Time is ticking for JPEGMAFIA
For the past few months, JPEGMAFIA has been posting a countdown on his Instagram, but he won’t say to what. Every few weeks, he posts a photo tagged with a new percentage. Back in March, it was at 35 percent. His most recent post – on May 15, at the time this was written – is at 52 percent. His fans, in the comments, speculate about its significance but he refuses to indulge any of them, or me.
“That’s just a countdown to the end of the world,” he says, laughing, taking a hit off his bowl, an accessory he only puts down once he’s burned all his weed, only then to switch it out for his vape pen.
Is it really? I ask.
“There’s no telling. It could be something you didn’t even expect. But I’m very excited to show you this very weird, disappointing thing.”
Why do you think it’s gonna be disappointing?
“You know when you just look at something and you’re like, ‘This is ass’? That’s what I do every day when I look at it, you feel me?” he says, taking another hit. “I just have to be honest with the people, you know? So they don’t get their expectations up for whatever it is, but it’s gonna terrible. Really bad.”
It’s unclear whether he’s being coy or whether he’s truly faithless about his own talent. The 29-year-old rapper from Brooklyn, born Barrington Hendricks, has already set a career precedent for releasing expansive yet laser-focused music. His last studio album Veteran, released in 2018, was warmly received by fans and music press alike, amassing beaming reviews and appearing on most end-of-year lists. Since leaving Japan, where he was living on a military stay, in 2015, Hendricks has experienced a steady upward trajectory, much of it due to the internet, a medium that has heavily influenced his aesthetic and artistic sensibilities.
Like the internet – specifically social media – JPEGMAFIA’s music is intensely frenzied, his beats propelled by a sense of urgency, and his lyrics a near-constant, cacophonic barrage that refuses to let you take a breather. “I really do embrace the internet in a way that I think not even just rappers but people in general don’t,” he says. “That’s why I put this mouse click on my face. I wanted to pay tribute to the internet in some way.”
It’s a small face tattoo; a computer cursor that sits right on his left cheekbone, pointing towards his left eye. He got it last year, once positive reviews of Veteran began rolling in. The politically provocative album was certainly primed for the Internet. JPEGMAFIA is a natural and persistent troll. Veteran included lines like “I need all my bitches the same colour as Drake,” and famously included a song called I Can’t Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies.
I mention it because on the same day of our interview, Morrissey’s name was trending on Twitter. He had come under fire for wearing a pin supporting the Islamophobic ‘For Britain’ movement on the Jimmy Fallon show. “I was about to say something about that,” he admits. “[But] I don’t even see a point. If it took a pin for people to finally realise that, I don’t know what to tell them. I been said it. I made a song about it.”
“I get the same feeling watching the news that I get when I log into Instagram. It’s like the same fuckery gland is satisfied”
A veteran of the Iraq War, Hendricks wrote much of his early music while stationed in Iraq, Kuwait, Germany and Japan, among other places. The experience was “very dark,” he explains. Music provided an escape from the day-to-day brutality of military life, and helped him comprehend a different kind of future for himself. It was in Japan where he joined a group called Ghostpop. Their mixtape garnered a sizeable audience online, his fans still searching for copies. He began pursuing a solo career when he returned to the US to live in Baltimore, and then New York, and now Los Angeles.
But his music remains highly conscious of the political milieu. On Real Nega, the second track on Veteran, he raps, “Alt-right want war, well that’s fine then/ Bitch n***** in the way, well, that’s common/ White boys getting mad ‘cause of my content/ Y’all brave on the web, keep it in the comments.” Another track is called DD Form 214, which is the title for the Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty for US service members. He’s an avid observer of US politics and news, and regards the spectacle with an air of sardonic amusement.
“I get the same feeling watching the news that I get when I log into Instagram, go on Instagram Live and see people cursing somebody out. It’s like the same fuckery gland is satisfied,” he laughs. “All them n***** just be yelling at each other like ‘blah blah blah’, just talking over each other, and it’s funny ‘cause it looks exactly like rappers on Instagram Live.”
Much as Veteran finds joy in provocation, there are also moments of deep introspection and vulnerability. An interlude called Dayum in which JPEGMAFIA just chants “Damn” over and over again across a stripped back instrumental, feels particularly melancholic. It’s a reflection of his “headspace” he says. He’s been thinking about death a lot lately
“At one point, I never imagined I’d live past 18. Then I didn’t think I’d live past 21. 30 seemed impossible. So now that I’m almost 30, I guess I’m like, damn, what if I don’t get shot or something?” he muses solemnly. “I’m just gonna wither away. I just think about it every now and then. I’m gonna wither away and be nothing.”
That actually sounds kind of relaxing, I respond. I don’t know what that says about me.
“It’s just weird to think if you don’t die early, how will you die? Do you die of natural causes? What if we live to be like 200? Would you be OK with that? ‘Cause then your body would be decrepit, right?”
No, absolutely not. I hope I die at like, 75. I think that’s the sweet spot.
“I wanna live as long as I can as long as I’m healthy and shit, but if I’m old and decrepit and I can’t make music and I can’t hear…” he reflects, still hitting the vape. “If I’ve made a body of work and done enough in my life to where some kid a hundred years from now can say ‘I remember JPEGMAFIA,’ that’d be enough for me.”
Photography Assistant: Bratty Malone
Styling: Polina Gourin
JPEGMAFIA appears at Field Day, London, on 8 June