On his new album, All My Heroes Are Cornballs, Baltimore rapper Jpegmafia embraces his idiosyncrasies to satire hip-hop to humorous, frustrating, and thought-provoking effect. A deconstruction of the “ghetto superhero” tropes of the genre, All My Heroes Are Cornballs plays with expectations by turning them on their heads. Instead of carefully-chopped soul samples, there are cacophonies of contradictory sonics; where many rappers would boast about their riches or lament their lower-class upbringing, Jpeg makes fun of the social class system, material wealth, other rappers, and himself.
Even the run-up to the album’s release, he even signaled at the self-deprecation with a tongue-in-cheek video of his famous friends deriding it as “trash.” It’s an interesting tactic; he knows that All My Heroes will likely confuse and turn off some listeners, so he lampshades their reactions before they can even have them. Setting his critics on their heels might not be the most effective way to get them to lend their ears, but by forcing them to examine preconceived biases before listening to the project, they might also be willing to accept its basic premise — that rap and rappers are corny as hell, even if they’re also upheld as the pinnacle of cool.
When “Peggy,” as he calls himself on his elusive, avant-garde records, released his second studio album Veteran last year, he upended nearly every convention of what rap album “should” sound like. While trap 808s and ’90s samples ruled the radio, Jpeg went the other way, delving into industrial noises and off-kilter, unsettling beats that challenged listeners’ ears more than caressed them — there were more “WTF” moments than “wow” ones. However, the approach set him apart, spurring multiple publications to assign him placement on their year-end “best of” lists and earning him a small, but dedicated fanbase of fans more than happy to headbang and thrash along with him on Vince Staples’ Smile, You’re On Camera tour.
This year’s followup expands on the formula, messily sprawling Jpeg’s at times combative, at other times introspective raps over even weirder sounds. Each of the album’s 18 tracks are packed with computerized blips, vocal samples of Jpeg’s aforementioned famous friends responding to the album’s songs in the process of their (de)construction, and — as he points out on the last track — exaggerated coughs from Peggy himself. Jpeg’s vocals range from a goofy falsetto to a strained scream rap, stretching the bounds of both his instrument and of the genre he ostensibly works in. The effect sways from soothing to unsettling, preventing the album from finding a groove — but that’s the point.
In Jpeg’s world, rap has gotten way too comfortable with the status quo — as he concludes “PTSD”: “Some people need a hero, my n—-s need a Bane.” By casting himself as a rap supervillain, he can comment on the deficiencies of his peers (“I skin a f*ckin’ rapper, perfect pelt, bogus chain”) while participating in kayfabe himself (“I got booked for Coachella, enemies can’t say the same”). All the while, he maintains an aloof, sardonic humor that recognizes the irony in criticizing rap while rapping, allowing him to avoid the pitfall many of his contemporaries fall into: Being overly self-serious about a genre that is, in effect, one massive wrestling promo, complete with outlandish characters, dubious plot twists, hilarious heel turns, and scripted, melodramatic rivalries, all executed for the entertainment of a willingly gulled audience.
That humor is evident throughout, whether on the amusingly skewed cover of TLC’s “No Scrubs” that makes up “BasicBitchTearGas” — itself a counterpoint to the perspective offered on “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot” — or on album closer “Papi I Missed U,” which takes stock of both his life, career, and perception in the rap game to this point, and it’s the unifying element of an album that does a lot in trying to convince the listener Peggy has something to say. Ultimately, though, he’s not so different from the rappers and the rap game he mocks — after all, everything he does here has been done before. If all your heroes are cornballs, you will eventually turn out to be one too and maybe, that’s not so bad.
All My Heroes Are Cornballs is out now via EQT Recordings. Get it here.