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RiFF RAFF, ‘Neon Icon’ [ALBUM REVIEW]

Mad Decent

On Sept. 10, 2013, RiFF RAFF was exposed. Ben Westhoff, a Voice Media writer who published a 2009 book called ‘Dirty South,’ in which he finds “the genre [of Southern rap] worth defending” and suspects “animosity toward it isn’t based so much in music as in culture,” wrote an investigative piece on RiFF RAFF — “How A White Suburban Kid Morphed Into Today’s Most Enigmatic Rapper.” The opening line reads, “As a prepubescent boy in the early ‘90s, Horst Simco [RiFF RAFF] was enamored with Vanilla Ice.” It goes on to relay first-hand memories of a young RiFF RAFF as a “bookworm” and a “shy, clean-cut kid.” An old friend from Houston, now 34 years old, says, “He was nothing like he is today.”

RiFF RAFF is one of the latest in a long line of artists directly influenced by Lil’ B’s weirder-than-weirdness. RiFF RAFF’s debut studio album ‘Neon Icon’ is a mission statement — he wants to prove to dissenters that his music is not a joke, but he also wants to do more than rap music. Free-wheeling fun reigns across the LP; two rock-rap songs kick off the album, with the second one bouncing on guitar riffs and a hook about staying up all night to sniff ‘Kokayne.’ The rhymes are a bit stepped on, but the carefree chorus carries the experimental Kid Rock-esque song. He sings throughout the album and leaps from trap music (‘Wetter Than Tsunami’) to ‘70s samples (‘Lava Glaciers’) with ease, making flexibility his greatest asset.

Much of ‘Neon Icon’ drastically departs from conventional rap. ‘Versace Python’ is an uplifting electro-rap song produced by Diplo and Altira with a flawless chorus. RiFF RAFF has cited Big Moe’s ‘City of Syrup’ album as one of his favorites, and the S.U.C.-flavored sing-song style is rebooted for songs like ‘Cool It Down’ and the obvious standout, ‘Time.’

Watch RiFF RAFF’s ‘Versace Python Freestyle’

‘Time’ jacks the melody from ‘Hey There Delilah’ by Plain White T’s, and if you have no idea who that is, it’s because they’re a pop punk group. RiFF RAFF was recently quoted as saying he wants to make country music, and ‘Time’ seems to flow from that stream. He sings with a dragging Southern drawl, recounting the pain in his life as if he’s sitting on the front porch, watching tumbleweeds go by with a banjo in his hand and a jug of moonshine at his side. Music has the power to lift you out of your own shoes and let you see through the eyes of others. A somber, existential song like ‘Time’ is right on the money. Few rappers have the ability to be vulnerable in their music, but those that do — Drake, Chance the Rapper, Childish Gambino, for instance — enjoy plenty of success.

As a novelty artist, however, RiFF RAFF just doesn’t hold up over the course of an album. The LP has its fair share of misses — Mike Posner, who shows up on ‘Maybe You Love Me,’ is never a good addition to anything that isn’t an SNL skit involving stockings; ‘VIP Pass to My Heart’ is a feeble attempt at EDM; and ‘Aquaberry Dolphin’ is filler in the form of a Mac Miller advertisement. RiFF RAFF’s lyrical deficiency is made clear on the first song — across four minutes, the Deezus-produced ‘Introducing the Icon’ fails to captivate, leaning on what sound like freestyled raps without a chorus. Songs like ‘Tip Toe Wing In My Jawwdinz’ rely more on production and chorus than hard-hitting verses. It all sounds good the first one or two times, but after awhile it just becomes background music.

Yet artists like RiFF RAFF also expose a fatal flaw in rap criticism. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but rap will probably never see someone as technically gifted as Biggie, Rakim, Kool G Rap or the like again. The ceiling is set, and whether by fact or opinion, no one seems poised to match it. If we’ve already seen the very “best” of the “best,” we need something new to stay impressed and entertained. We need originality.

There has been a pseudo-obsession amongst RiFF RAFF listeners and detractors regarding whether or not he’s “serious.” It’s an odd question — do people want to know if everything he says is real? Surely any music fan even vaguely familiar with hip-hop knows not to take every lyric at face value. Does it matter if RiFF RAFF is actually dyslexic in a four-door mango Lexus? Does that line’s inability to manifest itself in real life take away from the art of the rhyme itself?

Listen to RiFF RAFF’s ‘Time’

The question of RiFF RAFF’s authenticity (honesty?) seems to hinge on his humor, which is a major draw to his work, but not a precursor for “non-serious” music. If you’re listening to his music for laughter, isn’t it obvious he’s making jokes that don’t stem from real experiences? When Dave Chappelle does a bit about hiring Paula Deen as his in-house chef, are we to believe she’s really cooking for his family every night? Not once does that puzzle a single audience member. So why are folks so distressed about RiFF RAFF, a guy with logos tattooed across his neck, a guy who was the standout class clown on MTV’s ‘From G’s to Gents,’ a guy who says in the first two tracks of ‘Neon Icon’ that he’s both the white Gucci Mane and the white Chris Rock, trying to be funny?

Perhaps it’s because his comedy comes at the expense of appropriating parts of black culture. Eminem could be accused of the same thing, but it’s his self-loathing and twisted imagination that get laughs, not his embellishment of grills and Southern slang. Yet the criticism is ultimately levied against RiFF RAFF’s obnoxious personality instead of songs like ‘Time’ and the under-appreciated ‘How to Be A Man,’ complete with DJ Mustard’s deep ocean 808s. Just because RiFF RAFF tries to be humorous doesn’t mean his body of work is a joke. Maybe people don’t like him because he’s not that funny after all.

‘Neon Icon’ follows after its name — flashy, but mostly empty. It’s the equivalent of a fashion show that only displays a couple stunning dresses. The fact that people have been and will be talking about RiFF RAFF means hip-hop is gasping for a breath of fresh air. Simco’s brand may be a little too lustrous, but at least it’s different, and that’s worth something in an era when bubbling rappers are often just stale ripoffs of their progenitors. RiFF RAFF still has a ways to go, but his risky efforts are important even if they aren’t lauded.

Watch RiFF RAFF’s ‘How to Be A Man’ Video

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