neon-icon1[xrr rating=2.5/5]Riff Raff defies definition. More personality than performing artist, Raff is unlike any other rapper to cross the hip-hop spectrum. He emerged from a post-reality show sewer and came out the other end bedazzled in glistening jewelry. Here, his 15 minutes of fame are teased out to a full length album and at the end of the record’s 48 minute runtime, the listener is left with an even more puzzling image of an artist astray and a project gone awry.

Born out of our celebrity-obsessed, 24-hour-news cycle culture, it can be a challenge to get to the heart of the artist and the art itself. He is intentionally obfuscating of his biographical details, and he brushes aside questions of his life prior to becoming “Riff Raff.” This includes his short-lived appearance on “From G’s to Gents,” despite a glaring MTV tattoo on his neck.

And though TV is where he got his start (he also has a large BET tattoo), he is clearly of the internet. His free-associative freestyles and hashtag punchlines are tailor-made for Twitter, where he has more than one million followers. His off-the-cuff musings and outlandish visual style come to life on Vine, where his six-second creations have been looped 48 million times by his 700,000+ followers. If he did not already exist, the internet would have had to create him.

This framework is essential background to understanding Neon Icon. Even if a casual listener were on the sidelines for the “art versus artifice” debate, they would confront the issue off the top in the album’s introduction (“Introducing the Icon”), which features a screed from a pair of bros talking excitedly about the record dropping before delving into a story about a nip slip from a frat party.

Soon though, Raff is going in over a spiky beat, sounding every bit like an actual rapper, perhaps positioning the album’s first voices as superficial listeners that can’t quite grasp the depth of his material. Thankfully, the discussion is put temporarily on hold as he digresses into Dadaist diversions. “Ice real cool/ Top lip frostbit” he rhymes promisingly. “‘Cause now I write Clark Gable on my cable bill / Bill Cosby on my couch out in Nashville.” Here, Riff Raff’s Rubik’s cube rhymes are in all their glory, twisting at odd angles and spinning brightly. Unfortunately, this is one of the highest points of the record, as his candy-colored joy-ride goes downhill soon thereafter.

Second track “Kokayne” is a fast-paced guitar-driven ode to “the rice”. As a vehicle for Raff’s crazy couplets, it works just fine. As an actual song, it feels out of place as the second track on an album. Indeed it serves as a sort of a signifier of the jukebox piñata he seeks to smash, and the radio-play party he seeks to crash. Like the coke addict he references, he’ll seemingly do anything to score a hit.

These ill-fated crossover attempts are commonplace. “Maybe You Love Me” is a beyond-generic ballad, featuring an insipid chorus from Mike Posner. “Time” sounds like a song Bubba Sparxxx would’ve have sent back for sounding too cliché, as the banjo-backed beat does Raff’s faux-rural affectations no favors. On “VIP Pass to My Heart,” one hopes that Raff’s tongue is firmly in his cheek in between electro-crooning choruses. Otherwise, yikes.

There are highlights though, mostly when he ditches the genre grab bag and plays to his strength of throwing his vocal jabs over tough trap beats. He sounds perfectly at ease stomping over “Wetter than Tsunami” when he comes into the club “smelling like Miami”, and also when subsequently soft-shoeing on top of the trippy “Tip Toe Wing in My Jawwdinz.” When he talks about being a “white Danny Glover” and “rap game Uncle Ben, pulling rice out the oven” on “How to Be the Man” it just feels right.

However it begs the question, if the best Riff Raff tracks are his usual YouTube yeoman’s work, did we even need an album? Especially if the album puts Raff’s limitations on full display?

Perhaps the answer lies in “Cool It Down,” the lone experiment that seems to succeed. Featuring a beat by Mad Decent head honcho Diplo and the calming croon of Amber Coffman (Dirty Projectors), we get a genuine mix of laid-back party atmosphere with genuine sentimentality. “They wanna tell you what you can’t do based on former facts,” he raps. “If I wanted to hear that bullshit, I’d be in history class/If I’d have been around you five minutes, I’d need a six pack/ If I would’ve listened to your bitch ass I wouldn’t be Riff Raff.”

One of the album’s final tracks, it at last begins to provide a clearer picture of Riff Raff as the artist. Questions about his past to him are a lecture in a classroom from a teacher who couldn’t hack it. Who cares? He’s clearly out here winning. Did you not hear his mention of a lime Benz, candy-coated with the apple sauce?

Ultimately, despite a Mad Decent cosign, top-shelf production opportunities and enticing features, the record is really just Riff Raff doing his thing, for better or worse, historians and haters aside. And if that’s why you cop a Riff Raff record, you won’t be disappointed. But if one is hoping this intriguing artist is just that, an actual artist, the bar gets set a bit higher and unfortunately the record fails to match.

Let’s hope the internet culture that birthed his creative outbursts allows him some more time to refine his shine. Otherwise our ADD attention spans might just move on, our me-first cultural machinations may grind him to a powder and the neon may just burn out before its time.

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One Comment

  1. Amanda

    August 29, 2015 at 9:37 pm

    I don’t think he’s making fun of hip hop. He’s making fun of rap. I might even say he’s making fun of rap from the standpoint that ‘rap thinks it is hip hop’. Back when Soulja Boy came out with Crank Dat, rap lyrics started making some pretty big leaps as far as what makes sense. How do you ‘crank’ a robocop? Supermanning a hoe made more sense because you could visualize the sheets sticking to a girl. For Crank Dat, it came down to the definition of cranking which in retrospect sounds like ‘cranking up the stereo’. As a white female, I probably hadn’t heard enough of the original terminology ‘crank dat shit up!’ for it to have made sense. I imagine that anyone who is not deep into the culture could get lost. Both rap and hip hop can be good for chillin out but rap takes the lead for dance parties. When it really comes down to it, rap and hip hop use to be the same thing; just listen to Rapper’s Delight by Sugarhill Gang. You can’t really categorize Riff Raff into either. He is not a hip hop artist and he doesn’t take rap seriously. He is just having fun with the fact that some people listen to rap even though they don’t understand it. He is being comical by bullshitting lyrics and just rapping off the top of his head while maybe using words that don’t exist. He has taken the persona pretty far though with all the tattoos so you can’t really get mad if he is ‘making fun of rap’ because he is part of he joke.

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