Dressed in a military green pullover, distressed name-tagged jeans and brown leather boots, JPEGMAFIA, or Peggy, as friends and family refer to him, has arrived on the campus of the University of Wisconsin for a headlining performance at UW Union South. His presence feels somewhat at odds with his surroundings, but he is also at ease.
After exchanging pleasantries, the two of us take a seat in swivel chairs inside a computer lab at one of the student unions on campus. Below us, people engage in unassuming activities: homework, bowling, eating dairy products, drinking beer.
I ask Peggy, 28, whether he cleared the heavily-used “You Think You Know Me” sample from WWE star Edge on tracks like "Real Nega," a standout track from his 2018 album Veteran. Peggy, sipping on tea with a bottle's worth of honey to restore his worn-down vocal chords, confirms he did not.
Peggy appears mildly amused by the quirks of the Midwestern space that he—a rapper and producer born in New York, formed by experiences in Alabama and the Air Force, and eventually cultivated in Baltimore’s underground scene—now finds himself in.
After four projects and dozens of shows performed for audiences of one over the past six years, Peggy is simultaneously exiting the struggle era of his career while simultaneously introducing himself to the world as a brand new artist.
“The other day someone interviewed me and they were like, ‘Man, so you’ve, like, come out of nowhere,’” Peggy says. “It’s like, nah, I’ve been doing this for so fucking long.”
It wasn’t until the release of Veteran, on January 19, that the wider audience he has long derided came calling. It could be because Veteran is Peggy's most complete project to date, a 19-track opus that finds its conductor comfortable with chaos. Or, it could have been a matter of persistence and longevity. Probably both.
Peggy currently makes his home in Los Angeles—though touring means he's rarely ever there—but he isn't ready to get comfortable. Not yet. He is all too aware of how finicky and brief a career in music can be.
“I keep the idea that I'm stable at an arm's distance,” he says. “I keep the idea that failure could be around the corner, at any moment. One day, I might wake up and n***** might decide that I'm not that dude.”
Music, Peggy says, is the only activity he loves and the only thing he's good at. He insists that he'd still perform for an audience of one, even now, but music is officially his full-time job.
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“This is it at this point. I literally have to perform every day [into next week]," he says. "I don't want to say before that I was doing it for fun as if I'm not doing it for fun now. It's [still] fun now, but it's also making sure I'm here on-time and then having fun. It's perfect because I just get to exist.”
Though now a source of income, touring provides Peggy with an outlet for personal expression, one in which, he says, fans can get the truest version of himself. He also appreciates that, like professional wrestling, blemishes can be just as impactful as near-perfection—unlike his recorded music.
“The scariest thing about the music is the things you probably think are overly-imagined are actually true," Peggy says. "Like when I say 'Got an AR built like Lena Dunham,' I'm saying I have a really big gun. But, like, I am a gun owner. It's me on the record, but it's me times ten and very distorted.”
Despite its dark appearance and its glitchiness, the music found on Veteran is carefully built and detailed. The space between the raps, where the beats are left to breathe, is a part of the storytelling. As are Peggy's often bizarre and random analogies.
"I have one line on ['1529 N. Calvert St.'] that's like ‘I need a bitch with hair like Myke C-Town,’" he says. "I put that in there because n***** always be like, 'I need a bitch like J-Lo, fat ass like J-Lo.' It's kind of a way for me to fish out certain types of people. If you hear me say, ‘I need a bitch with hair like Myke C-Town,’ and you're like, ‘This dude is fucking weird,’ then I don't really need you around.”
If there is one aspect of his work that is clear-cut, though, it’s that Peggy has always been intent on lyrically mowing down anyone and everyone on his shit list. Among the targets in his crosshairs on Veteran are the alt-right, rapists, and Tomi Lahren, but what sets Peggy apart from many of his contemporaries is his desire to go after those close to the grayer areas of morality but still on the wrong side—accused racist liberals like Lena Dunham and Bill Maher or self-proclaimed “girl pushers” who hang with dudes that beat women.
"[Those gray areas] are actually a lot of what I try to do with my music specifically," he says. "I try and get topics like that and flesh them out in records because before I did it I never heard a rapper attack liberals on records, ever. Not like I do. The closest was Ice Cube."
As we begin to wrap up our interview, the large, gray elephant in the room—Kanye West’s descent into MAGA—joins our conversation. Earlier in the day, Kanye, one of Peggy's favorite artists, professed his respect and admiration for Candace Owens.
For the first time since we took our seats, Peggy seems uncertain of how he wants to tackle the subject. An artist who almost never flinches in his music had reached an impasse.
“It’s straight fuckery,” Peggy says about Owens, who is known to pander to white conservatives who are looking for black validation. “I can’t be the dude that's still supporting [West] just because I love him."
Beyond the music, this is why JPEGMAFIA is a crucial artist in 2018. He appears both ready and willing to take action when there isn’t one clear response. But there’s also something valuable within the manner in which he forms his response. For Peggy, it’s not necessarily about right or wrong, but rather an unwillingness to be “the dude” that supports dangerous rhetoric—even if it's coming from the author of the greatest hip-hop album of the current decade.
Maybe instead of looking for the perfect right or wrong response, the definitive good or evil, we should all be asking ourselves, like Peggy, if we can stomach being "the dude."