Midnight Sun Wesley Case covers the city's after-hours scene

Onetime Baltimore rapper JPEGMAFIA uses music to make a statement — and take on Trump

In the arresting video for “Man Purse,” some shots feature the song’s rapper and producer, JPEGMAFIA, standing still, staring into the camera. Others present an animated performer, exhaling smoke and crouch-dancing in a corner.

In motion or not, JPEGMAFIA strikes a transfixing figure. His presence — synchronized with the track’s dank, crawling production and the rapper’s unpredictable delivery — demands attention.

Released in June, the track is JPEGMAFIA’s version of a protest song against the Trump administration. He often raps with his tongue against his cheek, and usually avoids spelling things out plainly, but in the second verse, his target crystallizes: “When was this country so great? / Tyrant with a toupee.”

“Everything I say is true and from the heart. I exaggerate some things, but the core base of it is just facts,” JPEGMAFIA said on the phone, sitting in Los Angeles traffic last week. “I’m going to shock you with the truth. I’m just going to give it to you raw, and however you take it, I’m just going to watch your reaction.”

Despite moving to Los Angeles a couple months ago to further pursue his career as a musician, JPEGMAFIA — born Barrington Hendricks, but goes by JPEG and Peggy — identifies as a Baltimore artist. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native only lived here for a couple of years, but it’s where he became an artist in earnest, creating songs in his Upton basement and uploading them online. So he’s looking forward to his return on Saturday, when JPEGMAFIA opens for Shabazz Palaces at the Ottobar.

“When you leave Baltimore, you see that exactly — that there’s nowhere like it,” he said. “I’ve been a lot of places around the world. I can confidently say that that’s home for me.”

He has lived in Alabama, Louisiana and Japan — among other places, due in part to a four-year stint in the Air Force — and was considering New York before arriving in Baltimore in 2015. His sister already lived in the area, and he noticed the growing internet presences of Baltimore artists like Abdu Ali and Butch Dawson, who were forging their own do-it-yourself rap scene here.

“It just seems like Baltimore, talent-wise, nothing can touch it,” he said.

Years before, JPEGMAFIA first fell in love with the flashy early-aughts rap crew the Diplomats. He began making beats at 14, and was rapping over them a few years later. He loved Cam’ron’s deadpan jokes and tongue-twisting boasts, but wanted to rap about society and the world, and the things that bothered him.

Then he discovered a former member of N.W.A. known for his unapologetic politics, sharp wit and sharper tongue.

“I thought I would be seen as corny for” rapping about bigger issues, JPEGMAFIA said. “When I heard Ice Cube, I was like, ‘That’s it, right there.’ It’s confrontational.”

Inspired by Ice Cube and Public Enemy, JPEGMAFIA has continued to hone his sound over three albums and an EP with Baltimore rapper Freaky (“The 2nd Amendment”). He counts the ‘70s experimental industrial group Throbbing Gristle from England as one of his biggest influences. The disorienting results often feel simultaneously unhinged and meticulously constructed, as the rapper calls outs injustices and hypocrites — himself included — in clipped spurts and full-throated yells.

On last year’s “Black Ben Carson,” an album that led to some national publicity, he raps through vocal filters, haze and noise, and the end product is an unsettling but enthralling 22-track listen.

Yet it was a song released a few months later, in the heat of the presidential primaries, that garnered JPEGMAFIA the most attention.

The video for “I Might Vote 4 Donald Trump” shows JPEGMAFIA rapping the title in a suburban cul-de-sac while holding a pro-Trump poster. The song is an exercise in absurdity, he said, raising a possibility that seemed too ludicrous at the time to come to fruition.

“We were like, ‘Yo, I can’t believe you can vote for Donald Trump,’ ” said JPEGMAFIA. “The guy from ‘The Apprentice’! The dude with the hair! It was just such a joke that it became funny.”

In reality, the naturally left-leaning artist said he voted for Hillary Clinton, and described Trump’s presidency so far as “objectively bad.”

There will be plenty more material to unpack from JPEGMAFIA this fall. He hopes to release his fourth album, “Veteran,” on his 28th birthday, Oct. 22, via L.A. label Deathbomb Arc. Most of it was recorded in Baltimore, and he’s putting the finishing touches on it in California.

Choosing to keep details close to the vest, JPEGMAFIA said those expecting the harsh, noisy sonic atmospheres of his recent output will be disappointed.

“The rawness, it’s all still there,” he said. “But I’ll say this: There’s melody on it. There’s more things going on that are kind of prettier than ‘Black Ben Carson.’”

While JPEGMAFIA loves writing and performing (“Expect a fool,” he says of his live shows), production is his first love. He hopes to one day do it exclusively, leaving the rapping behind.

“I just feel like the beats are better off alone sometimes,” he said.

But not yet, since his work behind the boards still need a voice to convey what the drums and basslines can’t. His will have to do.

“Some of these beats need me to say something on top of it,” JPEGMAFIA said. “Kendrick Lamar is 10-times the rapper I am, but I just feel I’m the best at getting my own point across.”

If you go

JPEGMAFIA performs Saturday at the Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St., Remington. Shabazz Palaces, Porter Ray, Bobbi Rush and Station North Sadboi will also perform. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. Call 410-662-0069 or go to theottobar.com.

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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