Baltimore hip-hop artist and producer JPEGMAFIA’s second full-length LP, “All My Heroes Are Cornballs,” is simultaneously objectionable and beautiful. On this new project, JPEGMAFIA crafts a landscape of industrial, scattered and glitchy beats that are juxtaposed against soft, melodic notes that make a compelling contrast. The result is an album that is remarkably refreshing and different, and that improves on the artist’s developing sound.
In contrast to his last album “Veteran,” a great deal of the production on “All My Heroes” strays away from relying solely on avant-garde instrumentals, instead opting for a more melody-driven sound that might be more accessible for the average listener.
This change does not mean, however, that “All My Heroes” makes for a casual, unengaging listen; rather, JPEGMAFIA has simply done a better job fluidly incorporating more traditional melodies into his preexisting experimental, disorienting style. As a result, this album is palatable without sacrificing excitement or experimentation. Regardless of how digestible “All My Heroes” may be compared to the rapper’s last project, though, one thing remains true: The heart of this project is JPEG’s ability to produce cutting edge and provocative instrumentals.
The album’s opener, “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot,” presents the listener with a cacophony of distorted ambient noise. However, this noise is not without purpose — it works percussively and establishes the frantic but beautifully energetic atmosphere for the rest of the album. This distortion soon gives way to a looped piano riff that actually sounds quite pleasant. Not only that, but JPEGMAFIA delivers a surprisingly well-sung hook as well.
Similarly, “Kenan Vs. Kel” starts out with a laid-back, chimelike synth lead, but not before transitioning into a deluge of abrasive and postapocalyptic sounding guitars for the song’s second half. Throughout the album, JPEG manages to achieve a balance between sonically pleasing and experimentally bold sounds in a way that is both digestible and disorienting at the same time. In this way, the rapper effectively pioneers new ground in rap while still being coherent to contemporary listeners.
The track “Grimy Waifu” also reveals the artistic growth and versatility since JPEG’s last release. The song is as layered as one would expect one of his songs to be, but it feels distinctly different in that it still manages to be remarkably light and airy. The refreshing sound of an acoustic guitar, paired with JPEG’s soft singing voice, demonstrates the rapper’s sensibility when it comes to incorporating diverse sounds to further enhance his own.
As jagged and unpredictable as many of the instrumentals off this album may be, “All My Heroes” hardly ever loses momentum, in large part because of the album’s nonstop, visceral energy. JPEG sounds at his most comfortable when riding the mania of his beats to transcend the boundaries of any one track, fleshing out the project’s entire tracklist and creating one cohesive album.
The album’s value does not only stem from its musical production. In terms of lyrical and thematic content, JPEG offers many refreshing ideas that complement the record’s standout production.
As an artist and as an up-and-coming cultural phenomenon, JPEGMAFIA rests on the fault line of both old and new internet culture, and his fluency in all things internet-related comes off more clearly than ever on “All My Heroes.”
Certain tracks on the album, such as “BasicB—hTearGas,” a reinterpretation of TLC’s hit song from the 1990s “No Scrubs,” and the shoutout to the 1990s show “Kenan & Kel” on the aptly titled “Kenan vs. Kel” signal a desire to look back to the time right before the internet launched into popular use.
The rest of the album’s tracks, on the other hand, attempt to illuminate other features of modern online culture. “Post Verified Lifestyle,” for example, speaks to the rapper’s elevated status that comes from gaining the “verified” status on social media. Another track, “JPEGMAFIA TYPE BEAT,” pokes fun at the ubiquitous “type beats,” or instrumental tracks based on already popular rap styles that can be found on YouTube, a self-aware move that exemplifies the tongue-in-cheek lightheartedness that keeps the album sounding young and relevant.
The tension that JPEGMAFIA highlights between these two generations of the internet is interesting, but most importantly, it shows how much more pervasive and relevant internet culture is today, and how it has entirely transformed what modern fame looks like.
Overall, “All My Heroes Are Cornballs” feels satisfying in a way that is sonically pleasing enough but that also manages to push the limits of hip-hop. It feels progressive, even as far as modern rap goes. JPEGMAFIA is paving the way for a new era of music intimately in tune with the online culture it exists in, and the avant-garde production on “All My Heroes” is just innovative enough to make this vision successful.