Jpegmafia x Danny Brown: Scaring the Hoes review – mind-melting maelstrom from rap’s outer limits
There are umpteen ways to promote your forthcoming album, but the route taken by Danny Brown feels unique. This week, before the release of his joint album with Jpegmafia, a fellow dweller on hip-hop’s left field and self-styled spokesperson for “eccentric Black people … who grew up in the projects but listen to Throbbing Gristle”, Brown invited his collaborator to join his set at Austin’s SXSW festival and then announced that he himself was entering rehab: “Honestly, my dumb ass is supposed to have been gone, but I’m broke so I gotta do shows to take my ass in.” He also apologised to the audience for having written “so many songs about doing drugs” – a category in which you could presumably include Scaring the Hoes’ Fentanyl Tester and Where Ya Get Ya Coke From – and told them to enjoy partying at the festival, but added the caveat that, if they did, “shit could get dark”.
You could have taken this as a joke: just scan Scaring the Hoes’ tracklisting, where you’ll find songs called Steppa Pig and Jack Harlow Combo Meal. But it didn’t sound like one – Brown also said something similar on his podcast – and it certainly makes sense when you listen to the album itself. There are plenty of exceptionally funny lyrics (the opening line, delivered by Jpegmafia, is impossibly winning: “First, fuck off, Elon Musk”). But it’s hard to get around the fact that it sounds like music made by minds at the end of their tether.
The closest comparisons for their sound aren’t the tracks the duo recorded for Brown’s 2019 album uknowhatimsayin but the more out-there moments of Jpegmafia’s recent oeuvre (2020’s Covered in Money! or the previous year’s Jpegmafia Type Beat) or, indeed, what might happen if someone decided Jpegmafia’s more out-there moments could do with amping up a little.
Both rappers are blessed with distinctive styles – Brown’s voice is a nasal yowl that probably precludes him ever entering the mainstream – but it’s often hard to work out what they’re actually saying, their rhymes fighting to be heard above a hyperactive, distortion-caked maelstrom that leaves even the briefest track feeling like it’s teeming with sound: vocals sped up to helium chatter (including at one juncture, the chorus of Kelis’s Milkshake); video game synthesisers, trebly and piercing; Japanese chants and female voices screaming “shut the fuck up”; vast brass fanfares that sound as if they were ripped from the soundtrack of an old Hollywood epic; skronky free-blowing sax; the sound of DJs scratching and spinning back records; rudimentary guitar riffs warped to sludge.
The rhythms – among them a fierce drum’n’bass break on Fentanyl Tester – don’t so much punch through the mix as obliterate everything else. The second half of the album calms down a little, but such things are relative: Kingdom Hearts Key somehow contrives to make a sample of some recumbent, acoustic guitar-driven indie sound oddly overwhelming; God Loves You does something similar to a euphoric gospel disco chorus, while on Jack Harlow Combo Meal, you’re lured in by the sound of mellow jazzy piano only for it to be suddenly marooned over beats that don’t quite fit rhythmically, adding a sickly lurch.
The lyrics, when you can make them out, feel similarly frantic: hyperactive splurges of bragging, sex rhymes, references to online culture (cryptocurrency, cancellation, fitness influencers) and druggy overindulgence of the kind familiar from Brown’s back catalogue, in which intoxicants are seldom an aid to partying, more a means of nihilistic obliteration. “I’m weed whack, I’m a stand up,” he says on Burfict!, as though the latter is an endeavour requiring considerable effort.
Related: Radical rapper Jpegmafia: ‘Black people have things to be mad about’
The end result is the dictionary definition of not for everybody – “how are we supposed to make money off this shit?” Jpegmafia protests on the title track; “where the autotune at?” complains Brown – but that notwithstanding, it wields a strange power. You might think Scaring the Hoes would be best sampled in small doses, but that’s the weird thing about it. It’s music that you don’t listen to so much as allow yourself to be overwhelmed by. Once you do, it becomes curiously addictive, not least because it’s incredibly inventive: you keep wondering what on earth the pair are going to throw at you next. There’s a sense in which it feels like a dead end – you can’t imagine them sustaining this kind of intensity for a follow-up, and perhaps that’s just as well, given Brown’s announcement about rehab and his state of mind. But as a transmission from the outer limits – smart but chaotic, funny but disturbing – Scaring the Hoes is a confounding victory.
This week Alexis listened to
Let’s Eat Grandma – From the Morning
From a forthcoming Nick Drake tribute album, the conjunction of artist and song looks weird on paper, but works perfectly, transforming the original’s battered optimism into stately synth melancholy.