More than any other DIY-leaning hole in the wall venue in Baltimore, it’s at the city’s 8 x 10 space that seeing JPEGMAFIA, aka Peggy, née Barrington Hendricks, perform his arresting brand of rap-as-manic dream boi madness for a Boiler Room-hosted album release, is the best case scenario one could dream of. It’s with microphones that don’t work, incessant mosh pits, and three hours of DIY Baltimore showcasing — from Ghostie’s noise raps, Baby Kahlo and Miss Kam spitting wild battle bars, and Abdu Ali sashaying and challenging gender standards to undulating classic house rhythms — that best define the inspiration that allows JPEGMAFIA to thrive. In short, if you understand that a savage postmodern banger of a song like “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot” can only happen when Rod Lee tries — and ultimately fails — at making you dance your pain away, everything else that transpires both live, and in earbuds, in Mr. Hendricks’ career, is plausible.
At the strike of midnight, All My Heroes Are Cornballs, JPEGMAFIA’s latest, and inarguably best release, dropped. Twelve years and three albums in, it’s the fact that Peggy’s much more of a seasoned man successfully grappling with the frailties of our collective modern existence than a wild young artist graphically violating pop conventions that allows this album to succeed. Instead of a haphazard scattershot collection of tracks that hit you if you knew him, dressed like him, lived like him, or slavishly idolized his existence, this is a much better crafted release that invites you into the pit. And, because the album is better mixed and mastered in a way that makes sonorous peace of the spaces between dissonance and brilliance, you’re there for it. On this album, his soul — because his chest is literally or metaphorically in the palm of your hand — has no other choice but to connect.
Prior to this release, the most arresting thing about JPEGMAFIA was that his live performances disconnected you from his music in a disappointingly tangible sense. A room full of 300 sweaty teenagers freaking out to noisy music has defined everything from the Rolling Stones to Henry Rollins. With JPEGMAFIA, because the influences are so profoundly diverse, it always felt like the takeaway shouldn’t just be that the show felt like a cold rush of blood to the head. In the modern annals of punk, noise, and rap, artists like Death Grips ironically devolved and lampooned the protocol of structure and expectations of great progressive art. Famously, they breached their recording contract by leaking their second album, No Love Deep Web, for free download, plus no-showed live appearances, and teased fans with new music in a near trolling manner. As well, artists like A$AP Rocky (and his Mob) found the poetry and fashion in evolving flossy, jagged street raps by way of CBGB into art-house acceptability, then all-encompassing cool. Where JPEG falls into this diagram is as a necessary artist-as-sociopolitical pundit by default. But, like most things we’ve come to expect from him, it hits different. Imagine if Bad Brains’ H.R. and Killer Mike chilled with flamboyant Baltimore drag queen icon and party rhymer Miss Tony, and learned “how to carry” themselves through these wildest of global times.
There’s something more mature in Peggy now. There feels a sense of leadership and empowered control of his lane. It connects like an awakening awareness of his own importance and potential for legacy in the minds, lives, and actions of his fanbase. There’s moshing that feels irreverent at shows sometimes. Then, there’s moshing that feels like a venting of energy that comes from a room full of kids who sit in their rooms, in their heads, and stifled by the constraints of digital’s inability to create non-virtual realities. If at the 8 x 10 last night, you saw JPEGMAFIA as an artist now gifted at both crystallizing and constructively exploding that simmering energy. Being much more in control of his words and sounds now, he controls that vitriolic impact. Sitting with All My Heroes Are Cornballs afterwards, the ideal blend of what’s best about his elevated live performance meshes with what makes this album fantastic. Ultimately, what’s more that can exist in both Peggy as a man and his career becomes apparent.
Prior to 2019, what was fascinating about JPEGMAFIA was that he said bold things that rang insular to the internet and to digital-first creative culture, but in a way that felt like he was holding back. 2018 album Veteran’s track “Williamsburg” noting “selling art to these yuppies” comes from the same angst as Santigold’s sing-song cool-kid dis “L.E.S. Artistes,” and feels like banal, mall punk-as-Don Quixote instigatory recitation of near-decade old gospel. Moreover, songs like 2016’s “Black Ben Carson” and “I Might Vote 4 Donald Trump” should, in principle, hit harder. But, from Peggy’s lips, it smacked of well-traveled knowledge bone of a worldly self-awareness. The former’s “fuck you coon ass niggas who don’t like rap, but you rap,” is a paradox in and of itself that agitates as stand alone words, but has so much more meaning as a full phrase that deserved far more conversation and discussion than it received.
All My Heroes Are Cornballs’s lead single “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot” is a scintillating boom shot of sound, fury, and soul, the latter allowing it to signify a lot. It feels like more of the same from his career. However, keep digging in, and it’s the project’s cohesion and the awareness of the scope of his reach that allows this to achieve so much more. The back-to-back impact of “Grimy Waifu,” “PTSD,” “Rap Grow Old & Die x No Child Left Behind,” and the album’s title track allows for the intellectual and metaphysical pussy-pop to settle in and resonate. Thot behavior makes sense when you’re romanticizing the need to “hit the vape ‘cause it’s neeeeeded (from a particularly idyllic section of thoughtful, singer-songwriter, guitar-rap ballad “Grimy Waifu”), because “the kids crown me king for this art (from gloomy, electro doom dirge “Rap Grow Old & Die x No Child Left Behind”)”.
“Rap Grow Old & Die x No Child Left Behind” is a stream of consciousness. There’s intrigue in how he raps here, in that he’s slowing down the subterfuge of using his wits to an end to hide his intrinsic truth. Usually with JPEGMAFIA, it’s all in examining the parts to discover what makes sense to you as a fan or listener. There’s a personal path to that that’s worthwhile. But, now he’s potentially starting the process of openly showcasing his unfettered truths and knowledge for the world to see, and thus elevating his craft. “I feel like Sami Zayn, my moves are making waves, tired of writers writing...entitled. Two girls like Lara Croft, I look like Herman Cain, I dress like Jimmy John, baby we gon’ pull you apart…,” he states on the track. In that word vomit there’s a WWE superstar, video game heroine, failed black conservative Presidential candidate, a fast casual restaurant, and some really heavy thoughts. The insistent ad libs here make the punchlines hit with stunning, memorable force.
These are bold statements that felt excitingly brazen, yet hollow, before. They are now differently — read as now, truthfully — connective. In the case of the aforementioned tracks, it’s the mixing and mastering of the latest album that aids in their delivery and deserves mention. On previous JPEGMAFIA releases, the need to expend less time on sonics and more time on creative expression and mentally unhinging live performances was clearly apparent, and unquestionably part of the appeal. But here and now, to create a unified body of work that accurately reflects the expectation of Peggy as an artist — and of Mr. Hendricks as a successful grown ass man — that space deserved the masterful smoothing of oft-intentional roughness.
What frustrated before about JPEGMAFIA was that he was artistically comprised of many parts, but somehow not quite the sum of them. In taking time to assess himself, his creative place in the world, and his ability to exceed what made him make art in the first place, there’s thrilling potential in him. When jumping off a stage is all about leaping deeper into your best self and the foundation of your bold legacy, his future — and, by extension, yours, if you’re listening — is seen, makes sense, and sustains.