Sometimes the most talented artists have to work twice as hard to get out of the shadows of those who are more famous for their notoriety. One rapper who’s been grinding away for “like 15, 20 years” and focussed purely on his craft is the New Yorker JPEGMAFIA. His emotionally fluid music – complete with some nostalgic quirks – breaks down boundaries to show just how experimental rap can be.
The Brooklynite (real name Barrington DeVaughn Hendricks) dropped his fourth album ‘LP!’ on his 32nd birthday last month – drawing inspiration from the R4 Ridge Racer game soundtrack, Britney Spears’ ‘90s smash ‘(Hit Me Baby) One More Time’ and the highs and lows of the internet age.
It’s a real and surprising left turn when compared with his critically acclaimed 2019 album ‘All My Heroes Are Cornballs’. But then that’s JPEGMAFIA’s whole MO: at his birthday gig in Atlanta, for example, you’d have seen him throwing wrestlers through tables. Fans and critics alike have fallen for his high-octane and unpredictable spirit.
To get inside the new record, JPEGMAFIA speaks to NME about raging, getting Britney’s approval, being an artist from an abusive household, not needing your approval and why he can’t take a vacation.
NME: Happy belated birthday! Is getting older a daunting thing for you?
JPEGMAFIA: “It kind of is. There was a time when I was very afraid of age. The idea of getting old and withering away was very terrifying to me, but I think now I’m 32, I’m just becoming more cynical about everything. I don’t know how to explain: I have less of a tolerance for bullshit. In my 20s I just put up with whatever, but now I shut things down immediately more than in my 30s.”
There’s this sort of infantile chaos to your music — in a good way. How do you feel about being described like that?
“I mean, that sounds kind of accurate! I understand how some people can see it as infantile, but, from where I’m looking at it, it’s completely logical. Most of the things I’m raging about are issues that a lot of Black people go through, so it just gets filtered through this internet world and becomes something else. People interpret it some other way, even though I’m saying it at face value.
“When something bothers me, I’m not just gonna pretend it’s not and leave it right there. Sometimes I will blow up. I see other people bottle stuff up, just going about their lives pretending everything’s alright. I’m just like, ‘You know what, then, fuck that shit’. I leave it in the music, what I love the most, because I have the most control. That’s my world. From my perspective, I’m just pissed off about shit that has been going on for years and years. It’s no different than what Ice Cube was doing 30 years ago, Public Enemy too. It’s just a new era. All the problems are basically the same.”
“Now I’m 32, I’m just becoming more cynical about everything”
When you play live – like when you performed at Field Day 2019 – you seem to be engulfed by mosh pits. Why is raging important to you?
“I love it. A lot of people have a lot of different things to be upset about. And even if it’s not necessarily the same things I’m saying, I love the kinship of just coming together in some way and letting it all out. The stage is comfortable for me. I can go up there and no one can edit me. No one can be like, ‘Don’t be this way. Don’t do that’. So that’s just the most complete version of me, really.
“You saw me at Field Day? I loved that show, especially because that’s the one where they kept walking up to me saying, ‘Hey, can you please just be calmer?’. I was like, ‘No, the fuck! Did you look at who you booked it?’ I’m not going to edit my show. That’s their fault.”
You’re quite an eccentric and have an eclectic sound. Do you feel like you fit into the rap world?
“I’m not trying to be different, I am naturally different. People apply a try-hard attitude to get everyone to like them or think they’re different, which is odd to me because they don’t understand that some people just aren’t like them. I’m not purposely trying to be different from rap people. I came from an abusive house.
“My lifestyle and my childhood is completely different from the rest of these n****s, period. So basically I don’t have much in common with most of these rappers because they come from the suburbs, and their mom and daddy pay for all this and that. I never had that. No one helped me with shit. So, like everything I have, I literally slaved away for 15 years before anybody cared about anything I did. My mental state was so cynical by that point.“
So you’ve made good of a bad situation?
“I think that’s what anybody who comes from a situation like that has to do: it’s not really like you have a choice. You can either let it destroy you or you can pretend it’s not there and power through it.”
When was the first moment you realised that rap was the path for you?
“The first moment I realised I wanted to be a rapper was listening to Nas’ ‘Illmatic’ when I was in high school, and that the album was already years old by that point. It was already a classic, and I really related to the lyrics. He was like [on ‘Represent’], ‘The school dropout, never liked the shit from day one’. I related to it, because there’s the system laid out for you. There’s a path that you’re supposed to take, but some people just don’t. Some people aren’t meant to do that. That’s what made me want to rap.”
What was it like to finally receive recognition for your third album ‘All My Heroes Are Cornballs’?
“It’s not a slap in the face. People characterise artists a certain way: it’s easy to assume artists are loud or upset or this or that, but no one ever questions why. That’s why I specify that I’ve been doing this for 15 years, so people understand that I was ignored for years. So I’m not really going to look at [critical praise] the same – I’d be doing this whether I was getting praised or not. I appreciate it. It’s a bonus, but it’s not my intention because it took a while.”
Is that because you feel that critics want to jump on what’s cool now, instead of championing the right music?
“I’ve never been cool in my life. No one’s ever thought I was cool. I’m so serious. Growing up and the way some people in the industry react to me, I don’t feel cool. If people characterise me as that, again, it’s just a bonus. I’m not changing. JPEGMAFIA is set in stone here.”
Did anything feel different when you were working on ‘LP!’?
“It was made over a very, very difficult period of time, and under a lot of stress. I ended up working on all those songs individually like I was working on individual albums. I was so meticulous with things: while the last album was almost unedited in a way, this one was extremely edited. I use this phrase a lot: ‘Kill your baby’. It’s taking something that you really love and just really overanalysing it, and I kind of did that.”
“I came from an abusive house. No one helped me with shit”
You sample Britney Spears on ‘THOTS PRAYER’. What can you tell us about how that came about?
“I enjoy doing covers a lot. There are a lot of hidden, beautiful chakras in a lot of these old pop songs that I don’t think that we appreciate, and I like to put my own spin on it. I’m really grateful that Britney Spears cleared it. She could have easily just not — and a lot of people don’t — but she was kind enough to let me actually use it. She heard it and everything, and it was good.”
What’s your take on the Free Britney movement?
“I had no idea that was going on. That’s why it was so confusing, I was like, ‘A conservatorship? You can own somebody? What the hell?!’ People are fucking crazy. They just be doing shit, but yeah, I’m glad she’s getting out of it.”
You say ‘LP!’ was made during a time of stress, but it’s witty and full of sarcasm. Is that a coping mechanism for you?
“For certain things it is a defence mechanism, but for other things, no. I’m being sarcastic just because I’m trying to be an asshole to somebody. That’s usually where my sarcasm comes. It’s playful because I know something, you know something, but everybody else doesn’t and I’m winking at you. A lot of my sarcasm is just like that – it’s very, very petty. I just can’t deal with everything I’m talking about seriously.”
It feels like there’s always an element of nostalgia in your projects. Would you say that’s fair?
“That’s interesting, because I feel like I’m channelling that with some part of my mind that’s pretty nostalgic. So if you’re getting that just from hearing my music, that’s really cool. A lot of the things I sample or reference give me nostalgia, so it’s probably coming out that way and I’m glad.”
What’s your favourite era of music?
“That’s pretty difficult to say. I would say it’s a cross between the ’60s and the 2000s. With the ’60s, I don’t know what the hell was going on or where all the craziest albums by Hendrix came from: I get a lot of inspiration from that. But the 2000s is the time when I was really young, like 10-years-old or whatever. So that’s what I grew up on, when all music sounded like Timbaland. I think music still sounds like Timbaland, and all his beats still sound like the future 30 years later.”
What’s next for JPEGMAFIA?
“Well, I am going to work on getting my older discography out. I have a lot of albums that aren’t on streaming services, so I’m going to remaster them and put the instrumentals up with them for my fans.
“Right now, I’m going to take a little break because I’ve literally been working non-stop for like 15 years or something. I’ve already started working on new stuff, but ‘LP!’ was done a while ago.”
“No one’s ever thought I was cool. I’m not changing. JPEGMAFIA is set in stone here”
Why do artists find it difficult to take a break from their craft?
“It’s because they love what they do. When people love what they do, there is no point in stopping. On the outside it may be thought as, ‘OK, this is an album and this is to listen to now’, but for artists we’re just making music. We might put a collection of songs together at some point. But if you really love what you do, you’ll always be working and thriving. That’s why no musician retires. That’s why Bob Dylan is on tour right now. He’s like, 97 [he’s 80]. Nobody tells him to do that. He could sit at home and do nothing. But he’s like, ‘Fuck it. Let’s do it’.
“I want to just relax, and actually look around and enjoy the fruits of my labour. I’ve still been working like I’m an underdog or something. I just want to take time to appreciate it, because I don’t think I have yet.”
‘LP!’ by JPEGMAFIA is out now on EQT Recordings / Republic Records.