The Baltimore rapper is making political music – but recent LP All My Heroes Are Cornballs is also a free-wheeling expression of human acceptance and how flawed our heroes really are
It’s hot in Baltimore – early September, and still thirty degrees outside. It is so humid that, at lunch, a waiter comes over to tell me it’s too warm to eat on the patio – he’s sweating just serving me; he says I’m going to need to sit with everyone else in the air conditioned restaurant, away from the dangerous heat. Despite the weather, JPEGMAFIA, the rapper I’m here to interview, arrives wearing a sweatshirt. It hangs loose around his wiry frame, over shorts. He has gold earrings in each ear – the one on the right moves gently as he speaks, catching the light. JPEG, or Peggy, as everyone calls him, has this look in his eye that reminds me of bars from that old track ‘Return of the Drifter’, by the British rapper Jehst. It goes: ‘Soldiers hold a cold stare like they’ve never been scared/ but live life like they know their time’s precious and scarce’.
Peggy’s ex-military, so maybe that’s how he’s perfected the soldier stare. His eyes are amber-brown, intense and alert, if slightly glassy from weed smoke – he is watching, taking everything in, holding the world at a distance as he looks you in the eye, the way soldiers have to in order to conceal their vulnerability. He is not fucking around – although I don’t mean to suggest that Peggy is aggressive: it’s fearlessness is all. He is serious about this stuff. “The only thing I want people to take from me,” he says, “is, like, don’t expect anything else other than hard work. Don’t expect it to sound or be about something, because I could talk about anything at any point.”
It’s hot in the 8×10 too – the club on the city’s East Cross street, where JPEG is performing to launch the release of his latest album All My Heroes Are Cornballs, supported by his Baltimore friends and peers (Butch Dawson, Abdu Ali, Ghostie). People are queuing around the block a couple of hours before it starts – testimony to the rapper’s growing popularity here, following the success of his 2018 album Veteran. Certainly, there’s a sense of something more intimate than your usual relationship between an artist and his fans in the exchange between Peg and the crowd waiting outside. A young guy at the front of the line has come all the way from Richmond, Virginia, to see this, he tells me, and he’s excited, travelling alone – his friends are going to catch the livestream back home. So far, so normal. But later, as the queue grows and Peggy runs a sound-check, there is some trouble in the street – a drunk or drugged up guy is threatening fans in the queue. The boy from Virginia knocks on the window of the closed club for help, and Peg leaves his sound-check to see what’s happening, not bothering to wait for security to arrive. He eyes the drunk guy with that soldier-stare, steps forward and talks in a low voice: precise, but unconfrontational, as his management look on uncomfortably – starting something with the crowd would not be an ideal way to launch this album. Eventually, the drunk guy nods at whatever Peggy is saying and stumbles away.
On stage Peg is frenetic, vulnerable and sexy. There’s nothing of the veteran now, other than his lean physique – topless and slick with sweat, hunched over himself as he delivers his lyrics to the mic, his voice occasionally breaking into a register somewhere between a wail and scream. All My Heroes Are Cornballs contemplates the state of the world in fractured, gender-bending tracks that veer between desperate and nostalgic. “I can’t feel my face, oh god!” he cries, on ‘Jesus Forgive Me, I am a Thot’, and then, “Show me how to keep my pussy closed”. The track ‘BasicBitchTearGas’ is an auto-tuned cover of TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’ – another track is called simply ‘Kenan vs Kel’. If Veteran was a straight up political statement, there’s something more irreverent about Cornballs – it’s a strange and playful riff on popular culture, composed as a kind of improvisation in the wake of Veteran’s success.
“When Veteran was released I knew I didn’t want the next thing to sound like Veteran,” Peggy says, “but I didn’t really care what that meant. I guess the only thing I was thinking was, like, I want it to be more me, and more like I’m not just laser focussed on political topics or anything. I’m just talking in general and if they pop up they pop up – and they still do. I guess the difference is I’m just letting the songs form themselves rather than trying to form something around them.”
On the Veteran tour, Peggy kept working on new music: producing more than ninety instrumentals (at one point he scrolls through his phone, showing me the long list of unused beats he made while working on Cornballs), which he returned to months later when he was ready to write lyrics for the new album. “And I did that on purpose – because I wanted it to be like I was two different people. So I made the music, stepped back and listened to it again after not listening for a while, so it was fresh, new. So it was good to work through because it was two genuine things, happening at the same time, smooshing them together or something like that.”