Music Critic Dean Turner takes us on a begginer’s guide to American rapper JPEGMAFIA
JPEGMAFIA has been my favourite artist since a workmate played me a few tracks of his on a break we both shared in 2019. It is safe to say I fell in love at first listen. Born in Brooklyn to Jamaican parents, Barrington DeVaughn Hendricks, aka Devon Hendryx, aka JPEGMAFIA, aka Peggy, started making music when he was 15, yet only rose from the depths of obscurity at 28 with the release of his second LP, Veteran, to critical acclaim. The rapper-producer spent the majority of his childhood in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Flatbush before relocating to Alabama and then bouncing around the globe during a stint in the military (yes, he actually is a veteran). Peggy is something of an oddity, citing everyone from Kanye West, to Ol’ Dirty Bastard, MF Doom, and even experimental post-punks Throbbing Gristle as inspirations. As you can imagine, his style is notoriously hard to pin down, but a few common threads run through his work: JPEGMAFIA is provocative, radical, and unorthodox.
‘1539 N. Calvert’
Taken from 2018’s Veteran, ‘1539 N. Calvert’ is the perfect introduction to Peggy. It is named after the street address of a now-shuttered live music venue and recording space in Baltimore, Maryland, where the rapper-producer called home for a few years after his honourable discharge from the military. Sharp and abrasive, yet simultaneously melodic in places, this track kicks off the album with a bang, giving first-time listeners a perfect introduction to everything JPEGMAFIA stands for. His eclectic and experimental sampling, aggressive yet uninhibited flow, and edgy, sardonic lyricism are all very much on display here. Veteran is rife with references to internet culture, anime, video games, and jabs at the Trump administration and the Alt-Right, some of which can be heard here on ‘1539 N. Calvert.’ The track features a line referencing Republican political figure, Kellyanne Conway, most known for her position as Trump’s Senior Counselor. It’s safe to say I won’t be repeating here what he says about her.
‘Baby I’m Bleeding’
When I first played this song at a party, people thought the speaker had broken. Relishing in Peggy’s chaos for too long, it is easy to forget just how hard it is to listen to some of his tracks, especially ‘Baby I’m Bleeding.’ This probably makes it a poor choice to get people turned onto his music, but I firmly believe it deserves a spot here. Burgeoning with rich, cynical lyricism delivered in classic Peggy fashion, on top of a beat that makes your ears bleed. What more could you want? Originally titled ‘Black Kanye West,’ ‘Baby I’m Bleeding’ is quite minimal. A harsh, jangly sample repeats and bends throughout the track as Peggy delivers line after line of what seems like a violent stream of consciousness. It is reminiscent of some of his first projects under the moniker JPEGMAFIA, such as the 2015 EP Darkskin Manson, inspired by the riots in Baltimore ignited by the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who fell into a coma in a police van. The EP featured such venomous cuts as ‘Cops Are The Target’ and ‘I Wipe My Ass With Confederate Flags.’ Rest assured, Peggy’s rage on ‘Baby I’m Bleeding’ is also not without purpose: ‘Ooh, I’m up in Brownsville, strapped with a Kimber/All you yuppie purses getting swiped like Tinder/Now I’m at the White House, looking for your President/Hop out the van, pointing guns at your residence,’ he snarls, railing against the gentrifiers he sees as taking over his hometown of Brooklyn. Early on in the track, Peggy makes a reference to ‘Bed-Stuy’ or Bedford–Stuyvesant, the Brooklyn neighbourhood once home to The Notorious B.I.G. The Brooklyn that produced the legendary East Coast rapper is certainly no longer the same Brooklyn today, according to JPEGMAFIA. He demands your attention while he decapitates you on this track.
‘How To Build A Relationship’
In 2019, JPEGMAFIA collaborated with Flume to create this all-out assault of a track on the Australian electronic producer’s mixtape, Hi This is Flume (Mixtape). Peggy’s delivery here is just as aggressive – he sounds like he has an axe to grind, that’s for sure – but every line is imbued with a distinct boisterous energy, with references to professional wrestling and Game of Thrones throughout. Any other rapper would it find hard to fit in on such a beat, but Peggy rides the glitchy arcade instrumental effortlessly. Flume’s background in electronic music perfectly compliments JPEGMAFIA’s militantly idiosyncratic style as the song builds to a rewarding climax. ‘How To Build A Relationship’ is the rapper-producer’s finest collaboration, demonstrating his versatility and confidence as an artist. JPEGMAFIA sounds just as good on other people’s music as he does on his own.
‘Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot’
I’ll start by saying that this song is strange. It is an ultra-eclectic soundscape with a perfect balance of aggro and calm, almost psychedelic at times. The second opening track on this list, ‘Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot’ is taken straight from the third JPEGMAFIA LP release, 2019’s All My Heroes Are Cornballs. Somehow, he recorded an insane 93 songs for this album and managed to whittle it down to 18 more melodic and only partly less abrasive tracks. The subtext of All My Heroes Are Cornballs is that every celebrity is human and will inevitably let you down. In ‘Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot,’ in particular, we can see Peggy taking a more introspective turn, shining a light on himself rather than society as a whole. Lines such as ‘B****, I’m a diva, no punk in me,’ as deliberately playful as they are, express a certain maturity in self-reflection on this track as JPEGMAFIA attempts to strip away any gendered and racialised stereotypes about himself. Peggy promoted the album by uploading a series of videos to his YouTube channel in which he would show various friends and names in music reacting to it. Typical of anyone listening to any track from this album, or indeed anything made by JPEGMAFIA, most of them went through all five stages of grief while listening to this song: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Getting your head around the lyricism on display here is enough, nevermind the instrumentals themselves. To this day, I seriously cannot make out a single instrument on this song. Eventually, you come to the fifth stage and learn to accept that a JPEGMAFIA beat will never, ever, make sense.
Throughout 2020, the experimental rapper-producer released a string of singles later collected into EP!. This month, JPEGMAFIA released EP2! featuring ‘FIX URSELF!.’ Sung through AutoTune over a warm, hazy beat, complete with glorious horns, this track resembles some kind of edgy love song. Peggy fully embraces and dives headfirst into his more melodic and tuneful side on this EP, trading out the oddball sampling we are used to hearing for some masterful synth-work, describing it as ‘introvert music’ in interviews. On ‘FIX URSELF!,’ we get a glimpse of a much more introspective, even insular JPEGMAFIA, who, at the same time, refuses to pull punches: ‘I love my baby like Trump loves Putin, in the deepest way.’ Even at his smoothest, Peggy can still talk trash. This track is so fresh because it is unlike anything he has ever released before, yet the same could be said for any cut on this list. Noisy and experimental, JPEGMAFIA is such a unique and interesting artist because he refuses to be confined and boxed into one sound. Peggy is at home in his own skin and is creative without limitations. Being unapologetically abnormal is just what has brought him his legion of die-hard fans. I can’t predict what JPEGMAFIA’s music will sound like in a year or two, but I know that it will be one thing: different.
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