The Baltimore polymath champions the anti-aesthetics in his new single.
Posted: 4 June 2020 Words: Miles Ellingham

“Poor images are the contemporary Wretched of the Screen, the debris of audio visual production, the trash that washes up on the digital economies’ shores”, writes German theorist Hito Steyerl, in defence of AVIs, JPEGs and PNGs, “(they) show the rare, the obvious, and the unbelievable...”  Though Steyerl writes specifically in the context of digital images, the philosophy is just as redolent in the music, aesthetic, and whole vibe of Barrington DeVaughn Hendricks, better known JPEGMAFIA.

Watching Hendricks do his thing feels like watching a symphony on a Nokia 5200; there’s a joy behind his questioning of popular aesthetics, opting instead for a type of anti-aesthetic, where everything becomes blurred, ripped and mass-distributed.  His new single ‘CUTIE PIE!’ does precisely this. Its beat, though rendered fuzzy and compressed, is nonetheless complex, drifting in an out of itself, utilising a wide range of samples plucked from a faraway vapour wave. 

Lyrically, JPEGMAFIA is busy giving the game away, almost creating a manual for cultivating the same digital Asphodel Fields he himself enjoys.  It’s a manual full of trade tools, prompts, pornographic and political reflections – all underpinned by a resentment towards the industry itself; “You niggas trash still slavin' away on Sylenth Matter of fact you slaves no matter who niggas sign with.”  The lyrics also make reference to various historical influences, typically black American singer-songwriters such as Phyllis Linda Hyman or Peabo Bryson.  Sometimes Hendrick even dips into the weeds as an engineer and tell you straight up how to do it yourself, “Muddy low end and you over-compressin' / cause you don’t know what you doin’, so you be stackin’ it / Don’t know the difference between threshold and attackin’ it.” 

Most important in my view, is how Hendricks sees digital culture.  The video sees the man himself dancing aimlessly in a desert rendered in ungodly low resolution.  The image of the desert, in its purest sense, tilts the track into the realm of metaphor, into simulacrum, distilling the vastness and immediacy of how we see music into what Baudrillard or the Wachowskis might call a ‘Desert of the Real’.  JPEGMAFIA knows the cultural world is rapidly shrinking onto our screens, with thumbnails where concert halls used to be, so why shouldn’t he commandeer some of it for himself, collect that sweet protection money? JPEGMAFIA is more than a musician, he’s an arbiter of our age. 

'CUTIE PIE!' is out now. Click here to listen to more from JPEGMAFIA.

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