We arrived at SXSW on edge. There was, naturally, the festival buzz—welcome banners blanketed the airport's terminals, live music poured out of every bar and rooftop, and Austin's downtown had once again become a blocked-off pedestrian paradise.
But there was also a new, more sinister tension: the Texas capital is in the midst of a serial bombing scare. Suspicious packages had exploded in East Austin in the weeks leading up to SXSW, killing two. The Roots canceled their showcase after a bomb threat. And on Friday night, Austin police were bewildered when a stampede broke out downtown, after reports of loud bangs sent a crowd sprinting down 7th Street.
By the time the Pigeons & Planes and Move Forward Music show was due to start on Saturday night, the nervous energy was reaching a fever pitch. It wasn't all bad—if anything, there was an unspoken defiance in the air. Violence couldn't stop the music, and at 8 p.m., JPEGMAFIA took the stage.
Performing first at a concert is never an easy task. The biggest crowds haven't arrived, the DJ has been playing familiar hits, and the majority of people won't know your music. Artists can approach it one of two ways: ease the audience into it, or grab them by the throat. JPEGMAFIA chose the latter, immediately stomping into the crowd to create a mosh pit of one.
Listening to JPEGMAFIA's songs is like stepping into a room of heavy machinery. Glitchy, distorted, and confrontational, the sounds created by Barrington Hendricks aren't just punk or hardcore or experimental rap. He's laughing while the world burns, and has earned his last album's title (Veteran) after making gleefully discordant albums like Communist Slow Jams and Black Ben Carson. He's a military vet with a chip on his shoulder, and the stage has become a cathartic experience. And the crowd needed it, too—the festival's nervous energy disappeared into Peggy's microphone, dissipated by his howls.
It's been a while since I've been to a live show that felt like such a moment. Brockhampton's trip to New York back in 2015 might have been the last time—JPEG's performance was not only a wakeup call (we're late), it was theater. No DJ, no instruments. Just one human flinging himself across a stage, into a pile of bodies, and onto the floor. He'd jump into the crowd again and again, physically willing an 8 p.m. audience into hysterics.
JPEGMAFIA's lyrical content is raw, accusatory, and unrelenting. It asks you meet his rage with some of your own—but while a punk show might stay at high level of fury throughout, JPEG and his excellent Veteran is too fidgety stay in one place. Songs like "1539 N. Calvert" and "I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies" are intricate musical labyrinths, and the latter provided an iconic "Fuck Morrissey" chant on Saturday night.
Midway through JPEG's set, I heard a voice in the crowd compare his sounds to the trendy, blown-out production of XXXTENTACION and Smokepurpp. And while Peggy's production meets that criteria, there's a vital difference. While music about getting fucked up will always have a place in my heart, JPEG provides a visceral alternative to raps about guns, drugs, and money. They make appearances in his lyrics, but he also has a laundry list of deeper cultural questions to discuss.
Like his Twitter handle suggests, JPEG is here to shock and provoke. Aside from jagged hits like "Libtard Anthem," there are songs called "Macaulay Culkin" and "Whole Foods"—for all his experimentation, JPEGMAFIA is a fountain of pop culture culture references. But that doesn't mean he's happy about the way things are going, a sentiment crystallized in the scathing "Williamsburg."
That agitation is central to the live show, too. The pain is real, and JPEG fully commits to it—even though it might make people in the audience feel a certain way when he's screaming about pussy crackers. But when the person screaming those lyrics is flat on his stomach in the middle of the crowd, vulnerable and wild-eyed, it's a work of art.
Veteran is his fourth studio album, and it's becoming a breakthrough moment for the Baltimore-based artist. But shows like last Saturday's prove that JPEGMAFIA has already made it in one big way: he's made an excellent album, and knows how to translate its intensity into an unforgettable live show.