend the G.O.O.D. Music imprimatur to a deserving, fascinating underground rapper.

4. Wiki – “Hands Out” (Feat. Suspect)
Wiki’s grimy-urchin charisma is usually out front and center on his tracks; we don’t get to hear him ride a beat like this too often. So enjoy it. He’s good at it.

5. DDG – “Bank”
Bank bank bank bank bank bank bank ayy.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO