JPEGMAFIA’s All My Heroes Are Cornballs rides on the success of his 2018 effort Veteran. The same motifs, tools and ad-libs set the scene again as MAFIA traces back his anguish, trauma and anxiety in his characteristically murky, comical lo-fi rap. His signature “you think you know me” line tags nearly every track, circling back to an ever-persistent theme of there being more pain and truth beneath one’s surface persona. Much like his former releases, All My Heroes conveys his trauma as a veteran, with imagery of bullets and mental turmoil scattered across the tracks. But don’t let this fool you into thinking this album is a Veteran 2.0.
“It was funny to me,” MAFIA said of Veteran’s success in an interview with Billboard. “It was interesting seeing people react to something I made in a private time, having them attach weird, preconceived notions onto it that that aren’t real.” Veteran presented itself at a point in MAFIA’s career in which he took a turn towards more personal work. Operating in the experimental underground rap scene for years, MAFIA never expected Veteran to explode onto the mainstream rap charts. “There was nothing indicating it would be anything else. I’m glad it did receive the reaction it did, though. That was a blessing.”
MAFIA is haunted by the same troubles he was 18 months ago, from being a former soldier to his mental state and aspirations for his career. This time around, however, a lot of it is muffled under his newfound popularity since Veteran. This is projected into a lot of All My Heroes songs, a dense 18-track project cut from the 93 that MAFIA created since Veteran — with these, it’s clear that fame doesn’t afford the same ease as being an underground Baltimore rapper.
“Beta Male Strategies” follows this narrative directly. Not apparent from the get-go, this song serves as a clap-back to Twitter trolls who trash MAFIA’s work and character without having a true scope of either one. He directly shifts from telling off his haters to “say what you said on Twitter right now” to proclaiming “Young PEGGY, I’m a false prophet / Bringing white folks this new religion” in reference to his embrace from publications like Pitchfork. A tried-and-true theme in the rap scene, but unlike any other artist, MAFIA manages to create a comedic bend, audibly chewing food as he recites “Ain’t no details / Ain’t no conversation” onto a beautiful, hazy synth-wave intro.
Sentiments on MAFIA’s potential to disappoint haters are mimicked from Twitter throughout the entire album. “Post Verified Lifestyle” most directly taps into this energy, computer-mouse clicks ringing in the bare, bouncy lo-fi intro. MAFIA, however, follows in with hard hitting vocals, his imagery oscillating on a blurred continuum of gunshots and internet activity. “I’m treatin’ this bitch like a cuck, brrt, MAC, loadin’ it up,” he spits in the first verse.
Sonically speaking, All My Heroes shudders through hard-hitting samples and keyboards to sheer twinkling, plucking synths and flutes. Never a sparse or stable moment, the album toys with our expectations as it deftly cuts back between the rougher MAFIA we met on Veteran to a softer, subdued version introduced to us on All My Heroes Are Cornballs. It’s most impressive when it morphs our perception of sound, the imperceptible pitching, coughs and sighs, gun ad-libs and looped samples subtly coloring the entire experience. This, strangely enough, ties the entire album together, shading the chaotic beat shifts and sporadic vocal outbursts well under the amplified glitchy beats and scratchy instrumentals.
This blurry concept unfolds and pairs well thematically. Though certainly far from a concept album, it forms itself on top of references that blend well into one another and amplify the messages carried by the sound. “PTSD” aptly conveys this. It’s MAFIA at his most exasperated, as he raps about his mental state. Its intro beat mimics the sound of multiple gunshots firing at once after an echoing narrator recites “Don’t stop” over and over again under sheer keyboards. Snapshots that paint individual songs like this carry on throughout others to generate a more cohesive feel. Notably, “Grimy Waifu”, a track that seemingly harkens back to your favorite anime intro from 2014, proves itself to be less about a potential love interest and more about his relationship to a weapon of some sort, the metaphor constantly evolving between his ideas about his job to those about war and racism. We find a similar effect even in brief references to guns in other songs’ verses, whether a gunshot sounding ad-lib or a reference to him stuffing a glock in his pocket.
At the thematic core of the album is the track “Kenan vs. Kel.” A direct reference to the iconic ’90s sitcom “Kenan & Kel,” the song unfolds as a combat between two sides that should be working together. It features the most effortless beat shift of the entire album and ties in nearly all of its themes and ideas. It harkens back to the female perspective introduced to us on lead single “Jesus Forgive me, I Am A Thot.” Through constant references to being a “thot,” MAFIA communicates his unwillingness to conform to society’s standards for his music and persona. With some of the album’s most creative bars, it manages to tie in images of him as “Prince Peach” in the Mario franchise while conveying messages on nonconformity and unwillingness to appeal to white people.
At its most deft and creative, All My Heroes Are Cornballs succeeds in its capacity to tie in themes, motifs and imagery into a central motif. In a way that Veteran couldn’t, it guides and scolds the persona of JPEGMAFIA known to the public by bouncing off of Twitter references and his more elaborate fashion choices that lead to the Heroes era. This brings us closer to a MAFIA who transfers every emotion and idea abstractly into his music in a way that casual listeners and, more importantly, haters will never understand. By striving for a true, unique and personal take, JPEGMAFIA manages to convey more about himself as an artist and appeal to fans without sacrificing his originality.