When JPEGMAFIA’s second album Veteran dropped, it provoked a lot of internet chatter. He was manic; rapping internet aphorisms a mile a minute. He was angry (about something…). He spat on everyone from incels to “libtards.” As a provocateur of just about everyone, what was his ideology? What did he care about? Who was he?
Veteran didn’t answer these questions, All My Heroes are Cornballs doesn’t exactly answer them either. But it is a stronger record than Veteran—lower-key and prettier too. Sometimes, it almost sounds like he’s letting some light into his dank basement. In the past, JPEGMAFIA (a.k.a. Barrington Hendricks) has ways been scattershot, or more accurately, batshit insane. He overwhelmed maybe more than he impressed. In comparison, All My Heroes are Cornballs feels positively zen. The pace is slower, and the listener is finally given some time to breathe. There isn’t a true banger like there was on Veteran (“Baby I’m Bleeding”), but in exchange, we get a record that’s front-to-back stronger than its predecessor.
Any JPEGMAFIA song is about waiting for the collection of crashing elements to fall into place, even if only for a few seconds. It happens on “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot” when he screams “Huh, sucka, I’m prominent, I was anonymous.” It happens on “All My Heroes are Cornballs” when he says “Incels gettin’ close ’cause I crossed over/How they go from Anne Hathaway to Ann Coulter?” It happens on “Rap Grow Old & Die x No Child Left Behind” when he yells “They want me Kevin James, bitch pay me Kevin Hart.” It’s moment-based music, where the listener waits for the sound collage to coalesce into something resembling rap. In theory, this would make for a brutal listen, but All My Heroes are Cornballs is one of the best albums of the year. Because when the songs do click (and to be clear, every song does click), they sound like Hendricks is shouting gospel down from the mountain top.
Notable JPEGMAFIA-isms on All My Heroes are Cornballs include: “Come kill me, I’m verified”; “Man, I was really, really wish I was Illuminati/N****s waitin’ on Peg like I’m dropping Yahndi”; “Bitin’ crackers and wonder why you anorexic”; “Ain’t no career, just hopin’ Madonna adopts me.” These lines get at the central appeal of JPEGMAFIA: aggressive vapidity to match an aggressive and vapid society. Hendricks’ music sounds like the perfect soundtrack to the end of America.
Whether or not Peggy (as his fans affectionately call him) works for you as a persona will vary case-by-case. There are no attempts on All My Heroes are Cornballs to feign accessibility or commercial viability. It often sounds like he’s making an uncanny valley version of trap and pop-rap. He’s still hard to read, and jokes come across with a quintessentially JPEG tongue planted in cheek. But, as the title connotes, there is a real attempt to reconcile the most anarchic tendencies of an artist who suddenly has a platform large enough to meet those heroes he’s poking fun at. He also has to deal with sudden underground prestige. Frustration with old friends coming out of the woodwork and assholes trying to tear you down show up on All My Heroes are Cornballs, but more often Hendricks wonders about the future of his music. When he says “I’m pretty sure I coughed on every fuckin’ song,” it’s not just a wry observation, but one in line with the promotional cycle for this record, which was ‘disappointment.’ He struggles throughout with expectations, both of his art and fame.
I’ve saved the least JPEGMAFIA song on All My Heroes are Cornballs for last, because it’s also the best, and deserves its own paragraph of praise. “Free The Frail” is one of the most shockingly gorgeous pieces of music I’ve heard all year. Not shocking just because it appears on the album of an artist almost intrinsically opposed to beauty, but because it’s better than most of the other neo-soul influenced hip hop I’ve heard this decade. The beat is weird as shit (we’re still listening to JPEGMAFIA, aren’t we?), but with vocals lent by Helena Deland, it’s an approximation of a ballad, one that comes from the land of JPEGMAFIA but is softer and less unwieldy than anything else he’s made. The last few lines, sung by Deland, capture the themes of the record: “I’ll step out for a minute to breathe/One set of footsteps in the sand, but I’m not being carried/If it gets out of hand, you can go on without me.”