Backstory: This is a piece I had a fantastic time writing with Eliamani Ismail, my friend and colleague. She’s a D.C. native and incredible writer, you can find her on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/eliamani
We wrote this after I saw a JPEGMAFIA show at our college this spring, which was during the same time I discovered Rico Nasty and had that shit on repeat. So, there’s no mention of Nasty, which I loved and included in my albums of the year list.
It got stuck in my drafts because I’m inattentive and forget to click the publish button at times so it’s long overdue. But better late than never. Thanks for reading!
My two favorite newcomers to the game hail from The D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area (DMV if yall ain’t know), and it is no coincidence. JPEGMAFIA and Rico Nasty represent divergent artistic approaches to the angst and unrest prevalent in a part of the nation where the perils of black life are frequently placed under national spotlight. Each are refreshing new purveyors of popular sounds in their respective subgenres: JPEG is a torchbearer of the experimental hip-hip movement, reminiscent of acts such as Death Grips and clipping. Rico Nasty is an exciting and refreshing femme extension of melodic post-trap, a la Asian Doll and CupcakKe.
The echoes of JPEGMAFIA and Rico Nasty’s predominant sonic backgrounds reveal themselves similarly, despite their starkly contrasted subgenres. JPEGMAFIA (affectionately referred to as Peggy) shouts creedos against gentrification, police violence, and cultural appropriation in an afropessimistic, industrial rumble. It feels to me as I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside mood Earl Sweatshirt meeting the pace of Atrocity Exhibition Danny Brown. Peggy adamantly rejects comparisons to Death Grips, the go-to example of experimentalism in hip-hop, so it feels essentialist to limit him to the label of “MC Ride Lite.” In reality, Peggy’s music is a mixture of the textures and sentiments frequently explored by DG that build his persona. When deconstructed beyond the general feel of the music, JPEGMAFIA is not just the “accessible Death Grips.” Peggy is instead an amalgamation of the experimental soundscapes and lyrical nihilism of Death Grips, clipping., or Shabazz Palaces, accelerated by higher tempo, hardcore punk feel and aggressive delivery. JPEGMAFIA transcends the Death Grips Comparison Vortex by employing a weaponized lyrical style akin to more mainstream emcees, pushed to the pace of the experimental sound he prefers.
Rico exists in a similar position within her domain. It’s difficult to compare her to her contemporaries, as there are few more popping artists with a similar sound. Rico brings an idiosyncrasy to her field. She has the ferocity of the big name women in Hip-Hop, often reminding me of that early Nicki sound, where she would flip-flop between her New York snarl and sing-song, Barbie flow. Rico spazzes over the trap-type instrumentals melodic soundcloud rappers flock to, but her vocal presence dominates the track in ways her male peers can’t, and she manipulates her cadence more diversely than her female peers can. Cardi B represents a more traditional trap style than Rico’s punk rap, but implements a similar emphasis on vocal dynamism and direction on a track. As commanding a presence as Cardi has, she tends to stick to similar flows, lyrical devices and beats; Rico goes for more charismatic, expressive and lyrically ambiguous apparatuses than Cardi. Rico and Peggy are both talented artists and notable progeny of their inspirations, but they transcend the easy comparisons, and attack rap’s common themes and styles with a fresh style.
The common ground of the DMV is integral to the essential elements of each artist’s approach to rap. They share common struggles and frustrations, and often present them in near identical ways, daring us to test their gangsta, reminding us they keep it on em, not hesitating to smack a bitch dead in her face. When a region reaches an artistic moment, its general sound captures a common feel amongst subgenres. Where Peggy leans into the political absurdism, Rico moves towards extremes of real, tangible action. Peggy raps about assassinating politicians. Rico raps about smacking a hoe in her mouth. Both convey the same punk message through instrumental and vocal intensity. While the internet has blurred the lines of regional sound to near nonexistence, the quintessential DMV sound and its punk persists. DC was an epicenter of punk in its beginnings, producing black punk icons Bad Brains, and scores of influential acts. Both Peggy and Rico Nasty list punk rock as stylistic influences on their work. The punk sound long emanating from the area, born from the likes of Bad Brains and Minor Threat, exists today in JPEGMAFIA and Rico Nasty.
Ten years ago, Wale would flex for D.C. through homages to the Go-Go sound that still is the pulse of the region, the early years of hip-hop when my Parents were at Howard and living in the DMV in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Today, as the internet has diverged hip-hop music into trap or “rEaL RaP,” the DMV is irreverent. Anarchy is the goal of JPEGMAFIA and Rico Nasty alike: Peggy does it with low-fi, industrial beats and songs like Digital Blackface, or my personal favorite, I Just Killed a Cop and now I’m Horny. Rico does it with spiked, lime green hair and hip-hop’s take on Riot Grrrl.
My Chicago bias compels me to compare the DMV’s rise to when Drill first came out, and Chicago’s hip-hop gold rush began. For every Chief Keef, there was a G Herbo, both rapping about the realities of the Other America, accomplished through divergent artistic means. Where Sosa is a figure, the Malcolm X of Chicago’s rap movement, Herb is a storyteller, the James Baldwin of the game. Where Peggy is a radical politician, when he presents himself as marcus_garvey.jpg, Rico is a revolutionary; Assata Shakur on the run from the game, with the blade on her, ready to chop off the long arm of the law. Neither archetype can be contained, and are equally important in changing the genre.
Both musicians aim to drain the swamp of America’s –political and musical– establishment, emphasize the perils of blackness, and redefine popular hip-hop. These young stars will accomplish these goals by means of subversion. Whether you’re the Black Ben Carson or smoking Key Lime OG, if you’re bumping JPEGMAFIA or Rico Nasty, you are fighting the power.
There’s something satisfying seeing punk’s blackening as rap officially takes the throne of America’s music. Punk’s image, especially in black culture, is white. It is in many ways hip-hop’s cousin in the dismantling of the popular music status quo, but punk’s proximity to hip-hop is a result of plunder, and misrepresentation. Punk was pioneered by black artists: Bad Brains in D.C., Death in Detroit, and Pure Hell in Philadelphia being examples of the genre’s earliest acts. Rap in the internet age has very much so reappropriated punk, ranging from the maximalism and high-art ot Yeezus, to the industrial, post-everything of Death Grips, to the anti-soundcloud, Sugar Trap™ courtesy of Rico Nasty and JPEGMAFIA.