by Lucas Fink
The opening minute of “Baby I’m Bleeding”, the fifth track off of experimental hip-hop artist JPEGMAFIA’s sophomore album Veteran, assails the listener with a sampled fragment of a digitized female voice. The sample is nightmarish and mind-numbing, conjuring images of a malfunctioning Siri or Alexa whose mindless, incoherent techno-babble pours forth ceaselessly, even as one powers off the iPhone or pulls the plug. It is under and against this smothering robotic vomit that a human voice emerges, first as groans of exhausted frustration and soon crescendoing to screams of impotent rage: “FUCK!”. The source of these cries is someone tired, someone psychically fractured and spiritually bruised such that powerless expressions of anger become gasps for air, become the only means of moral preservation and safeguards of one’s sanity against the nameless thing: the kafkaesque horror of technocratic late-capitalism. The first “FUCK!” is followed by a second, more emphatic “FUCK!”; both of them are the FUCK’s of the generations brought up in this desolate cultural wasteland; they are the FUCK’s of postmodernity; they are the voice of our age.
At the heart of every JPEGMAFIA song is this tension between the authentic/organic and the inauthentic/unnatural, the individual yearning for freedom and fulfillment amidst an atomized digital hellscape and the all-absorbing, amorphous, unnameable power producing this hellscape. This conflict, which plays out more explicitly in Veteran (look no further than “Baby I’m Bleeding”), takes on a new, somewhat subtler form in the artist’s latest project All My Heroes Are Cornballs. Here, JPEGMAFIA often cynically assumes the voice of the inauthentic/unnatural, a tactic beautifully exemplified by the chorus of “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot”. In the verses, Peggy oppositionally addresses the inauthentic directly as a personified character whom he later becomes in the chorus; this character is the cultural phenomenon of the “Instagram Thot”.
Is there a more beautiful embodiment of self-commodification and digital exhibitionism than the Instagram Thot? I should be clear that, in using that term, I refer to anyone of any gender who could be said to enthusiastically engage in the construction of a digital image of oneself. I should point out too that it is not possible to have an Instagram account without engaging in public performance; that is the fundamental purpose of the medium. However, there are those who embrace the medium more thoroughly and, by extension, embrace the creation of an idealized simulation of a person who doesn’t really exist. I must also point out that one should not describe Instagram Thots as having had some moral failure; the medium is deliberately structured to heavily incentivize Thot behavior.
It is no surprise, then, that JPEGMAFIA chooses as his personified representation of the inauthentic, unnatural, impersonal forces of techno-capital one of the foremost victims of such forces: the Instagram Thot. Instead of raging against the unnameable thing as in “Baby I’m Bleeding”, he plays the role of the individual who is made to internalize and perpetuate it. He offers a performance of one who performs.
Though Peggy assuming the identity of a hyperreal digital phantom could be read as a cynical comedic contrivance, which is a justified position to take, I would argue comedy is only a small fraction how this mechanic actually operates. When honestly listened to, the high-pitched auto-tuned wails cease to register as merely bitter and sarcastic, instead taking on a much more melancholic tone, one of deeply sad hopelessness. Again, JPEG is not fighting anymore, for he has become; he is now a part of, not apart from. Though he resents his condemnation to the “within”, his only means of expressing this resentment are mournful howls in internet-speak. There is nothing that can be said that is truly “without”, that is actually subversive and disruptive. In fact, things intended to be subversive and disruptive just enable further cultural homogenization and, hence, hegemonization, as we are now inside a system of perfect absorption, of endless recuperation. When faced with such a system, acts of “resistance” just end up expanding the field of ideological domination. Screams and FUCK’s mean nothing anymore; they are subject to the same cycle of appropriation and commodification to which every other cultural artifact is.
The album opens with a candid recognition of this predicament, of “being trapped”, as communicated by the first track’s title “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot”. However, as the project progresses, the tone shifts from a sad futility to a sad, yet contented, acceptance, embodied by tracks like “Free the Frail”, whose chorus features despondent admissions of Peggy’s powerlessness: “This shit is out of my hands”. And, in the stunning final minute of “Post Verified Lifestyle”, the beat and Peggy’s raspy, moaning vocals abruptly drop away as a beautifully sampled segment of Taylor Swift’s “Delicate” floats faintly over a bed of lush, quiet synths and tentative electronic pan-flutes; amongst this soft, ethereal harmony, a Playstation loading-screen sound effect arises, not as an interruption but as a gift extended to us by this dreamy, contemplative soundscape. It is as if whatever creative force behind what we’ve been listening to has finally found peace. This incarnation of JPEGMAFIA has no mouth, and no longer must he scream. Together, we reach contentment: existing as formless digital phantasms, wafting serenely through a realm of hollow simulacra, grieving no more the land left behind.