In the basement of the Songbyrd Music House in Adams Morgan, red lights reflected off a low ceiling, illuminating the crowd as it eagerly awaited Baltimore experimental rapper JPEGMAFIA. He is currently on tour in the United States and Canada.
Songbyrd is a small venue, and its 200-attendee capacity creates an underground aesthetic: There is a small bar in the back corner, the audio and lighting engineer stood alongside the crowd, and the stage is only a foot or two above the floor.
As fans trickled in, opening grunge rock act Joy Again played a set that seemed unknown to most but received enthusiastic response, as the energy of each track increased toward the end of the performance. The final performance featured gravelly vocals and a thrashing guitar rift — more grunge than what one would expect from a rap opener.
In the waiting period before JPEGMAFIA took stage, there was a surprising amount of socializing among fans. It became apparent that most in attendance had attended similar shows in the past: Brockhampton; Tyler, the Creator; and Death Grips, to name a few. The crowd was almost entirely composed of white male 20-somethings, who all seemed keenly aware of the ironic homogeneity of their own fandom, as was exemplified later in the show when JPEGMAFIA screamed his iconic interjection “White boy better put his hands up!” and a sea of arms rose.
At around 9 p.m., JPEGMAFIA emerged in pink sweatshorts, combat boots, no shirt and a black bandana draped over his head. There was a do-it-yourself feel to every aspect of the show, as he accidentally started the instrumental for “Macaulay Culkin” when he intended to perform his verse on Denzel Curry’s “Vengeance.”
Despite this small hiccup, the rest of the show was fueled by JPEGMAFIA’s nonstop, visceral energy. The set mostly focused on his most recent album, 2018’s “Veteran,” with the early highlights being the obnoxious yet invigorating Ol’ Dirty Bastard sample on “Real Nega,” and “1539 N. Calvert,” a slower track that he chose to reimagine for the live performance, screaming every lyric as the crowd screamed back.
The middle of the set took up a more political tone, as collaborator Freaky joined JPEGMAFIA on stage to perform their 2016 track “I Might Vote 4 Donald Trump.” The potent lyrics seemed to resonate with the Washington, D.C. residents, taking aim at the president, Chris Christie, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and the IRS.
JPEGMAFIA even stopped for a moment to spit a freestyle, revealing his unflinching and sometimes radical views: In an interview with French magazine Manifesto XXI, he said “America was never great in the first f–king place, it can’t be great again.” He finished the freestyle by inviting those in attendance to come with him and do the rest of the show outside the White House, as a stand against the administration he finds so disdainful.
The last few songs somehow managed to increase the energy even more, as JPEGMAFIA left the stage with his wireless mic to perform songs within the crowd. Among his fans he commanded an unprecedented level of respect — moshing, dancing and even giving hugs. The intimacy of these moments contrasted with the abrasive music, creating a sense of freedom that fit perfectly as a setting for JPEGMAFIA’s brand of experimental hip-hop.
JPEGMAFIA targeted his self-declared nemesis Morrissey, frontman of The Smiths, during his performance of “I Cannot F–king Wait Until Morrissey Dies,” threatening to “punch him in the face” when he sees him. During “Curb Stomp,” JPEGMAFIA could also be seen writhing around on the floor surrounded by fans.
Finally, he announced that he had one track left, and the room knew it could only be the off-the-wall banger “Baby I’m Bleeding.” As the opening sample started, the crowd began to pulsate, preparing for the next two minutes and 32 seconds.
As soon as he yelled out the iconic “Peggy, where you been at?” the place erupted. Everyone seemed to know every lyric and also seemed to disregard the health of their vocal cords. The track was physically exhausting to witness, with JPEGMAFIA himself collapsing on stage afterward, thanking the crowd for pushing him so hard as a performer. He then stepped down and invited everyone to come talk to him, removing any barriers that existed between him and his fans.
Whether you agree or disagree with his politics, or find his music exhilarating or obtuse, JPEGMAFIA is undoubtedly pioneering a new frontier for hip-hop — one raised in Trump-era political discourse and influenced by online dialogue. His shows embody his fearless approach and create a concert-going experience unlike any other.