When Billboard reaches JPEGMAFIA, he’s in the Gucci store in New York City. Maybe JPEG isn’t quite rap royalty yet, but the rapper born Barrington DeVaughn Hendricks is, in his own words, "Tryna be a real rapper.
Like most things that come out of the rapper also known as Peggy’s mouth, there’s a bit of truth, a bit of humor, and a bit of criticism laced into this. JPEG isn’t like any other MC, and his forthcoming All My Heroes Are Cornballs solidifies this notion as strongly as any of his previous releases.
When Hendricks exploded onto the indie rap scene last year with Veteran, he was, well, a veteran. Not only did he join the military at age 18 and do a tour of duty in Iraq, but from 2015 until Veteran’s release, JPEG was a constant presence in Baltimore’s underground rap scene. With titles like Communist Slow Jams, Darkskin Manson, and Black Ben Carson all released in 2015 and 2016, it was clear that JPEGMAFIA was a hyper-productive artist, carving a lane outside of traditional rap circles.
But when Veteran was released, something changed. Says Peggy, “I went into Veteran with the mentality of letting more out, but before I released it, I didn’t think anything would be different. I always think the worst, man.”
No matter how intensely Hendricks will attest to its lack of quality, All My Heroes Are Cornballs is an ecstatic record, a more personal look at the JPEGMAFIA persona and the international machinations of that logic. Peggy is gearing for disappointment, but that doesn’t seem possible. He’s one of the most unique rappers on the planet, a guiding force that links the political, the personal, and the artistic into a wrecking-ball of sad party anthems and depression bangers. JPEGMAFIA is hedging his bets, but it might be time for him to be going all in.
Read Billboard's Q&A with the rapper below.
Can you describe the time between finishing a record and releasing it? Do you get anxious or excited? Neither?
It hurts, man. It really hurt at first. I wanted to release it so bad. I wanted to put it out as an album album. Well, it’s not an album album, but I wanted to have a rollout for it. I wanted to make it feel like a proper album. Usually when I finish something, I just throw that shit out there. I’m like, ‘Done, boom, here it is.’
When I finished this one, I waited. Now I’m doing the rollout thing. It’s really hard because I’m impatient when it comes to that. Finishing the album is like raising a kid or some shit. You raise it and now it’s 18 and you’re like, "Get the fuck outta my house, bro. Just leave, dawg. Go out in the world and be somebody."
You say that this isn’t an album album. What do you mean by that? This seems like a legitimate album to me.
When I think of an album, I think of sitting down and creating this body of work with verses and choruses. Albums feel more like a job to me. I didn’t have any preconceived notion of what it was gonna be when I went into it. I went into it blank, but once it presented itself to me and I was able to complete it, I then started treating it like I was rolling out an album.
Was the process of making the album linear? Or did you start and stop?
I make music and I kinda see what I did at the end. But I made 93 songs for this, and whittled that down to what it is. The process was just me making music. It all just existed in the time and space of a period and at the end I compiled it and made a snapshot.
The first time I saw you perform was at the very bottom of a Low End Theory bill at the Airliner in Los Angeles that Milo headlined. You released Veteran shortly after and kind of exploded onto the rap scene. What was that rise like?
[Laughs.] It was funny to me. It was interesting seeing people react to something I made in my private time, having them attach weird, preconceived notions onto it that aren’t real. It’s very interesting to watch that happen. But it felt pretty good. It felt pretty validating at first, but after that it was motivating. I just wanted to start working on something right after that. I started working on [Heroes] right after Veteran got released. I might have already been working on this before that even came out, though.
Did you feel like Veteran was something different than anything you’d done before? Or was it still a complete surprise?
It was pretty much a surprise. There was nothing that indicated it would be anything else. I’m glad it did receive the reaction it did, though. That was a blessing.
You put out so much music before you caught an audience with Veteran. The aesthetic of JPEGMAFIA was already established. You were this new, punk and political rapper. But you’d been doing that for a while. Did you feel a need to feed into that with Cornballs, for an audience that found it fresh?
I don’t concern myself with that. There’s no point because people don’t know what you’re going through, what your mindset is, and what you’re thinking about when you make these records. They don’t really have any idea. When they try to project, they’re basing it off a version of you that’s straight music. They don’t know you. I’m always just gonna do whatever I want. I don’t feel any pressure to appeal to anyone in particular.
I don’t want anyone to expect anything from me. I just want them to know that I’m gonna put 1,037% into whatever I do. If I tell you I’m gonna release a folk/reggae/country album, just know at bare minimum there’s gonna be 1,010% put into it. That’s what I want people to take away from me, more than anything.
Does it get frustrating when people think they know you based on the music you make?
Naw, it’s expected. It’s what I was doing before I ever got any notoriety. That’s all I had. I don’t know these n---as [Laughs.] I don’t feel no type of way, unless I’m tryna go get a Popeyes chicken sandwich or some shit and n---as are obstructing me. Then I’ll feel some type of way.
Rap is a genre that’s conducive to viral success and quick come ups, for whatever reason. Because you put out music for four or five years before you received much acclaim, do you have more empathy towards the way fans view you as an icon or celebrity -- the way they revere you? Since you’ve been on the other side of it for a while?
The idea of me being an icon or something is a very funny thing, just because of my own weird insecurities. But, yeah... probably because I toiled away being nothing for so long. I’ve basically been every version of a rapper you can be. I’ve been the n---a with 50 views on YouTube, I’ve been the n---a with three downloads on Bandcamp, I’ve been that n---a with two fucking plays on SoundCloud for years. That was literally my lifestyle until last year.
I’ve been that way for longer than I’ve been this way. That’s what I’m getting used to now. I’ll adapt as I go along, but it definitely helps that I toiled away for a while.
Are some of the more extreme DIY tendencies you have harder to accommodate now that you have a bigger label and national tours to deal with?
It’s either harder or 10 times easier. When I pull up to a show with just a laptop and they’re like, "Cool!," that’s great. In other instances, someone may pass me some in-ears and I’ll be like, ‘What the fuck are these?’ Either it’s easier, because I’m used to playing hole-in-the-wall spots and that’s just how I operate -- or it’s harder, because I’m so used to playing hole-in-the-wall spots that I don’t know how to operate at a festival or something.
Signing autographs and the sandwich sells out.
That would be so shitty.
Let’s talk about why you consider your project a “disappointment.” You don’t really believe that, do you?
Yeah man! It could be disappointing for some people. I feel like it will be a disappointment. To some people, I may have abandoned the core of what they think I am. Again, n---as don’t know me, so whatever. But that shit’s wack, bro! Listen to it again! [Laughs.] It just ain’t hitting like that, and I need to let n---as know beforehand so that when they go on iTunes and click on that shit, I can tell them I warned them.
I still don’t believe you, but if that were actually the case, why would you put the record out?
I gotta get it out my house.It’s grown and it’s gotta get out.
You’re great at interpolating cultural criticism and observations into your rap. With how insane the entire world is now, do you feel like it’s almost unnecessary to try to engage with that? Like, when the reality is more satirical than you could ever make?
Kind of. You wrapped it up for me. Sometimes it feels like that, but the issues are the issues. At the end of the day, no matter how much people are talking about it, I’ll say some shit about it if I feel compelled to say some shit about it. In other regards, yes, I have run out of ways to say, ‘Fuck Donald Trump.’ Completely. I don’t know what else you want me to do with that shit. I guess it’s like that, but selectively.
You’ve spoken about having a master’s degree and aspiring, at one point, to write about music if you couldn’t make it. Now that the roles have flipped and you have to constantly engage with journalists and ideas about your music, are you more cynical towards the enterprise?
[Laughs.] 127%. Now that I’ve seen some of the people in it, it’s worse than I could have imagined. I assumed it was bad, but actually seeing it in action is fascinating. My complete presumption of it was pretty much right, and that’s really terrifying. I’m right about some really weird shit, bro, and I’m wrong about some really important things.
Your shows are notoriously insane in their energy. How daunting is the task of going on tour? Is it something exhausting or invigorating?
I definitely enjoy it. It’s taxing on me because of the travel, but aside from getting on planes and shit, playing shows and talking with people is great. I could do that shit forever.
It’s gotta be kind of lonely, too, traveling solo.
I was playing Red Dead [Redemption] a lot on tour last year. You just have to pass the time. That’s why it’s good to play music. That shit never runs out. The same feeling I got from music when I was 15 is the same feeling I get at 29. That means something to me. My hairline is gone, I’m depressed every day and I have mood swings, but that shit stays the exact same. I don’t take that shit for granted.
You’re pretty vulnerable on the web in terms of opening up about depression, sadness, and anxiety. It has a comedic bent, but it’s true. It’s how a lot of people, myself included, deal with mental illness. Why do you choose to be that accessible?
It’s nice to be able to tweet it out and know that someone else is feeling that way, even if it’s a small thank you. It doesn’t solve anything, but it’s like a band-aid. I like it. It’s good to know that people care.
If you fast forward a year from now, what’s the absolute best case scenario for All My Heroes Are Cornballs and the JPEGMAFIA enterprise?
When it’s all said and done, I hope people listen to this and know that I went into this thing wanting to make the most me thing I could. Everyone has a little niche in rap, and I just wanted to carve a piece out of it for myself. I hope that this album is a step towards that. I hope people look back on it in a few years and appreciate that I fucking made this shit while doing seven tours. [Laughs.]