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JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown are here to blow up your function

Rappers Danny Brown (left) and JPEGMAFIA embrace their abrasive sides on <em>Scaring the Hoes</em>, a joyously chaotic collaboration glued together by JPEG's collage-like production.
Carlo Cavaluzzi
Courtesy of the artist
Rappers Danny Brown (left) and JPEGMAFIA embrace their abrasive sides on Scaring the Hoes, a joyously chaotic collaboration glued together by JPEG's collage-like production.

On the rap internet, "scaring the hoes" has become code for a certain type of hip-hop: anything abrasive or weird or super-lyrical, designed for repeat close listening. More broadly, the phrase has evolved into a euphemism for any rap considered unfit for a party or similar social setting. To play Death Grips at the function is to scare the hoes. Born from a meme of existential non sequiturs, the distinction is less about what women might actually enjoy listening to casually and more about guys missing common cues, not understanding that there is a time and a place for a specific kind of artist, one that might disrupt the natural flow of a gathering, or worse: something so intrusive or annoying that the most important patrons might leave.

JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown are easy first-round picks for this category — craft-first eccentrics with singular catalogs that demand some recalibration of the ear. But on their new collaboration, it's clear the two rappers see that innocuous plea to simply let the Rap Caviar playlist run as something more sinister: a capitulation to homogenous, mass-produced music, fodder for revelers who couldn't begin to care about the form. Their mission is laid out flat on Scaring the Hoes' title track, with Brown pantomiming the breathless exploitations of a money-grubbing music executive: "Said it ain't about the bars 'cause it's all about the brand / Say it ain't about the art, 'cause it's all about the fans / Give a f*** about a fan, put the money in my hand." In response, the pair of MCs agree to embrace the pejorative as a challenge, delivering a hyperactive album that is as gratifying as it is overloaded, a truly jarring and yet refreshingly in-your-face display of restorative rap that refuses to go unheard.

Blaxploitation is a familiar influence for both JPEG and Brown, and the album's cover art invokes those aesthetics with a direct tribute to the 1973 film Sweet Jesus, Preacherman. But the music is even truer to the hallmarks of those movies: independently produced, conspicuously low-budget and gleefully transgressive. In this case, the pulp indicators are digital: the Nextel chirp and the default iMessage notification tone, Nintendo and Sega video game sounds, clips from obscure YouTube tutorials. JPEG produced the album on the SP-404, a sampler that has become a favorite for producers at live shows, and it gives the music an almost collage-like texture. The samples sound distorted, out of focus. The vocal flips, sourced from across an eclectic soundboard — Diddy's "I Need A Girl (Pt. 2)," NSYNC's "Gone," Kelis' "Milkshake," the anime The Vision of Escaflowne, a tourism commercial for Hokkaido — often morph to reveal a secondary form like a shonen protagonist. Unlike JPEG's understated last album, LP! (which he also produced, mixed and mastered himself), Scaring the Hoes is defiantly garbled, turning a squawking Dirty Beaches outtake into a brutalist rap flamenco on the title track or giving lounge-room jazz a raver feel on "Jack Harlow Combo Meal." All the while, its co-stars negotiate these set pieces like action stunt doubles, crashing through everything in their path with aplomb.

Collaborations are often about compromise or competition. Here, JPEG approached Brown with the idea (as a longtime fan), and their arrangement doesn't force either artist to sacrifice much. Brown practices his zany pimp raps as deftly as ever, and his whiny, off-kilter flows flap through the bustling production like a tube man being pulled through a car wash. Meanwhile, JPEG is the foul-mouthed comedian onstage mocking hecklers through a megaphone, challenging any keyboard warriors smearing him to single combat. There isn't much interplay — these two aren't natural complements like Run the Jewels — but JPEG's initiative suits Brown's cavalierness well. Brown is laid back while JPEG is on guard; when Brown is alert, JPEG is on standby, and this style creates a natural pendulum-like rhythm. On "Steppa Pig," Brown pops out curtly then cedes the runway to his partner. On "Where Ya Get Ya Coke From?" it feels like JPEG is warming up for the closer. This isn't meant to be a niche, punk-rap Watch the Throne or What a Time to Be Alive. This is a pair of weirdo bachelors bum-rushing the show. This is Wedding Crashers.

Noise rap is always a confrontation, seeking to either push you to the brink or pull you in closer, and the tenor of the taunting here leans toward the latter. "You satire, camp fires to Al-Qaeda / I'm like the only lighter in Rikers," Brown raps on "Shut Yo Bitch Ass Up / Muddy Waters" in one of many verses full of numb-faced, narcotic oversharing. JPEG navigates similar signifiers from a more aggrieved perspective: "Back in this bitch with the dope, she backin' it up for a gram / Baby, I cannot do nothing with hope, I'ma try molly and xans / Been tryna get me to ghost, boy, you ain't Kai, one twitch and you banned / 90 degrees with a coat, ho, and I ain't showin' my hands," he raps on "Steppa Pig." He's always been the cynic speaking truth to power (or trolling it), so it's fitting that he raps so much about the more colorful figures of statecraft here: There are smirking references to Hunter Biden, Ghislaine Maxwell and Matt Gaetz, and at one point a quip that the political left and right are the same. In a way, the album comes across as one epic act of s***posting.

And that, in a nutshell, may be the most clever way to play into the perception of "scaring the hoes": Create something deliberately repellent and dare the audience to stick around. Scaring the Hoes is a speaker knocker masquerading as a party ender, a super-referential album of gags and antics and innuendos with raps about gags and antics and innuendos. Criticism of late has favored talk of music that "sounds like the internet," but few recent projects can rival this one in its feed-like reproduction of context collapse and its Web 2.0-like compression of information. It has the ADHD-addled split focus and surrealist bent of hyperpop, yet it also has a grip on the online world's influence over the real one. In the span of a few minutes on "Burfict!" the duo cites r/WallStreetBets and meme stocks, shock YouTube streamer IShowSpeed and edgelord podcaster Joe Rogan, text-to-speech donations and G4's Attack of the Show! The album recycles kitsch culture into social capital until you can't tell the difference.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]