Keeping up with new music can be exhausting. Most new records have the lifespan of a fruit fly: They hit the streets Friday, spend the weekend desperately trying to capture the ears and imaginations of listeners and critics alike, and by next week they get lost in the shuffle as the next round of releases repeats the cycle. For every Big Album and cultural touchstone and surprise Beyoncé release, there are tons of great, idiosyncratic albums that slip through the cracks of our overtaxed and restless attention spans. Staying up on the zeitgeist is like running on a treadmill: It’s designed to have you constantly moving forward.
That hunter’s impulse to keep chasing after the next thing, to rack down and get your paws on the hot thing of the week, is just one of the many things that rapper/producer JPEGMAFIA skewers on 2015's Communist Slow Jams highlight “Once They Build a Starbucks It’s Ova.” Taking aim at critics, gentrification, and shady white allies (“Same bitch memorized every Chief Keef verse / Same one to call the cops”) on the track, Barrington “Peggy” Hendricks’ contempt for hipsters drips off his syllables like venom on a cobra’s fang. “Grimes vinyl in a bear trap / I’mma draw you out,” he sneers. It’s a vivid image that could also describe the power of his records: sharp, cold, metallic structures that entice, encircle, and entrap their listeners.
JPEGMAFIA dropped his latest album, Veteran, back in January of this year. Even though it’s Hendricks' most high-profile release to date, it still feels like an undiscovered gem — one of the many raw, multi-faceted works of art that fell off the culture’s radar as it keeps sweeping ahead, looking for the next thing to ping on its screen. It’s also one of the finest rap albums of the year.
The title for Hendricks' fourth album has multiple meanings: It tips the hat to his background as an honorably discharged Air Force vet while also establishing that he’s been in the rap game for more than a minute. Alongside fellow noise-rappers clipping., JPEGMAFIA has been releasing cacophonous tapes and full-lengths on L.A-based Deathbomb Arc (also the home of local noise heroine Lana Del Rabies). And he’s developed an impressive skill set in his time in the underground (writing and recording music in Brooklyn, Baltimore, L.A., and overseas during his tours of duty), gaining a facility for crafting jagged and elliptical beats that hit as hard as his lyrics.
Hendricks' finesse with beat-making and whittling blocks of language down into barbed arrow tips is on full display on Veteran. Besides self-producing the record, as an MC, Hendricks is a vocal shapeshifter, switching from straight-up singing to intense staccato verses, droll digressions, and ODB-style hollering. Hendricks pays homage to the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the album’s cover (the photo of Hendricks' driver’s license is a callback to the cover of ODB’s Return to the 36 Chambers) and on the unhinged “Real Nega,” using a sample of ODB's voice as the backbone of the track, rapping intensely while ODB’s moan-shout ascends in the background like an ululating prayer.
Listening to Hendricks' voice slink and dart through his songs, it’s hard not to think of Earl Sweatshirt at times. Hendricks has enough range as a vocalist to let his voice off the leash in ways that Earl can’t, but what the two rappers share is a sense of poise. Unlike clipping.’s Daveed Diggs, who breathlessly sweeps his listeners up in gushing streams of consciousness, Hendricks jabs and jokes with the precision of a ninja. Like Earl, he doesn’t need to show off his considerable chops. Both of them are spiritual sons of ODB’s Wu-brother GZA, the cold-blooded genius who always sounded like he thought out his verses with the same level of foresight and planning that a chess grandmaster would apply to their opening gambit.
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While the industrial collage sound of the record offers a compelling hook for getting into the album, it’s Hendricks' lyrics that inspire repeat listens. He crams his songs with pop culture references and sheer braggadocio, sometimes at the same time: look at how he flexes on opening track “1539 N. Calvert” by spitting “Fuck a diss, boy, I’m draggin bodies like it’s Metal Gear” (sadly, he doesn’t follow up that boast by vowing to sneak into your crib disguised as a box). A wrestling fan, Hendricks drops lyrical nods to vets like Stone Cold Steve Austin and relative newcomers like Kurt Angle’s “long-lost son” Jason Jordan (“Black man, white fam / I feel like Jason Jordan,” he raps on “Macaulay Culkin”).
And while Veteran is packed with pop culture junkie shout-outs to Rick & Morty and The X-Files, Hendricks also uses his songs to target toxic masculinity, racism, and hipster scum. He's the kind of rapper who’ll boast that 4chan is on his dick 'cause he’s edgy, but he’ll also call out problematic as fuck musical icons like Varg Vikernes from Burzum and Slayer’s Tom Araya on “I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies.”
JPEGMAFIA’s record is harsh, uncompromising, and forward-thinking. Plenty of other great rappers like Vince Staples and Danny Brown are embracing dissonance and electronic textures, but few of them inhabit those sounds like Hendricks can. They rap on their futuristic productions like they’re trying to outpace the music; Hendricks rides those cyberpunk beats slow and steady. He’s not a tourist passing through these atonal soundscapes: He fucking lives there.
JPEGMAFIA. At Goldrush 2018. Saturday, September 29, and Sunday, September 30, at Rawhide Western Town and Event Center, 5700 West North Loop Road, Chandler; 480-502-5600; goldrushfestaz.com. Tickets are $106.85 to $213.10 via goldrushfestaz.com.