JPEGMAFIA Won’t Let You In

Carlo Cavaluzzi

JPEGMAFIA Won’t Let You In

Carlo Cavaluzzi

Arn Anderson was not happy, and he wanted to get something off his chest. Four weeks ago, Anderson, the long-retired pro wrestling great, was in the middle of the ring on AEW Dynamite. For a while, Anderson had served as a kind of coach figure for Cody Rhodes, the son of Anderson’s late arch-enemy Dusty. But Anderson was worried that Cody was getting soft, and he made that point as forcefully as he could. In the middle of the ring, in front of an arena full of hooting fans, Anderson described a carjacking scenario and said that Cody would meekly give up his keys if confronted by a man with a gun. Arn himself, however, would respond differently: “You know what I’d do? I pull out the Glock, put it on his forehead, and spill his brains all over the concrete! I’m Arn Anderson and all that that implies! And I’ll be damned if I’m gonna coach a loser!”

That Arn Anderson promo was weird as hell. Anderson, a man who has looked like a 47-year-old gym teacher for the past 35 years, was doing his job, which is to make people excited about watching wrestling. He was playing the grizzled old hard-man veteran, the guy who had to get Cody Rhodes to reengage with his inner killer. But Anderson did that by crowing viscerally and triumphantly about some hypothetical act of vigilante murder. Were we supposed to think that was cool? Was it cool? The crowd in that arena sure roared at the world “Glock.” If I’d been in the room, I probably would’ve roared too, even though brains getting spilled on concrete is pretty much always a bad thing. This was a confusing moment! Naturally, it ended up on a JPEGMAFIA track within a few weeks.

JPEGMAFIA, the explosively confounding Baltimore rapper and producer, has always been a wrestling fan, though he’s never gone the Griselda route and made his fandom an overt element of his persona. Peggy’s producer tag — the female voice saying “you think you know me” — is instantly recognizable to any wrestling fan as the beginning of Edge’s entrance theme, and Peggy often weaves wrestling references into his lyrics without making a big thing out of them. Last year, JPEGMAFIA even made it onto AEW TV, cutting a promo on behalf of skateboarding goth-ghoul daredevil Darby Allin. He’s good at it, too. This makes sense. JPEGMAFIA has always been good at talking shit.

But in sampling that Arn Anderson promo a few weeks after it happened, Peggy wasn’t simply dropping in some shit that sounded hard — or, at least, that’s not all he was doing. The weird feeling of that Anderson promo perfectly complements the whole JPEGMAFIA project. Because JPEGMAFIA loves to make you feel weird. A few years ago, Peggy emerged as a messy, disruptive underground art-rap force, a guy who came from a warehouse experimental-noise world and who built his own world out of confounding splutter-fuzz and trollish self-contradiction. But something funny happened. JPEGMAFIA got famous, or at least famous-ish. He made songs with mainstream-adjacent artists like Denzel Curry and Brockhampton. He got booked at big festivals and reliably packed clubs. LP!, the new JPEGMAFIA LP, came out on Republic Records, an honest-to-god major label, though sample-clearance issues mean that the best version of the album is the “offline” one that you can only get on Bandcamp.

JPEGMAFIA might be a major-label artist these days, but he still makes music that makes me feel like my brain is going to vomit. This is his great gift. JPEGMAFIA’s beats slosh and heave and wriggle. Sometimes, his tracks sound like you’ve got full-volume music playing on five different open tabs and you can’t figure out how to close them all. Sometimes, they sound like early-’00s video game scores drowning in bathtubs. Sometimes, he takes old rap verses — doesn’t just sample over them but actually takes entire verses — and just raps over their corroded sounds, a jagged and slippery technique that keeps you from fully understanding anything that anyone is saying. Sometimes, Peggy’s choices are even more perverse, as when he sings the words to Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” but gives them a whole new melody that feels deeply wrong.

On the song “God Don’t Like Ugly,” Peggy laments that “these days, the bar so low for weird shit” — as in, too many people get away with simply getting weird, like that’s enough. On the same song, he says, “I’m a young Frank Zappa, y’all Sarah Palin.” The Zappa comparison tracks. Like Zappa, JPEGMAFIA is a kind of pop experimentalist with roots in Baltimore. Like Zappa, Peggy often sounds like he’s making music as some kind of private joke, and he’s not going to let you in on it. Like Zappa, Peggy is a deeply talented musician who seems to relish the art of actively repelling large audiences. If you’re going to dig into Peggy’s music, then Peggy is doing to demand that you go all-in. And if you’re willing to do that, to meet him on his own terms, that’s the only way you’ll get access to this strange and utterly distinct sonic world.

If JPEGMAFIA ever wanted to be a straightforward rapper, he’d be great at it. His voice is harsh and urgent and precise. His flows are relentlessly tricky and playful. On LP!, Peggy gets angry a lot, and his threats are clever and vivid: “Two SIGs, Big Pun and Fat Joe, they twins/ Pull it out, get them mumbling like Sims.” His flexes are clever and vivid, too: “If you wasn’t here for them lows, walk/ Blick on my hip and I’m dressed like a god.” But JPEGMAFIA is completely uninterested in straightforwardness. Peggy produced all of LP!, and he also mixed and mastered it himself. When his voice is buried deep in the mix or slathered in echo, or when he interrupts his own verses with bleeps or white noise, that’s a conscious artistic decision.

Listening to JPEGMAFIA makes me feel like I don’t know what the fuck is going on, and this can be a pleasurable sensation. Sometimes, when I listen to him for long enough, it feels like spending way too long on the internet. My brain gets all swampy, and I see all kinds of references that I can’t properly place, but I just lose myself in the slipstream. I give myself over to confusion. I stop trying to make sense out of everything. The confusion makes its own kind of sense. Maybe there’s a certain peace in feeling like your own brains are spilling out on the concrete. JPEGMAFIA can give you that.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Lil Tjay – “Not In The Mood” (Feat. Fivio Foreign & Key Glock)
I love the contrast of Lil Tjay, with that nasal chirp of his, singing tough talk over convulsive drill bass-bursts. It just works for me.

2. Moneybagg Yo – “Switches & Dracs” (Feat. Lil Durk & EST Gee)
Lil Durk says that he doesn’t need cash, that it takes two Percs to get your life snatched. I know that a line like that should have me depressed, not impressed, but damn.

3. NoCap – “Unwanted Lifestyle”
NoCap has always basically been a blues singer. Here, he proves it by letting loose over nothing but guitar. It’s affecting.

4. BabyTron – “Day In Ferndale”
Sometimes, it seems like there’s an arms race to come up with the least sexy, least appealing line about sex. If that race is real, then “up in her walls like a thumbtack” might be the winner.

5. Big Sean – “What A Life”
That’s a lot of bees.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO

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