[17 July 2014]
RiFF RaFF is a little like Lana Del Rey. Not in terms of musical style, of course, except maybe that they both exist in strange little corners of the pop music ballroom and have managed to captivate our collective attention quickly enough to throw them both into the limelight. The obvious difference is that she moved seven million copies of her 2012 breakout Born to Die while he has a loyal cult following, that’s rapidly expanding, who religiously absorb his mixtapes. But the similarities are there too. They’re both mysterious, intriguing and hip post-rock star strangers that we have trouble gauging a level of seriousness from. They’re both able to successfully troll, sometimes satirically, society pretty well. They both make fun of their fans (see her hipster smashing session “Brooklyn Baby” and his bro-bashing opening track on this album, “Introducing the Icon”). He may be extroverted and probably just the right amount of insane while She’s sort of introverted and keeps us guessing at every turn. But, one thing’s for sure, we’re paying attention to both of them.
Let’s quickly recap RiFF RaFF: He’s a 32-year-old rapper from Houston, has the MTV logo tattooed on his neck, released a live album of AC/DC covers and is possibly the winner of Twitter. Also, James Franco’s character in Spring Breakers was based on him, no matter what Harmony Korine or anyone else says. He also seems to give approximately negative-three fucks what anyone thinks about him. And, if your memory of really trashy reality shows is in check, you’ll remember him in MTV’s From G’s to Gents. Somewhere along the way, he caught the attention of MTV VJ/comedian/rapper/the-guy-who-is-in-too-many-Scary Movie-sequels Simon Rex, who formed the rap trio Thee Loco with RiFF RaFF and Andy Milonakis.
So, is it an act? Who cares. That’s not important right now. We’ve already talked about this enough and it probably won’t determine how long his success lasts. The whole act—or possibly being born to be that kind of crazy—may have helped to get him this far, but the novelty will wear off. The only thing, at this point, that will be able to keep him relevant is rapping. Which brings us to Neon Icon, his sophomore full-length and major label (Mad Decent) debut.
The guy can freestyle. He can make a viral video. He can rule at Vine. His nostalgia-heavy egomania can capture the minds of millennials. But can he make a decent, cohesive rap album? The answer is yes, with a little help from his friends. While Neon Icon puts his strong suit of patching together some of the most ridiculous, syrupy verses front and center, the album’s anchors are the big, catchy choruses that hold everything together, many of which are from guests. Mac Miller and Childish Gambino both sneak in, each steal a verse and make you realize they were obvious selections to be in on this. But, what about the man of the hour, the Rap Game… whatever he’s calling himself these days. Well, he shows that he’s a lot more versatile than we expected.
After making fun of the demographic of fans that ironically like him on the opening track “Introducing the Icon”, he reminds us of that signature stream-of-consciousness whirlwind of wild references, stringing together drugs, diamonds, the NBA, girls, kung fu, being the “Rap Game Jonny Bench/Randy Moss”, Orion’s Belt, Bill Cosby, fructose, hover crafts, his boss Diplo, this album and probably at least 15 random things I missed after listening to the song five times. After the king of the ADD Internet rapper-era gets done flexing, he shows his rock chops with “Kokayne”, a rollicking, incredibly catchy banger about sniffing the night away. Since summer jams are a thing again, this has my vote.
“Tip Toe Wing in My Jawwdinz” is an ominous slowroller with a beat that will get stuck in your head. In “Aquaberry Dolphin” he says, “I could freestyle to a dolphin and a tambourine” with the sound of a dolphin laughing in the background. “Time” is surprisingly serious lonely confession. A lot of how much we actually like an album has a lot to do with the expectations we had for it before we hear it. If you knew what you were getting into, he surpassed the bar you set for this record. And, the bottom line is that you walk away with a pretty solid collection and the realization that RiFF RaFF probably isn’t going to fade away.
So, the guy’s not going to be the next Tupac. We already knew this. So, he’s an absurd human being that might be fucking with us. These things happen. Not everything is about making art, because at the end of the day he still has talent. It’s okay to just like him because he’s funny, clever and weird. Breath. Life will go on. For now, all of his haters need to just give the thing a listen.