Jpegmafia’s third album is the sound of a million little puzzle pieces straining to come together. All My Heroes Are Cornballs, out since September, gathers countless discrete grimy, chopped-up noises and shuffles through them with kaleidoscopic impatience, as the Baltimore experimental rapper holds forth on political discord, social media, and his own brilliance from behind several ironic framing devices. Don’t expect the album to cohere — the point is the queasy rush of processing too much at once.
Jpegmafia specializes in information overload. As a producer, he assembles choked sonic landscapes, hard to listen to not just because they’re packed with scratchy electronic textures and abrasive screeches, but because they never stay in one place; he’s always jumping around, smashing one beat and building another from the pieces. Synth loops are interrupted by wails that melt into sampled guitar riffs, framed by creaks and electric stutters that sound like malfunctioning speakers and imply perpetual transition, as he keeps you on your toes waiting for melodic and rhythmic resolutions that never come. As a rapper, he’s similarly protean, augmenting his usually sly, mocking flow with several other discrete cadences — an anguished scream, or a pretty, burbling Auto-Tuned squeal — while slipping between characters and voices.
“Real Nega,” from his previous album Veteran (2018), sums him up: a frantic, scrambling beat, keyed to a goofy three-second sample of Ol’ Dirty Bastard yelling (from the late rapper’s “Goin’ Down”), looped over and over again into a sort of infinite scream. It’s both startling and hilarious, until the end, when he adds a set of melancholy keyboard chords that bring out the melody hidden in Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s ululations, and the song suddenly turns mournful; sonically contextualized thus, ODB could almost be an opera singer.
Such hairpin turns mark Jpegmafia’s music. On the face of it, Veteran is the harsher noise album, while All My Heroes Are Cornballs incorporates cushier beats, sweeter pop elements, a softer glow. If anything, the latter album is a more disjointed listen. Behold those sweet, lilting keyboards mangled into shards.
As an act of provocation, All My Heroes Are Cornballs thrills. It’s a politically outspoken album that explicitly denounces racism, the alt-right, and the internet, yet there’s also a finely tuned ironic amusement about it, a childish sense of play reflected both in Jpegmafia’s joke rhymes and his chaotic musical impatience. (He shares this sensibility with the experimental pop duo 100 Gecs, who also cram way too many sounds into tight spaces and come across like babies throwing food at the wall.)
“Beta Male Strategies” starts with a garbled falsetto loop, a soothing moan that evokes and mocks chill background music, before the bridge shifts cheerfully into another key as a contorted guitar riff scrapes up a racket, providing neat melodic counterpoint despite itself; when the original loop pops up again, sighing at the end along with a sampled, drawn-out cackle, it’s as if he’s laughing at the song’s unlikely harmonic logic.
That’s how the album works: despite surface disarray, little hooks lurk in the shadows everywhere. Sound effects get repeated; the splats and rustles that punctuate songs, especially during transitions, become the central bliss points rather than the beats themselves. The more you listen, the more the album teaches you how to listen.
“PTSD” and “All My Heroes Are Cornballs” construct mesmerizing electronic vacuums, looped keyboard splotches that sound somehow hermetic, as if Jpegmafia is rapping in an airless room; the songs move, but they’re also frozen in place. “Thot Tactics,” a compendium of stitched-together slivers of song delivered in a woman’s voice, burbles over a warm, slippery jazz keyboard; the Auto-Tuned refrain (“I wanna rock your wor-or-orld/I wanna be your gir-ir-irl”) is also the album’s catchiest moment.
All My Heroes Are Cornballs synthesizes conflicting musical environments. The album’s glitchy loudness and restless indirection most directly simulate the horrors of the internet — the way social media kills the attention span as countless incompatible stimuli blare at you, but also the way one tangential distraction can lead to another until you don’t know where you are or how you got there, stranded in some dark online corner where strangers are selling exotic animals or debating Star Wars fan conspiracy theories.
This musical strategy goes way back in the hip-hop tradition — rappers in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s piled on samples and general aural clutter to replicate street noise and/or bohemian wasteland (alternative rockers throughout the ‘90s did this too). The difference is that Jpegmafia’s fragments interrupt each other and reverse course so frequently that the soundscape, while littered with hooks, never settles into a consistent groove, which in the language of hip-hop also means a denial of community: surrounded by sound, tossing off obscure references, switching from one character to another, he’s isolated in his own head, as indeed he would be in an online spiral this compulsive.
Many of the album’s most exciting moments come when the digital surface is somehow violated: the warm acoustic guitar plucking on “Grimy Waifu,” or conversely the cranked electric fuzz guitar on “Rap Grow Old & Die x No Child Left Behind,” whose distortions sound like they’re damaging a speaker, poke holes in the electronic fabric. On these songs, the technological dystopia is breaking down, although it’s unclear whether that’s something to fear or celebrate. Veteran, by contrast, was sealed off more cleanly, more secure in its virtual reality, without the risk of everything falling apart or the rays of sunlight poking in.
If this music sounds like a headache to you, it is — the album’s limitations are those of art that addresses the unpleasant by simulating it. But in an age of information overload, I’ve found that many of the more conventional musical vehicles for immersive, cleansing noise — punk, industrial, screamo — have lately been sounding too clean, too streamlined in their songforms. In its desperate, fragmented lurch, Jpegmafia’s noise demands more, and hence exhausts more fully. A cavalcade of distractions is a scary thing to listen to because you can’t immerse — there’s always some other thing you’re supposed to be doing, the promise of some other, better distraction on the horizon, lingering. It clicks beautifully, then shatters, then refocuses, and then shatters again.