Music Reviews

JPEGMAFIA: Exceeding Expectations in the Days of Disappointment

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Genre: Experimental Hip Hop

Favorite Tracks: “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot,” “Kenan Vs. Kel,” “PTSD,” “Rap Grow Old & Die x No Child Left Behind,” “PRONE!” “Free the Frail (featuring Helena Deland),” “Dots Freestyle Remix (featuring Buzzy Lee and Abdu Ali),” “Papi I Missed U”

Mired in a friendly yet intense rivalry with his only artistic equal, Brian Wilson spent 1966 agonizing over what would have been his true magnum opus: SMILE. The record was meant to be his response to REVOLVER, the latest release from the aforementioned legendary competitors. The hype for SMILE was unprecedented; the Beach Boys’ publicist’s promotional tagline for the record read, “Brian Wilson is a genius,” Brian’s cousin and bandmate, Dennis, told journalists SMILE “makes PET SOUNDS stink—that’s how good it is!” The stress came to be insurmountable for Brian and he scrapped the record, opting to release a bastardized, lo-fi shell of the real thing under the name SMILEY SMILE that left fans wondering for decades what could’ve been. Expectations and disappointment are intrinsically linked; even one of the greatest songwriters of all time disappointed at the absolute peak of his artistry and popularity. In fact, most every great songwriter has disappointed at least once (if not many times) in their careers. It takes only a passing knowledge of music to know that there comes a time for the greatest of greats when they are no longer Great, left to toil away churning out chum that tops the charts on name recognition alone while slowly but surely chipping away at the deus legacy of days past. One day, that time will come for JPEGMAFIA. But today is not that day.

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ALL MY HEROES ARE CORNBALLS starts where VETERAN left off: a jarring, abrasive wall of sounds that quickly dissipates into saccharine bliss, but this time Peggy leans heavily on the latter. “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot” is both familiar and novel, cycling through brief yet boisterous sonic chapters that in concert create a genuinely beautiful collage of noise. That thesis is hammered home time and again across the record with tracks suddenly or subtly melting into vibrant reincarnations of themselves to the point where following along with the tracklist is mostly meaningless. This is Peggy’s greatest strength as a songwriter; the beginning, middle, and end are neither defined nor punctuated, content to let even the S-tier earworms slink away in favor of something fresh. For a brief moment, you wish those snippets would hang around a while longer, but to dwell on bygone bits of magic is to fail JPEGMAFIA’s test. When he croons, “I can’t feel my face, oh God / SMH, no ASMR,” you want to stay there and really relish in it, the effortlessness of it, yet the almost dismissive incantation of the next two lines reel you away. The hooks keep coming with damn near every track laying claim to choruses so sweet you’re left wondering why today’s biggest popstars haven’t sought out his helping hand.

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Peggy’s production on CORNBALLS is unquestionably his best, a seamless blend that spans the breadth of the internet with traces of Throbbing Gristle and Boards of Canada, weaving together samples of Taylor Swift, Crash Bandicoot, and the WWE. There are too many highlights to acknowledge individually; everything on the A-side flows flawlessly despite every track throwing curveballs so nasty they’d make Seth Lugo blush. The briefest of the bunch, “JPEGMAFIA TYPE BEAT,” is his cheekiest track to date, sampling Atari Teenage Riot— the sample was initially mistaken by many for Death Grips, a group that critics have spuriously claimed JPEGMAFIA’s ripped off, but in fact Atari Teenage Riot predates Death Grips by nearly two decades. The entire album is replete with treats from grimy bass to uplifting keys to industrial percussion, but the most compelling production choice is the raw, candid vocal takes, be it adlibs, commentary, or guest verses that make you feel like you’re in the studio listening to the album come together in front of you, giving the listener their personal “____ IS DISAPPOINTED” installment.

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If you were to boil the record down to one song, it’d be “Free to Frail,” far and away the best JPEGMAFIA track we’ve ever heard. Vulnerable, braggadocious, and self-aware, Peggy puts together a spectacular performance that ought to be mentioned in each and every track of the decade list. Atop a lurching bassline, Peggy commiserates about his sudden success and the highs and lows that come in tow. Every line lands like a knockout punch; from “I’m feelin’ strange, I feel the gains, I fill a void (Void) / I’m still a roach, I’m doin’ shows, I feel employed” to “I’m not no alpha male, I’m Carly Rae, you Braden Walker” to his best hook ever “Don’t rely on the strength of my image, hey / If it’s good, then it’s good / Break it down, the shit is outta my hands,” we hear JPEGMAFIA at his most uncut, a creative choice he sought out to execute on CORNBALLS and did so in spades. These are the moments that stand out on CORNBALLS, a departure from the one-liners that made BLACK BEN CARSON and VETERAN so fun. Of course, this record isn’t devoid of those one-liners, with references to Bane, Herman Cain, and my personal favorite, “One shot turn Steve Bannon into Steve Hawking,” a line that The Most Trusted Voice In Music turned Arbiter of Wokeness called problematic, a curious take from the publication whose founder wrote “Shit, Cat.”

It’s difficult to contextualize CORNBALLS within its decade as we’ve only been granted so much time to sit with it, but it feels Important. To burst out of obscurity with two phenomenal records in as many years that change the way we think about what’s possible within hip hop is significant and to pigeonhole his work as Internet Oddball Makes A Weird Album is a colossal mistake. We’ve reached a point where the line between Online and Real Life has blurred to the point of extinction and JPEGMAFIA’s art reflects that better than anyone. CORNBALLS is not a time capsule of niche Twitter references, it’s a document that dilates with every re-reading and its influence will permeate not just next decade of hip hop, but music at large.

Ryan Moloney
I'm workshopping a professional bio.

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