Back when his breakout mixtape “Black Ben Carson” dropped, JPEGMAFIA was still one of Baltimore’s best kept secrets. Two years later, he’s back with a new album, “Veteran,” that’s making noise in new circles outside the city. In the past, he’s brushed up against the outer reaches of the scene, but this new body of work is getting love on Pitchfork, breaking nerd brains on Reddit, and even received a favorable look from inexplicable internet tastemaker Anthony Fantano. Peggy’s moving up in the world, but he’s not pandering to any new fans he may have inherited in between dunking on Donald Trump and dissing MC Ride. On the new album, he raps “4chan on my dick cuz I’m edgy” with such palpable derision it’s clear he’s not chasing plaudits from pale teenagers in Death Grips merch. JPEGMAFIA—born Barrington Hendricks, as seen in his blurred out Driver’s License on the new album’s cover—has moved out west, reinventing his sound and stretching the boundaries of what people have come to expect from his music. We caught up with him to talk about dad rock, Kanye West, professional wrestling, and more.
Baltimore Beat: I know you’re not originally from Baltimore, but you consider yourself a Baltimore artist. What’s it been like living out in Los Angeles?
JPEGMAFIA: There’s more Drake. Drake is here. L.A. is just really weird. It’s like the complete opposite of Baltimore. Baltimore is grimy and fucked up. I’m sure there are parts of L.A. that are grimy and fucked up, too, but there’s also these parts that are like comically flashy. I was on Melrose and this dude pulled up to me, like a random dude in a nice black car. He pulled up and said, “Hey, man! You going to the Floyd Mayweather fight later?” I said, “What?” And he just drove off. Just weird, dumb shit be happening like that. I’d say the biggest difference is L.A. as a city is just funnier than Baltimore. I’ve seen more funny shit on the street than I do in Baltimore.
BB: Your last few releases all engaged with the burgeoning possibility of a Trump presidency—the idea that this fucking guy could really get elected. But it happened. Now we’re a year deep into one. Was living in Trump’s America a heavy influence on the recording of “Veteran”?
JPEG: I mean, honestly? I’ve probably talked about him less on here than I ever have. I only mention him like twice and one of the songs is old, so that’s the only reason he’s on there. I don’t know, man. I knew he was gonna win as soon as he started running because he was rich and he was saying a bunch of dumb, racist shit and people love that. That’s a big audience. I was in Alabama yo, and the dumb, racist shit audience is huge. They live for that shit. They like it so much, and Republicans like it so much, that they’re willing to overlook everything else he’s fucking up, so long as he says his racist shit and passes those bills and makes people at the top money, they don’t give a fuck. It influenced me because I didn’t really talk about it because I’ve been trying to pretend he’s not there. I knew he was gonna win, but like, shit. It’s worse. It’s like 10 times worse than I thought it would be. He’s just horrible, man. What does that say about America? I honestly didn’t think it would be this bad. This motherfucker needs to go. I’ve been trying to ignore this motherfucker so I didn’t talk about him too much, but you can hear it. You can hear my reaction to it on every song. It’s there.
BB: That’s the vibe I got, too. It wasn’t a blatantly vocalized thing you could quote, but the album is full of that overwhelming sense of dread.
JPEG: That’s exactly it! I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who is alive during this era, because I think this is a special time. Like, in 50 years people are gonna be like, “What was it like back when Trump was president?” It’s live documentation.
BB: “Veteran” is still a brash and irreverent record. It’s still very distinctly you. But it feels more melodic and I don’t want to say modern, but it feels more of the moment. Was that a conscious decision, to trojan horse your work into a sound potentially more palatable to what’s currently popping?
JPEG: Well, both! I subconsciously wanted to, but it also just kind of came out that way. Even before I released “Black Ben Carson” or anything as JPEGMAFIA, I always did weird shit. I did a whole lo-fi Toro-y-Moi-sounding-ass album out in Japan with a cover of ‘Call Me Maybe’ on it. [“The Ghost~Pop Tape” released under the name Devon Hendryx]. I’ve always done weird shit, but back then, no one was paying attention, so when I became JPEGMAFIA people only knew me as this one thing. So, I was like, maybe I should do something different. Those albums were how I felt at the time and I stand by them, but this is more showcasing a different side to me. I kind of made a subconscious decision to do that, but the music just kinda came out how it is. If I made a trap beat that sounded like a regular trap beat, it wasn’t intentional necessarily. I just made a beat and it was the best way to get my point across at the time. I want to show people you can take modern shit and just put a spin on it. It doesn’t have to be boring. You can stay within the confines of something and still make it interesting. People stereotype and make hip-hop just one thing, but nah. I can put a country song on here if I want. I don’t have to listen to you. You know what I mean?
BB: That’s true. People will malign a whole genre and say that genre sucks, but if one person working within that genre doesn’t do anything new with it, then yeah. That’s stagnation. That’s boring. But you can’t just say the entire genre is broken. That’s not how that works.
JPEG: It’s people generalizing, but it’s a lot of different things. I feel like hip-hop gets this specifically, but it’s not just hip-hop. It’s any genre with a bunch of niggas doing something. Honestly, because back in the day, that’s how they looked at rock. They were like, “Oh, rock is terrible. Stay away from it.” Then Elvis came along and put white people onto rock. Then when rock became a white thing it became OK. Now, rock is what dads are standing by. “I miss my rock and roll.” But back when it was a black thing, it was evil. It’s the same thing here. Regardless of what was going on in hip-hop, it was going to happen because it’s mostly young black people making it. I’m aware of that and I don’t give a shit. I want to experiment as much as possible and do all kinds of weird shit. This sound, “Veteran,” is like a snapshot of where I was in this last year. I’m already onto new things, and I hope when those things drop, I hope people like that, too.
BB: We all sort of know that about hip-hop, but the way you just phrased it made me picture a scary 50 years from now where rap is only made by and for old white dudes and dads.
JPEG: It’s so possible! Anything can happen. If Ma$e can come back and spit fucking bars. Anything can happen. Ma$e and N.E.R.D. are back like it’s 2002 or some shit and Trump is president.
BB: In the past you’ve talked about Ice Cube, Willie D, and Dipset as influences in your arc as an artist. Were there any albums or artists in particular you felt informed your approach on “Veteran?”
JPEG: The two albums that influenced me the most is one by Keiji Urata, this Japanese composer who did an album called “Music Only Music But Music,” and it’s the soundtrack to this anime [“Texhnolyze”] and it’s so varied and just wild and crazy. That and [Kanye West’s] “The Life of Pablo.”
BB: “The Life of Pablo.” Really?
JPEG: Yeah, well, “Life of Pablo” is really interesting. It’s kind of scattered. It’s all these things that don’t really make any sense, but they come together into this kind of palette. I didn’t model the album after “The Life of Pablo” but after I made the album I was just listening to it and I was like, I might have subconsciously done it. It’s in the same vein, those crazy short transitions and just, like, it’s like a movie. When a movie has you in suspense. I want to do that where you’re like, what the fuck is about to happen now? That’s how “The Life of Pablo” felt for me. Those two influenced me the most, outside of like, Ice Cube and like, niggas I listen to on Soundcloud or whatever.
BB: That’s one of the things I loved about “Veteran.” On any given track, you never knew if there were gonna be three or four drastic departures along the way. Like, this seems weird at first, but after you hear it, you can’t imagine it going any other way.
JPEG: Exactly! A lot of it is just editing. Like, some of those songs are way longer. ‘I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies?’ That’s a much longer song. I just whittled it down. It has an intro and a whole other part. I might release the full beat one day. But I was like, you know what? Is this necessary for the album? Do people need to hear this? Or can I just put this out at some other time? It’s all about looking at what you have and seeing how it all fits together.
BB: I think it’s an interesting approach to curating an album, because most people get a couple of good singles and some extra fluff and there’s something pedestrian about it. I felt like there easily could have been a 50-track version of “Veteran” with all these different tangents. But instead, the finished product is a snapshot. Like this collage of sounds and ideas.
JPEG: Oh, yeah! I’m so glad you—yo, kudos. Playstation trophy unlock for you for this shit. I had 120 different fucking songs for this album. So many songs, so many different beats. It’s a snapshot. There’s just a point where I had to stop and mix it. Thank you for that. I already knew that, but I needed someone else to tell me that and not be me.
BB: There’s a lot of pro wrestling references throughout the album. Like, a lot. To you, does the theatricality of sports entertainment play into your musical persona at all?
JPEG: Kinda, yeah. The way you put it is much more intelligent than how I would put it. What you said is correct, but like, I like wrestling. Like a lot of kids my age, I really enjoyed it and it was a big part of growing up. I stopped watching when I was a teenager and then started watching again in like 2010. I watch above average casually. It’s entertaining to me. It’s kind of the dumbest shit ever but also the most interesting shit ever. I wonder, who are these people? Who decides to do this? Also, look, I’m not gonna front, and no offense to you or anyone who might hear this but having dealt with so much racism in life, there’s just a part of me that gets genuine enjoyment from seeing underpaid white people beat the shit out of each other for my entertainment. It’s just like, I don’t even think they get benefits, yo! They just jump off of shit and smack each other, all so I can just be like “ooh” and then move on. I love it.
JPEGMAFIA plays Metro Gallery on Feb. 15 with Elucid and Milo. “Veteran” is on sale at JPEGMAFIA.bandcamp.com and is streaming on all major platforms.