Review Summary: It’s easy to become giddy over JPEGMAFIA’s mastery with the building blocks of tension and release.
To listen to All My Heroes Are Cornballs is to get positively clobbered by JPEGMAFIA’s skill and creativity. It wasn’t hard to see this coming: 2018’s loose, faint, and ultimately very appealing Veteran was such a substantial step up from 2016’s lightly embarrassing Black Ben Carson that his bag of awe-inducing sonic tricks seemed primed to expand, to become more complex and refined. And so it was: All My Heroes Are Cornballs is a capital-g Great album, filled everywhere with nooks and crannies of melodic gratification, but armed, as well, with a powerful sense of pleasure and rupture as brethren rather than opposed forces.
Opening with shattering glass and people screaming, All My Heroes, like the albums before it, never lets up on the artist’s desire to affront. Some of the effrontery stems from JPEGMAFIA’s voice as a lyricist, his confrontations with an inscribed audience and the Internet-addled context in which those confrontations unfold. Often it asserts itself through musical form--he likes to stage collapse both as a structural element and as a timbral element. This is an artist who is looking to prod at the limits of his audience’s patience and their ability to accept a wholly different perspective from their own. Yet this devotion to discomfort never feels like it is sabotaging his practice as a genuinely talented songwriter. JPEGMAFIA’s seemingly instinctual sense of which chords will bounce off and inflect each other with the most sophistication stands unaccosted by his ever-present desire to come off badly to those he deems unworthy.
So, yes, the first single and opening track on this album is called “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am a Thot,” and it opens with glass shattering and screaming people. Yet with the help of a piano that sounds like it is radiating daylight and JPEGMAFIA’s usual cadre of glitchy bass and drum effects, “Jesus Forgive Me” attains a rare sensation in music, in which a song feels endlessly complex and affectionate at the same time. I feel the same about this song as I did five hundred listens earlier, when it was released in August: the intensity emanating from the industrial influence and the artist’s inclination toward unguarded displays of emotion is inseparable from the abiding warmth of the pop hooks and timbres. There has been plenty of good pop music this year, but this is something else, a song vibrating with its own negative capability, holding two contrary strategies in total harmony without reducing one to the other.
Writing and producing everything himself, JPEGMAFIA returns to these noisy yet soulful bona fides continually without allowing his habits to generate the uncanny, plastic sort of sameyness of, say, Tyler, the Creator’s IGOR. Midway through “Kenan Vs. Kel,” just as perfect as the track it follows, he quickly replaces plinking keys and neo-soul crooning--highly pleasurable in themselves--with guitar drones and crackling half-time drums, yet another structural coup that allows him to have his subversion of expectations and his shocks of aural pleasure both in equal measure. And don’t get me started on the thrilling moment toward the end of the also-perfect third track, which is yes called “Beta Male Strategies,” where yet more abrasive guitars and digital fuzz, working towards a seeming climax, are simultaneously undermined and made sonically profound by the reintroduction of the ethereal and wordless opening vocal sample.
This guy has such a sure hand with sounds and the structures they fit into that he seems driven to throw himself a series of intractable conceptual challenges, all of which he overcomes with panache. How to deal with the issue of one's self-presentation in a song whose lyrics read, “These bullets coming at you / Take these bullets from me, that’s my grimy waifu”? Try, perhaps, couching the sentiment, or whatever it is, in airy guitars and lightly skittering drums that lean into the odd sort of romance with Internet culture into which performer and audience--well, most of it--together have prima facie been drafted. What about a cover of “No Scrubs”? Could that possibly work? Well, sure: how about giving it the same unshapely cast as the rest of the album and truncating the source material until it’s like a palimpsest or a distant memory?
It’s so easy to become giddy over JPEGMAFIA’s mastery with the building blocks of tension and release that one can accidentally handwave their way through the knottier issue of his perspective on the world, the things he has to say about it--the harrowing dark cloud of insults and provocations that paints a considerably darker picture than do his resplendent melodies. From constantly calling out his white fans for ignorance and violence to lamenting the havoc Twitter has wreaked on our collective spirit, Peggy’s corrosive words to a fan of today's mainstream hip-hop may appear one-note or paranoid or spasmodic. Maybe unbearably postmodern. Maybe immature. Yet JPEGMAFIA’s empty-eyed focus on a single emotional valence does not diminish the manifold pleasures this album has to offer. In fact, the contrast between the garden of sonic delights and the intransigent personality it houses makes All My Heroes sort of like a great existentialist novel, tracking the brisk movement of its hero through a world whose values mean nothing to him. So far beyond the clunky battle-rap phrasing of Black Ben Carson that the effect ultimately becomes massively appealing, JPEGMAFIA proves himself able to preside deity-like over the tone of his songs, guiding them through the darkness with uncompromising passion.
JPEGMAFIA is the kind of artist--brash, unapologetic, sort of embarrassing sometimes--with whom a lot of listeners are going to have problems, some of them perhaps insurmountable. Yet what separates JPEGMAFIA from fellow provocateurs and flawed human beings who can’t cobble together an album like this is that he as an artist he always has answers for those problems, ear-catching musical virtues that serve to explain or modify or indeed make up for the caveats of his artistic personality. Even after Veteran, I wouldn’t have given anyone grief for deciding that the trade-off was still not worth it, that his sense of pleasure was too perverted or inaccessible for his spiky persona to register as necessary counterpoint. But when it comes to All My Heroes I hardly feel willing to brook dissent: as with Madvillainy or Beauty and the Beat, the endorphin rush catalyzed by the sounds here is so great for me that I can’t imagine I, we, you won’t be listening years and years later, always seeking transcendence, always getting it. Any which way I look at it, I see in its 45 minutes all the signs of a true classic, an album whose daring attitude and commitment to odd sonic luxuries future emissaries of the great tradition of experimental hip-hop music should only hope to emulate.