Status Ain't Hood

JPEGMAFIA Makes Some Anxious-Ass Rap Music

“Disappointed.” In the weeks leading up to the release of his new album All My Heroes Are Cornballs, JPEGMAFIA used that word over and over, like a mantra. He used that word onstage, in interviews, in video promos for the album itself. He used the word so much that I actually thought the album would be called Disappointed.

At first, I was concerned. JPEGMAFIA came from the warehouse-show underground and rose up to the point where he could get booked at Coachella. He’s not famous, exactly, but he’s getting there. I’ve seen far less attention turn people inside out. In fact, I’ve seen I’ve seen attention fuck people up on the very same Baltimore warehouse-party circuit that nurtured JPEGMAFIA in the first place, albeit years earlier. Was JPEGMAFIA really freaking out at the prospect of following up Veteran, the 2018 album that turned him into an underground sensation? Or was it an act?

Eventually, it became clear enough that JPEGMAFIA was doing a bit, keeping kayfabe. “Disappointed” turned into his marketing hook for his album. But that doesn’t make the freakout any less sincere. JPEGMAFIA is now making arch, sputtering, damaged art-rap on big stages — bigger stages than most of the people who make arch, sputtering, damaged art-rap will ever see. He’s had to figure out how to upscale a grimy, insular sound. And with All My Heroes Are Cornballs, I’m pretty sure he’s pulled it off.

I say “pretty sure” because I’m never sure about anything with JPEGMAFIA. His elusiveness is part of his appeal. JPEGMAFIA works in rupture, in discordance, in confrontation. They’re his preferred media. He interrupts verses with bleeps or sudden silences or bursts of assaultive noise. He smears his own voice in digital distortion and lets his tracks dissolve into stream-buffering static. His lyrics are internet-splattered tangles, full of half-coherent references to online phenomena like shitposting and incels. After a few weeks with All My Heroes Are Cornballs, I feel like I’m only just starting to get ahold of it. I’m probably wrong. But I like the album more everytime I hear it.

On the intro to “Papi I Missed U,” the last song on All My Heroes Are Cornballs, JPEGMAFIA mutters, “I’m pretty sure I coughed on every fucking song.” That may be true true; it’s an album full of raw and random noises. But there’s also a track where JPEGMAFIA calls himself “the young black Brian Wilson,” and that may be true, too. The two statements aren’t as contradictory as they look. JPEGMAFIA isn’t Brian Wilson in the sense that he’s conjuring timeless bursts of teenage-symphony beauty. It’s the opposite; he’s conjuring ugly blurts of young-adult ugliness. But like Brian Wilson before him, JPEGMAFIA is a disturbed sonic adventurer doing everything he can to capture the sounds already echoing in his head. It’s just that for JPEGMAFIA, the sound in his head is a jagged, corroded mess. You can probably relate. I know I can.

JPEGMAFIA can really rap. That’s something we’ve been seeing more and more lately. When JPEGMAFIA shows up on someone else’s song — Denzel Curry, Flume, Channel Tres, Tkay Maidza — he absolutely rips. From time to time, he does that on All My Heroes Are Cornballs, too. There are some truly slick lines on the album: “I skin a fucking rapper — perfect pelt, bogus chain,” “One shot turn Steve Bannon into Steve Hawking,” “Y’all deal looking something like Brexit / Biting crackers and wonder why you anorexic.” But for the most part, impeccable shit-talk is not what’s motivating JPEGMAFIA on this album. His motivation is something more unsettled than that.

Almost the entire album belongs to JPEGMAFIA. He produced 17 of the 18 tracks, and he co-produced the other one. There are no guest-rappers on the LP, and only a few ghostly hints of non-JPEGMAFIA voices. On some of the songs, he doesn’t rap; he just shouts or sings. A few times, he bursts into beloved old pop songs: TLC’s “No Scrubs,” Wayne Wonder’s “No Letting Go.” And all throughout, he finds ways to give voice to stresses and insecurities. Sometimes, those moments are straightforward: “I get nervous when niggas want features.” More often, though, those feelings manifest themselves in sidelong, absurdist punchlines: “Bitch, I’m a diva, no punk in me,” “Man, I really, really wish I was Illuminati.”

There are moments of real beauty all over the album. That’s a new thing for him — these long stretches of gooey, airy, contemplative digital soul. But whenever those moments start to take hold, he rips right through them with sudden howls of industrial noise, or with strategically deployed silence. It’s impossible to listen to All My Heroes Are Cornballs and feel any kind of internal peace. The album keeps wrongfooting you, skittering out of reach. To listen to it is to hear the same anxiety that presumably went into its creation.

But in that anxiety, there is a kind of confidence. JPEGMAFIA probably doesn’t have to make music like this. He has played festivals, made connections with stars. There are presumably offers on the table. Instead of capitalizing, though, JPEGMAFIA has self-released and self-produced this hall of broken mirrors. On the Bandcamp page for All My Heroes Are Cornballs, JPEGMAFIA writes, “I’ve removed restrictions from my head and freed myself of doubt musically. I would have removed half this shit before but naw fuck it. Y’all catching every bit of this basic bitch tear gas. This is me, all me, in full form nigga, and this formless piece of audio is my punk musical . I hope it disappoints every last one of u.” Sorry. I like it.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. NLE Choppa – “Camelot”
NLE Choppa has been in the #1 spot on this little mini-list thing for the past three weeks. He has come out with towering, unstoppable, bursting-with-energy bangers every week for the past three weeks. What were you doing when you were 16? (This is the silliest of the three, and it might also be the best.)

2. ShooterGang Kony – “Charlie 2″ (Feat. DaBoii, Nef The Pharaoh, & Mike Sherm)
“Bay Area kids talking wild shit while fighting upstream against titanic basslines” is one of the highest forms of art.

3. AzChike – “What Up”
Nobody has ever pulled off “rap goon in nerd glasses” with more authority than AzChike. And very few people are doing the rambling, irreverent, offbeat California rap style as well.

4. SOB x RBE – “Sensei”
“5’10”, but stand tall like I’m 6’8″ / Turn her to a super freak like I’m Rick James / Baby lethal with the head like she got six brains / Big body hogging all the freeway, I’m in six lanes.” DaBoii is on fucking fire right now.

5. Father – “Handful”
That bassline is just sinister, and I will never get tired of the “gun make ‘em dance like [R&B singer famous for dancing]” punchline construction.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO