It was about 9 p.m. Saturday night, and the basement of Songbyrd was already sticky with sweat. The low, fairy-light-festooned ceiling and the sold-out, couple-hundred-deep crowd made the venue feel claustrophobic — and that was before everyone took two giant steps forward in an attempt to get as close as possible to JPEGMAFIA as he took the stage.
The need to be in physical concert was reciprocated by the rapper-producer, who spent as much of his 40-odd-minute set onstage as he did snaking his way through the mosh pit. By the end, he’d be bandanaless, in gym shorts, on the floor, pouring sweat like blood. Like the audience, it seemed as if he couldn’t have been happier.
JPEGMAFIA (or “Peggy,” as he’s known to fans) is the alias of Barrington Hendricks, 28, a Brooklyn-born, Los Angeles-based artist who made his bones in Baltimore’s DIY underground. For the past few years, he has churned out albums full of impishly political noise rap, clattering, industrial percussion, distorted samples and speaker-shredding bass. His music makes the low fidelty, in-the-red sound of “SoundCloud rappers” seem lame and tame, and on Saturday, it was even more ragged and raw than on record, straining Songbyrd’s song system as he screamed his way through the set, huffing for air between songs.
Lyrically, Peggy is a provocateur, taking shots at the reactionary right and the hypocritical left in equal measure, trolling to make a larger point about the mind-reeling status quo, like when he rapped, “I might vote for Donald Trump just to say I did it.” For JPEGMAFIA, it seems as if Trump is too easy a target, so he also took potshots at Drake, Eminem, Johnny Rotten, blogs, fans and image-board website 4chan, among others, saving most of his vitriol for former Smiths frontman Morrissey, who has spent the last decade revealing his conservatism and trolling the Internet. “I’m tired of threatening,” he said before performing a song whose title is about how he cannot wait until Morrissey dies. “It’s time for action.”
For all the violence in his lyrics, music and performance, there is catharsis and even affection. JPEGMAFIA is a uniter, not a divider, bringing together millennials and Gen Zers, no matter race, gender or sexuality. Between songs, he gabbed with the audience about rap’s beef du jour, joked about his receding hairline and made sure everyone was hydrated. Most of all, he was “genuinely surprised” people like his music, noting how he was performing to empty rooms until just a year ago. “I come out here and kill myself every ... night,” he admitted, “because I love each and every one of you.” On Saturday, the feeling was mutual.