Wednesday, July 10, 2019

album review: 'veteran' by JPEGMAFIA (6th year anniversary)

Well, this won by a landslide this year. Seriously, it was not very close whatsoever, the only close competition had about half as many votes and that was Twin Fantasy by Car Seat Headrest - don't worry fans, I'll be handling the next Will Toledo album when he puts it out, I've just never been all that interested in covering a remake of a project I heard years ago.

But in a sense, I'm a little baffled why I didn't cover JPEGMAFIA early in 2018. I think part of it might have been rooted in how the Patreon scheduling got out of hand and I just couldn't find time to tackle it - one of the reasons I did shelve it for 2019 but may bring it back in the future with a little more containment and structure - but for another, what I did heard of JPEGMAFIA I was more wary of than outright positive. Because I actually did go back to his earlier projects and my issues weren't due to the experimentation - taking a slightly more jagged, offkilter approach to slightly more conventional tones adjacent to an act like clipping - but more to the content, which seemed to land in a strange sort of very Internet/meme culture political provocation, which meant that certain points of insight and transgression struck some weird notes, at least for me; definitely an acquired taste. And that's not even getting into the messy controversy surrounding his now infamous song 'I Just Killed A Cop Now I'm Horny', in which actual audio of a policeman being killed was mixed into the song and which requires a pretty layered conversation surrounding transgression, art, and the modern cultural role of police that probably deserves to come up at a later date. And when you factor in some structural issues and a hit-and-miss record for hooks or groove, I can see how his first two projects - Black Ben Carson and The Second Amendment - might not have gotten the same universal acclaim that Veteran did two years later, although I would say Black Ben Carson has a certain nightmarish, amorphous quality that reminds me of B. Dolan's The Failure - and I intend that as a compliment, I do think it's a surprisingly compelling and pretty great album. But from the outside, Veteran did look to be the most streamlined project to date and certainly getting the most critical acclaim in experimental hip-hop, so I was open to this kicking ass: so how about it, going back to 2018, was Veteran worth it?

There's a part of me that feels like there's both more and less to get with Veteran than there actually is, the sort of project where I completely understand why folks might want me to try and break this down, but also the sort of project where I'm fairly certain it'd be missing the point of a project like this. And that's the strange thing about Veteran: for as much as the echoing sample of 'you think you know me' serves as a producer tag here, it also highlights a level of resistance to analysis you're going to face when getting into Veteran that wasn't quite there on his earlier, more directly political and lyrical projects. But there has been a stylistic shift... and I'll admit while the themes and production mostly work for me, JPEGMAFIA is one of those guys who has his aesthetic lane and it's going to be hit-and-miss how much I actually like it, with this album moreso than ever.

And I want to start with the content, and the most striking thought that came to mind when listening through this was not a comparison to any hip-hop like Death Grips or clipping, but certain streaks of hardcore punk, especially an album like Damaged by Black Flag where there was a mischievous, provocative streak in the insurrection, but ultimately broke down into much more serious questions about mental health and a curdled brand of nihilism. And JPEGMAFIA is willing to drill a fair bit deeper into the roots of this, not just in highlighting his own status as a veteran and the running subtext of anxiety, depression, and possible PTSD behind it on songs like 'DD Form 214', 'Panic Emoji' and even 'My Thoughts On Neogaf Dying', but also pointing a considerable amount of violence at targets spanning insecure alt-right shitheads wallowing in trolling hypocrisy behind a keyboard, to self-professed liberals who'll betray their ideals for an easy buck and who are just as insecure in their professions of virtue, but in a different way like on the genuinely telling 'Libtard Anthem', 'Williamsburg', and especially 'Whole Foods'. And while you could make the argument that in some cases JPEGMAFIA is just trolling, using stylized violence for effect as he'll dissolve into laughter at the end of 'Curb Stomp' after howling his lungs out, or the jaunty brand of mockery on the aptly named 'I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies', it's telling how he didn't shy away at taking shots at 4chan to prove how the trolls themselves could be aggravated, and on cuts like '1488' you can tell at least some of the violence might be credibly backed up and the alt-right and fascist targets are not ready for that sort of energy. Granted, calling this album "progressive" might be a bit of a stretch, and that's some of that same conscious inconsistency I've seen with JPEGMAFIA before: take a song like 'Baby I'm Bleeding' where he calls out Girl Pusher on his label for having a relationship with Antwon given his rape allegations... and then on his third verse he talks about taking your bitch, a pretty common line across this project, along with the cavalier approach to feminism that means he'll pistol whip her first. And here's the thing: he knows he's getting this sort of criticism and he seems fine with it - with the larger task at hand coming through in demolishing a broken system and getting what's his, especially when the government would rather treat him with indifference or outright hostility despite being a veteran, and sympathetic allies should just chill and not overreact. But that nuance seems selective, and not quite as layered or introspective as it could come across on Black Ben Carson or The 2nd Amendment, especially when this album is at its best attacking the insecurities at the core of its subjects, be it his own or his targets.

But again, like with previous albums the layers of irony, sarcasm, trolling, and frenetic blur of genuine rage can make parsing this a tough task, especially given how the language and delivery can be so elastic bending across more intricate flows and even melodies that show exactly where some of that cited boy band inspiration comes from, and yet so blunt as he'll howl like MC Ride or Denzel Curry. Of course, the big difference between JPEGMAFIA and those two comes most in the production, where this project even more than his last few becomes more of a textural experience than straightforward songs or hooks. Sure, the album might seem to start more conventionally with the clattering trap-inspired groove and twinkling melody of '1539 N. Calvert', but even that song starts quaking with bass and fracturing, which might be the most expected opener to the frenetic Ol Dirty Bastard sample that howls across the background of the next song with even more aggressive bass-heavy percussion... that's then fractured by echoing, washed out guitar. And that becomes somewhat of the pattern on this project: shuddering experimental skitters and contorted samples that might pull a bit from industrial hip-hop but likely might owe more to an act like Arca before the bass blows out and the song breaks either into crushing abrasion, a more melodic tone that doesn't tonally match with anything and makes you question whether it's all a joke, or a distorted, cavernous husk of effects that seem to reflect a much more haunted backdrop like on 'Panic Emoji' - hell, there are a fair few points where this happens within the same song, like on the ASMR-saturated 'Rock N Roll Is Dead' or 'Germs'. And again, I'm familiar with these tones and shuddering, arrhythmic progressions, and outside of where the percussion he chooses literally causes excess shrill high-end frequencies to bleed into the mix like on 'Macaulay Culkin' and 'Rainbow Six', I can vibe with the instrumentals here and the creeping menace they bring... but not a lot more. And that might be the greatest point of frustration for me: on a project that is built to disorient and shock, the lack of sharper structure or crescendos or even more composed melody or hooks doesn't give me many moments I'd return to or truly killer climaxes, especially with the stream-of-consciousness style of writing. Honestly, if there were more actual tunes and not just warped interpolations or glassy fragments with more texture than body, there'd probably be more standouts, at least for me.

So as a whole... look, I like JPEGMAFIA's lane and I do appreciate a rapper taking this many risks in terms of production and content, and there's a fractured, shrieking nightmare void where this works... but it's also a project I feel I can admire more than outright love, mostly because of intentional internal contradictions. At least for me a little more internal structure within the songs might click more strongly - kind of reminiscent of my frustrations with that last Solange album, albeit with a completely different tone and a few more consistent lyrical nuggets. That said, this is an album that is stronger than the sum of its parts, which is why I'm giving it a 7/10 and a recommendation. I am a little shocked that this was the album that broke him through beyond Anthony Fantano's review and a well-placed Myke C-Town reference, but it's encouraging to see JPEGMAFIA get enabled, and I'm fascinated where he's going to go next. Definitely someone to watch, definitely a guy I'm going to review in the future, and in the mean time if you haven't heard this already, check it out!

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