Thursday, September 26, 2019

album review: 'all my heroes are cornballs' by JPEGMAFIA

I don't think JPEGMAFIA is interested in making this easy.

See, if he was he probably would have followed his controversial breakthrough Black Ben Carson by leaning into the politically charged, internet-rooted aggression and commentary that shocked so many people, especially given how well it was balanced with some real self-reflection... but that's not really what his 2018 follow-up Veteran was. Oh, the commentary was mostly there but sliced to ribbons along the way, showing an increasingly fragmented, almost stream-of-consciousness approach to his bars and production that was certainly experimental, but didn't quite pack the same impact for me as the more tightly composed moments. Certainly inventive and challenging and any insight I was able to glean did stick in my memory... but even being late to the party by over the year, I found myself wishing that I liked it a lot more than I did.

And thus when I heard that All My Heroes Are Cornballs was continuing down a similar rabbit hole, with JPEGMAFIA seemingly very much aware that his new album might disappoint fans looking for more the provocation even as the buzz suggested he was looking to embrace more melody and singing... hell, I was at the very least intrigued, so I figured I'd be a little more on the ball with this and dig into the project. So what did JPEGMAFIA pull out here?

You know, JPEGMAFIA has made the statement in his press run a number of times that fans will be disappointed with this album - and while on one hand I get the semi-trolling provocation coming in that statement, I also understand it: if you were expecting him to double down on the chaotic, explosive bangers that were his live hallmark, All My Heroes Are Cornballs is not that album; more's the pity, given how much of a knack he has for it. But at the same time, after giving this album comfortably over a dozen listens, I'm confident in saying I'm not really disappointed with this either - but that's more because I had different expectations going in, as he just continued to follow in the wake of what he set up on Veteran into a more fragmented, textural experience... and as such, while I appreciate and respect what he's doing, a lot of my opinion on this album is analogous to Veteran: I like it, but I don't love it and I don't see it as an album I'll revisit frequently. 

Now with that acknowledgement, if you're going in looking at individual tracks or anything beyond moments that stand out - or even lyrical themes that are firmly anchored in the text - you're in for a messy situation, mostly because JPEGMAFIA is not structuring his bars to be viewed as a consistent arc or narrative. And I'd argue it's not even random enough to feel like a stream of consciousness so much as burrowing into his scattershot creative process, where certain motifs slide to the forefront again and again, and while it would be easy to paint this as just an after-effect of immersing in meme culture, there isn't that brand of ironic detachment or deeper undercurrent of nihilism that has coloured his previous work. For lack of better words, it feels more earnest and human, many pieces punctuated by awkward, half-formed conversations with a woman in a haze of weed smoke, with the equivalent of production notes left in to colour the misshapen picture as he tries to stabilize a song - and that's important to highlight. Yes, in the snapshots of rapping we get JPEGMAFIA's howling, aggro, furiously left-wing side where his skillset shines... but that's only one facet of who he is, and this album is looking to present a more complete picture, flaws and all. One of the more stark examples is how he refocuses on his past as a veteran on 'Grimy Waifu' and 'PTSD', where said waifu is actually referring to his gun and the pathological relationship he builds with that weapon... which leads directly into the mental hell in which he's barely coping. Hell, even between those bars and their repeated focus on internet trolls that he knows could never confront him we see a reflection of his sensitivity that he still cares despite his fame, of the guy who unironically will compare himself to a member of 98 Degrees and own it, a more complex picture of his brand of masculinity that blows apart the subtle performative conformity even channers are expected to show online. Many have highlighted that he's supposedly rapping from an outright feminine perspective on songs like 'Thot Tactics' or from his frequent tagline 'you think you know me', but I'd argue it's more adapting feminine coding to paint a more nuanced picture. Same with the dejected but honest fear of laying down features when they might recontextualized to mean something that isn't him, or so many keyboard strokes and mouse clicks punctuate songs to highlight his own deflective screen, or how he'll make 'BasicBitchTearGas', which is a warped cover of TLC's 'No Scrubs' that nevertheless feels earnest and somehow works in its own way, appreciative of how the song's structure can still transcend his contortion. Or let me put it another way: when he titles an album All My Heroes Are Cornballs, in truth it's probably just as affectionate as it is denigrating.

And yet for as much as I can appreciate this project as a whole as a textural experience, all of JPEGMAFIA's gleeful subversion of archetypes and challenging his fans' expectations surrounding politics, race, sexuality, and gender... I'm still not quite as gripped by this project as I'd like to be, and I'd argue most of this comes down to execution, similar to many of my frustrations with Earl Sweatshirt's Some Rap Songs. Yeah, the wild, borderline jazzy juxtaposition between his cracking crooning and howling bars encapsulates his themes and message, especially whenever the production emphasizes that contrast, but it's also strewn in pieces across a project with no real sense of momentum. Which yes, I know is part of the point structurally, but it's hard for me to escape how more composed pieces might cut more deeply; similar case with how certain anti-hater and blogger messages are hammered again and again, because while the repetition has a point in highlighting another dimension of his own insecurity post-fame - especially against a music industry he doesn't remotely trust that makes all its money on retail but he'll be mercenary enough to exploit if they'll give it to him - the stronger subtext never quite reinforces the text as deeply as I'd like. And that's not even touching on the tracks that if I was more cynical I'd just say are just fragments of Peggy just fucking around left here for their own sake, and they don't really add up to more than the sum of their parts, like 'Life's Hard, Here's a Song About Sorrel' or 'BUTTERMILK JESUS TYPE BEAT', especially given how this album naturally meanders. That takes us to the singing, often assisted with a splash of AutoTune, and while I've become accustomed to this style thanks to artists like BROCKHAMPTON and can accept the sloppiness because of the broader framing of this project... I'm also not going to lie and say it's his strong suit or that it always works. But that's a similar observation I'll make about many of the compositions here - I like 'BBW' for its shuddering brittleness and the warping burble of 'Thot Tactics' in how it somehow fuses a fractured trap beat together even as the song sounds like it's constantly about to fall apart, or how 'Free The Frail' is the communal BROCKHAMPTON ballad off of buzzing synth shudders I'm not at all surprised Peggy finally made, or even how the title track is exactly the sort of cascading but gleaming progression that shambles into a fast food order... but I have to wonder if other fragments felt more developed or didn't yank themselves into a completely different vibe if certain fragments felt like fully composed songs. The glassy shatters against the kaleidoscope of voices and guitar on 'Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot' is a big example, same with the grainy click against the flickering sample on 'Beta Male Strategies' and the whiplash transition away from a pretty fuzzed out ballad on 'Rap Grow Old & Die x No Child Left Behind'. Hell, even in the blunt provocation of the final song 'Papi I Missed You' with some of the most uncompromising and political bars on the entire project... and then it slides towards faded atmosphere and incomprehensible vocal snippets that might serve to accentuate his loneliness spitting this into an electronic void, but can also feel dampening on a message missed and now perhaps left aside.

But as a whole... look, this is one of those projects that rewards repeat listens, if only to sink into the blur of textures and pictures Peggy puts forward - he's certainly improved as a producer in composing that vision, and the fact that a picture this fragmented doesn't feel badly produced or reliant on lo-fi tricks shows how he's evolved as an artist in a big way. And again, I can appreciate how JPEGMAFIA is creating this vision and the layers of insight he puts forward... I just wish I could be as emotionally gripped by the entire project as I am with pieces of it, which means I'm giving this a very strong 7/10 and a recommendation, but also a qualified one. If you're going in expecting raw, provocative bangers... well, the provocation is there but of a different stripe, so be prepared for that. Otherwise I can't help but respect how Peggy has lasted and carved his niche thus far, so even if I don't love this, I definitely want to hear more - good stuff.

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