It can be mind boggling just how little Kanye West seems to know what he’s talking about when discussing politics. But despite the ludicrous nature of his public statements, there is still something refreshing about his willingness to speak his mind. In the era of publicity trained superstars terrified of being “canceled” on Twitter, Kanye’s willingness to open himself up to major criticism is, from one perspective, admirable. And perhaps because of his courage to say the wrong thing, he often is able to land on an accidental insight. For example, during the press junket for Yeezus, Kanye went on Zane Lowe’s BBC1 radio show and, in a fit of personal grievance, discussed his exploitation at the hands of the fashion industry and private equity: “I’ve got ideas on color palettes, I’ve got ideas on silhouettes, and I’ve got everyone telling me why I can’t do it, that I’m not a real designer,” he said with his palm against his forehead pulsating with anxiety and frustration. Though he framed the frustration from his personal, aggrieved perspective he still hit on something true: that corporate America is more than happy to use the names of black celebrities to sell products, but seldom will it let anyone other than a white male design school MFA recipient design those products. Even now, in his Trump phase, Kanye can occasionally allude to a political truth. He was able to point out that other celebrities, friends of his like John Legend and Jay-Z, are disgusted by Donald Trump but still totally in thrall to Barack Obama (and Obama, by any leftist measure, was a failure at best and an outright enemy at worst), and in effect presents an accidental critique of neoliberalism.
In his column for the Independent, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek wrote, “Today’s left is in advance terrified of any radical acts.” I think this notion can also be applied to today’s superstar musicians. One certainly wishes that Kanye would learn more about politics, and the true harm of Trump’s presidency, before speaking on them. But his fearlessness to be viewed as radical, or extreme, or crazy, is commendable. We need our artists to push back on prevailing orthodoxies, to rip them open and expose their hypocrisies. Kanye does that. Scott Walker did it (RIP). And Baltimore-born rapper and producer JPEGMAFIA does it, but unlike that of Kanye West, JPEGMAFIA’s cultural critique is incisive, studied, and ruthlessly well-informed. On his last two albums, 2016’s Black Ben Carson and especially 2018’s acclaimed Veteran, JPEGMAFIA established himself as an astute analyst of American politics and culture: courageously pessimistic, sharply observational, and unapologetically direct, he rips apart prevailing orthodoxies on both the political right and neoliberal left, and also addresses how neoliberal orthodoxies have embedded themselves into mainstream rap music.
JPEGMAFIA, or “Peggy” as his fans prefer to call him, eviscerates the hypocrisy that he sees in everything: “selling art to these yuppies, gettin’ mixed offers, I’m in New York like I’m Peter Parker, Wrote a 16 then I tossed it, If I wanted bullshit then I’d just read Gawker,” rapped Peggy on the Veteran track “Williamsburg.” JPEG Mafia identifies that the neoliberal establishment that defines so much of what limply passes for “leftist discourse” in this country is often defined by centrist figures every bit as clueless as their rightwing counterparts are insane/off the deep end. He also knows that the centrist ideology that courses through mainstream media and “manufactures our consent” to put it in Chomsky-ian terms can bleed into the mainstream music press. Just look at Pitchfork’s hip-hop writer Alphonse Pierre’s backhandedly positive review of Peggy’s new track “Beta Male Strategies”: “His comedy is unsubtle, in-your-face, and extremely online—jokes for the deepest corners of Reddit, who are probably unaware that they’re the ones being made fun of.” Pierre wants to praise JPEG for his undeniable skills while also writing off the kind of web-filtered intellectual discourse that he trades in. Has Pierre actually been on Reddit lately? Because for every Reddit music thread stuffed full of depressing misogyny and idiocy, there are three threads chalk full of smart cultural analysis unfiltered by the corporate media machine. Peggy is a rapper and producer but he is also quickly becoming a public intellectual for young men that post on subReddits for hip-hop, experimental music, and critical theory alike.
On his new and arguably best album so far, All My Heroes Are Cornballs, JPEGMAFIA eviscerates disappointing heroes and false prophets: the aforementioned Kanye West, the figureheads of the American neoliberal establishment, and especially himself. JPEGMAFIA appears to understand the problematic nature of having “heroes” in late capital postmodernism. On his Apple Music explanation of single Beta Male Heroes, Peggy says: “ I'm letting you know off the bat, “I'm a false prophet.” Don't get your hopes up because everybody's human. I might put a MAGA hat on one day. It's unlikely, but you don't know,” he said slyly alluding to the false hopes pinned on Kanye. Peggy has identified what Baudrillard called the “wasteland of the real” in not just culture at large, but the music industry in particular. Heroes are only simulating being heroes, and when those heroes become villains they will only be simulating being villains. JPEG is constantly telling his fans he will be “disappointing them soon,” almost like he understands that in our postmodern culture everything exists in a feedback loop of corporate advertising driven hype and consumerist disappointment. Even underground music is co-opted quickly into the logic of late capital: the “Red Bull” Music Academy, Pitchfork is owned by Condé Nast (and JPEG, at his performance at this summer’s Pitchfork Music Festival, insisted on calling the show the Condé Nast Festival). Peggy seems to maintain a critical distance between himself and the culture he’s now a part of: he analyzes it as much as he creates it. And perhaps the most radical aspect of JPEG’s work is that he is essentially the first rapper to double as a cultural theorist. Writing for Dazed, writer Thomas Hobbs said that “few artists channel the internet like JPEGMAFIA.” It’s true: in his lyrics, Peggy mimics the schizoid nature of 1 billion separate ideologies colliding into one another on music blogs and subReddit boards.
On “Beta Male Strategies,” JPEG raps “ain’t no real money in rap” and “only in it for the cash, I’m a gold digger” within the same bar. The lyrical contradictions highlight the web as a space of confusion and overstimulation: far from bringing you closer to self-awareness and coherent ideology, the Internet drowns us in conflicting information leaving us both over-informed and under-developed. Peggy is pushing back on hip-hop’s insistence on masculine self-assurance, and making space for confusion and existential angst in the genre. This self-lacerating vulnerability isn’t a total rarity in rap, of course; some of its greatest stars, like Danny Brown and Earl Sweatshirt, have used the form to boldly expose their own inadequacies from depression to drug addiction. But Peggy seems to particularly see the Internet as a toxic zone that renders humans incapable of personal growth or inner clarity. He’s not using his music and lyrics as a means of self-exploration, he in fact sees self exploration as a theme that has no place in post-digital culture. It’s a fallacy: a neoliberal lie telling us that we have any control over our lives whatsoever.
Cultural theorist Mark Fisher linked rising depression rates to late stage capitalism. JPEG would seem to agree: he sees the Internet as an entity that totally organizes our lives and belief systems. We absolutely can’t live without it, leaving us enslaved to a handful of corporations that convert our cultural and consumerist habits into predictable codes. Our souls are just advertising strategies. On new track “BBW” (or “Black Brian Wilson”), JPEG raps: "Smile at these crackers who want me dead (Ack) Fire helmets won't protect your head (Brrt) Don’t get sent to Jesus filled with lead.” JPEG seems to see the Internet as a space that is both hyper-violent and inherently pacifist. Violent threats from alt-right trolls are almost always idle. Even the never ending horrors of mass shootings and police brutality cases rarely galvanize cohesive progress. Instead, they just create more fodder for web trolls to argue about in the simulacrum of cyber-space.
JPEGMAFIA uses hip-hop to look both inwards and outwards. He wants to push the musical style forward while also analyzing its role in contemporary culture. He seems to be rolling out a futurist hip-hop philosophy every bit as defined as that laid out by theorist Kodwo Eshun in his essay Considerations of Afrofuturism: “Inquiry into productions of future becomes fundamental, rather than trivial,” wrote Eshun. JPEG sees the deconstruction of contemporary hip-hop clichés as fundamental to the attainment of the genre’s future. For example, JPEGMAFIA’s self-presentation has grown increasingly queered since the release of VETERAN in 2018. In an Instagram post from June 23rd, JPEG wears a skirt and coyly poses with a text reading “feeling cute.”
At the same time, his music is still charged with a hard, masculine edge. This makes one think of rap stars like A$AP Rocky or Young Thug: allegedly straight men whose obsession with fashion and narcissistic displays of grooming is made only more suspect by their hyper demeaning, misogynist sexually charged lyrics. JPEG seems to actively be commenting on this phenomenon: he comes across as both hyper masculine yet sexually ambiguous. On the provocative stunner Beta Male Heroes track “Jesus Forgive Me I’m A Thot” and its video, this sexual fluidity comes across as both jarringly conceptual and intriguingly sincere. The song opens with an unholy squall of feedback and a simple kicker drum while the video shows PEGGY in an assortment of both typical hip-hop clothes and feminized florals and dresses. In the song’s lyrics he asks an unidentified character, possibly a fellow “THOT,” to teach him how to keep his “pussy closed.” JPEGMAFIA has deftly brought absurdity, humor, and performance art theatrics to rap music in order to deconstruct its pieties and orthodoxies. With so many rap stars, your Soundcloud clout chasers and your stripper trap rappers alike, leaning into hip-hop’s worst and most capitalist clichés, Peggy’s approach is an absolute necessity to push the art form forward. He is to post-digital hip-hop what Lou Reed was to late modernist rock n’ roll: an artist who both critiques and embraces the style he works within to push the style into its uncertain future.
But don’t think JPEG’s innovations to the form are purely conceptual. On the contrary, there are few more sonically radical artists working within hip-hop today. When JPEG said on Black Ben Carson’s opening track, “Drake Era,” that he wanted to take “hip-hop out the drake era” he did not mean that he was trying to bring hip-hop back to some “mythic” golden era. Peggy is trying to bring hip-hop to a new golden era. Peggy has alluded to rap music’s past: on “Real Nega” from Veteran, for example, he used a prominent sample of the great Ol’ Dirty Bastard doing his unhinged, crack croon, “AGHHGHHGHHGHGG!!!!” Peggy isn’t celebrating the past or nostalgizing it so much as he is commemorating one of the genre’s most idiosyncratic iconoclasts and weirdos. Weirdos, JPEG suggests, are necessary to push the art forward.
The “Drake era,” in my mind, refers to a specific quality of contemporary hip-hop. Who is Drake? What does he represent? Drake is hip-hop’s most shameless proprietor of “capitalist realism.” He hit upon an accessible sound on his first album and now cranks out hit after hit using that same formula: chilly, sad melody and a combination of singing and rapping with some depressing lyrical mix of Casanova misogyny and “sensitive guy” vulnerability. Hip-hop’s mainstream has become totally infused with neoliberalism: shameless displays of consumerist materialism and an in-built fear of radicalism. Hip-hop, with its foundations in urban poverty, has always been embedded with the “capitalist realist” mentality: dog eat dog, get money get power. In his book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher wrote of the depressing economic and social realities of mainstream rap: “The affinity between hip-hop and gangster movies arises from their common claim to have stripped the world of sentimental allusions and seen it for ‘what it really is’: a Hobbesian war of all against all, a system of perpetual exploitation and generalized criminality.” But seeing the world as such a zero sum game isn’t good for artistic exploration. You can’t create something new if you don’t think it’s possible to attain a better tomorrow.
JPEGMAFIA seems to acknowledge this ugly reality at the heart of hip-hop, but rejects notions that the medium is somehow incapable of radicalism despite this philosophical strain running through it. Discussing the All my Heroes Are Cornballs track “Prong!” for Apple Music, PEGGY said the song was an attempt to make a “punk song with no instruments,” he continued, “I feel like people in other genres, specifically rock—I go back to rock a lot because rock spends a lot of time trashing rap—a lot of people had this idea that rappers aren’t talented. In my opinion, we’re fucking better than them. We’re better writers, we think deeper, our concepts are harder…”
The song’s conceptual connection to punk is resonant. Rap is getting close to the stage in its existence that rock was approaching in the mid to late-70s: rap’s mainstream, like arena rock in the 1970s, has grown bloated, over-produced, and made to satisfy commercial interests more than satisfying the personal urge to create. In the late ‘70s, initially punk and later post-punk, industrial, noise and other avant rock subgenres became rock musicians’ antidotes to the stagnations of the mainstream. Rap is now going through a similar schism between its more mainstream and outré contingencies. I shouldn’t of course discount the scores of iconic rappers who have made careers beyond the confines of the mainstream: Kool Keith, MF Doom, Company Flow and others have all devoted lives to making uncompromising and commercial shunning rap music. But even when considering this, it’s hard to deny that hip-hop is currently going through a particularly radical renaissance towards increasing sonic transgression.
JPEGMAFIA is one of a number of bold, young hip-hop avant-gardists: the abstract rap metal of Death Grips, the afrofuturist poetic industrial rapscapes of Moor Mother, the schizoid hip-hop digital dance noise of Prison Religion and others are demonstrating hip-hop as a musical genre every bit as capable of unhinged experimentation as rock, punk, dance music or otherwise. JPEGMAFIA often gets labeled “noise rap” due to his reliance on aggressive synth squeals and hissing feedback walls, but the label fails to address the complexities of his sound.
JPEG is a visionary auteur of a producer, manufacturing beats for every single song that he puts his lyrics to. The sounds of All My Heroes Are Cornballs less rely on the aggressive noise breakdowns of Veteran, and much less so than on Black Ben Carson, with Peggy placing emphasis more on tonal shifts and odd harmolodic structures. “BBW” features a laid back melody with intermittent interruptions of abrupt digital sounds. “Thot Tactics” collages a network of male and female vocal samples while Peggy processes a memorable sung hook: “I want to rock your worldddd.” JPEG’s penchant for absurdist humour has never been more pronounced; on “BasicBitchTearGas” he takes the classic hook from ‘90s R&B pop unit TLC’s “No Scrubs” and turns it into an uncanny sonic amalgam of lust and confusion (not that lust and confusion are ever separate). And on top of the bold sonic formalism, JPEG’s skills on the mic are formidable. Few young stars are so lyrically funny and thematically dense, which might explain why despite the abstraction in his sound, he’s found allies with more commercially minded but still artistically resonant MCs like Denzel Curry. While All My Heroes Are Cornballs is less aggressive and noisy than JPEG’s previous albums, it is even more experimental. Don’t mistake dialed down aggression for commercial pandering, JPEG has no interest in the market. His interest is in the art of hip-hop, and pushing that art into its evolution.
JPEGMAFIA is a bold sonic experimentalist and an authentic critic of contemporary culture. Whereas Kanye West is admirable in his rawness, his understanding of the digital landscape, and his willingness to confront harsh criticism, he is utterly frustrating in his refusal to sincerely engage with politics and culture on an intellectual level and his obsession with wealth and status. JPEGMAFIA is in many ways the antithesis of Kanye. He is every bit as radical sonically and culturally, but he also has developed a very unique ideology that addresses the ugly reality of contemporary life accurately and has no ambition to make Top 40 radio. He is sincerely making an attempt to understand his role in both hip-hop and culture writ large. With so much of commercial hip-hop having abandoned experimentation in favor of making music that panders to a reality TV and social media numbed consumerist base, he is exploring hip-hop as a genre capable of reinvention and reconfiguration. “Where JPEG falls into this diagram is as a necessary artist-as-sociopolitical pundit by default,” succinctly wrote Markus K. Dowling for the Fader. And on All My Heroes Are Cornballs, JPEG’s masterpiece to date, the artist dissects hip-hop clichés: whereas hip-hop runs masculine JPEG is queered, whereas hip-hop relies on commercial beats made to play in overpriced nightclubs JPEG makes odd, shapeshifting sounds, and whereas hip-hop tends to prioritize the “capitalist realist” ideology of “make money, get money” JPEG eats neoliberalism for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. What artists like Suicide, The Fall and Throbbing Gristle (a noted JPEGMAFIA favorite) did for rock and experimental music in the 1970s, JPEG is now doing for hip-hop: he is critiquing it, reconfiguring its unsavory clichés and showing us its possible radical future.