The downbeat: Experimental music back in the mainstream with boundary-pushing artist JPEGMAFIA

A shirtless man with a microphone smiles above a crowd in a dark room.
Barrington DeVaughn Hendricks, known professionally as JPEGMAFIA, is an American hip-hop artist and record producer. (Courtesy of Levi Manchak)

JPEGMAFIA, who made waves at the 2019 Pitchfork Music Festival, described his own music as “wack” and asked people to expect “disappointment” from him in an interview after his set

So why is he such a compelling artist?

JPEGMAFIA’s music is unsystematic and haphazard: at times comedic, at other times dark, empty and unnerving, but more often than not emotional. His beats are weird and intense, often compared to the instrumentals of the hip-hop group Death Grips. 

His first album, “Black Ben Carson,” earned him the title of “genre-defying noisemaker” because of both his sounds and his content. His lyrics are political, and his instrumentals are truly uncategorizable. 

JPEGMAFIA himself has been described as a “reflection of the internet’s dark underbelly because, unlike other artists today, he embraces the coldness of our online era. 

He’s also been called “provocative.” Maybe people don’t like staring at the society they’re a part of. Go figure. 

The artist’s newest album, “All My Heroes Are Cornballs,” may be somewhat of an attempt to make fun of himself and his life experiences. But it deals with some serious issues. 

The opening song, titled “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am a Thot” contains the line “Pray you get comfy in your disguise,” which sounds closer to a line of poetry than a bar in a jokey rap song. 

JPEGMAFIA proves an artist can channel humor and poeticism in one work with ease. Versatility reaches new heights with his work.

JPEGMAFIA’s willingness to push boundaries also extends to his collaborations. His latest feature was on electronic producer Vegyn’s new album “Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds.” 

The music video for the album’s single, “Nauseous / Devilish,” showed an extremely pale, extremely bald and extremely thin man, clad in black, jerkily dancing atop a cement parking garage. His movements sometimes match the beat of the music, but sometimes the man lurches and writhes, off-kilter. The video offers no tangible context for the music itself, no parallels to anything immediately relevant to anyone’s life.

Sometimes, people don’t like or understand JPEGMAFIA’s experimental music. It is, at times, difficult. But addressing problems is also difficult. 

People spend more time on their phones in their virtual lives than in their real, physical lives. This seeming disconnect is perhaps why experimental musicians like JPEGMAFIA are needed more than ever in this day and age. 

Our generation is full of overthinkers, overanalyzers and oversharers tormented by current events, and experimental music reflects this anxiety well. The internet addiction-anxiety dilemma conveyed through experimental music is relatable and familiar, drawing people in. 

With seductive beats and comical song titles, JPEGMAFIA pushes people to think about crucial issues, like the difference between one’s real and online personas in “Beta Male Strategies.”

Hip-hop is not designed to be purely truthful, but JPEGMAFIA simultaneously questions people’s lack of authenticity and the motives behind lying behind a screen with one bar: “Say what you said on Twitter right now / You only brave with a board and a mouse.”

JPEGMAFIA’s entire collection of work appears to be one giant social critique experiment, but maybe that’s exactly why JPEGMAFIA is such an intriguing artist in the first place. 

At the end of the day, JPEGMAFIA reflects the state of society today. Because isn’t that exactly what our generation is? One huge social experiment?

Ella Boyd SC ’22 is TSL’s music columnist. Besides writing for TSL, she enjoys listening to music, writing poetry and making art. 

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