JPEGMAFIA’s last album, 2018’s ‘Veteran’, was a sadistic thrill ride, created by a rap artist just as comfortable screaming as breaking into a catchy falsetto. Essentially the antithesis to a Drake album, ‘Veteran’ was inspired by the idea of taking trap and twisting it completely beyond recognition via thick bursts of distortion, stabbing guitar kicks and dusty drums that hit like heart palpitations.
Channelling iconic hardcore punk bands such as Fear and Bad Brains, as well as eccentric rap outliers Ol Dirty Bastard and Spaceghostpurpp, the Baltimore rapper translated the chaos of Trump’s America into escapist mosh pit anthems (‘Real Nega’, ‘Rainbow Six’) that felt like a rush of blood to the head. There was a fascinating irony as you watched prominently white crowds passionately bark out these songs, during which their new favourite artist gleefully dismissed them as privileged.
Thankfully this same subversive wit shines through on follow-up ‘All My Heroes are Cornballs’. JPEGMAFIA’s writing is routinely hilarious, particularly when he says he’ll drink “redneck tears” (‘Papa I Missed You’) or says it’s his dream as a black man to be adopted by Madonna (‘Dots Freestyle Remix’). But, musically, he’s less interested in getting lost in anarchy than on previous albums, crafting a meticulously sequenced record where anger frequently gives way to tranquillity – and vice versa.
Take ‘Kenan Vs Kel’, a track that starts off calm and reflective, with JPEGMAFIA seductively crooning and showing real uncertainty about his newfound fame, as he admits he “gets nervous when n*ggas call for features”. Yet just as you get comfortable, he kicks the legs off your chair and the song descends into gnarly guitars and carnal punk rock theatrics designed to inspire hardcore moshing. The ugly, demented synths of ‘PRONE!’, meanwhile, see JPEGMAFIA rapping with the aggressive precision of a machine gun, as he threatens to kick his enemies to the floor. But this chaos soon simmers down into something spacey and chilled; sonically it’s reminiscent of ambient-era Aphex Twin. Hilariously, he covers Wayne Wonder’s forgotten love bop “No Letting Go” in the track’s closing seconds.
On both of these songs, it’s as if JPEGMAFIA has ripped one mask off and quickly put on another, aware that his music must tap into a world where genre doesn’t exist and each of us possesses conflicting identities across online and offline spaces. These unexpected shifts in tone (perhaps an ode to JPEGMAFIA’s experimentalist hero Brian Wilson) reflect a chaotic era where things can be OK one minute and turn to complete shit the next. Tonally, JPEGMAFIA feels like the perfect artist for this particular cultural moment.
It hard to think of many rappers who’d switch from showing you their scars (‘Post Verified Lifestyle’ sees JPEGMAFIA reminding us that he has “survived through the slums”) to sugary stadium pop (on the next track, the trolling ‘Basic Bitch Tear Gas’, he unexpectedly covers TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’). Song to song, it’s genuinely exciting to see where JPEGMAFIA might go next, and you never quite know what to expect.
JPEGMAFIA’s third album is his most accomplished record yet. Sure, it might not slap you in the face quite like ‘Veteran’, but there’s far more invention here – and it seems like the kind of album created for multiple listens on headphones. Based on his versatile vocal performance, it’d be great to see Peggy abandon the punk rap sound and experiment by putting out a sardonic lo-fi R&B album. Can we start a petition?