Album Review: Riff Raff’s The Neon Icon

Horst Simco loved the 2013 film Spring Breakers. He wants you to see it. He also wants 2.7 million dollars from the people who made it.

Why? Because the character Alien (played by James Franco) looks and acts uncannily similar to Simco. The filmmakers have refuted the claim, stating that Alien was inspired by multiple sources. Simco, the creator of The Golden Alien LP in 2012 (the year before Breakers was released) finds the argument hard to believe.

Simco’s rap-ego originated as “MTV Riff Raff,” and subsequently shortened to Riff Raff. It’s been a long trip to the surface of national attention for this rapper from Houston, but with the release of his first studio album Neon Icon, Riff Raff has recently been catching national attention. To the casual viewer, Riff Raff’s persona is too confusing to do anything but write off as another piece of rap industry garbage. The assessment is only fair. Critically speaking, Riff Raff is quite far from talented or eloquent. But that doesn’t mean that Riff Raff is indefensible–– in fact, there is a lot beneath the surface of Riff Raff’s work that deserves some defense.

I learned about Riff Raff like most people find out about underground personalities these days– via YouTube. I was clicking around different videos and I ended up landing on an interview with a dude who looked exactly like James Franco in Spring Breakers.

Am I a fan of Riff Raff as a musician? I don’t know, maybe? Neon Icon is fun to listen to. It hasn’t rocked my world, but I don’t necessarily hate it. My opinion about his work is meaningless, though– the reason I care about Riff Raff isn’t because he’s good at music. Believe it or not, I care about what he has to say.

In my opinion, which is pretty easy to disagree with, Riff Raff is a parody rapper. His persona is a constructed effort to make a point about modern rap.

If you disagree with me on that one, fine. But I think if you at least humor the idea that maybe Riff Raff is smarter than you think he is, you might see a deeper level of what his music is saying.

For one, the name is hard to overlook. The term riffraff is hardly a compliment— it’s most commonly used to mean “worthless, meaningless trash.” The name MTV Riff Raff only raises the specificity of who and what Riff Raff may be parodying.

He has the looks to match the name.  He sports cornrows and a grill across his teeth. His body looks like the doodling page of capitalism; he has tattoos of the BET and NBA logos on his chest and right bicep, an illustration of Bart Simpson captioned “The Freestyle Scientist,” a green dollar sign on his right arm and a big MTV logo encased in the words “Riff” and “Raff” on his neck. His beard is shaved in a thin line that squiggles all across his jaw. Riff Raff has sculpted a near-perfect image of a young man who has been entirely chewed up and spit out by American capitalism.

Riff Raff’s absurd and simple lyrics, infused with obsessive consumeristic values, continues to contribute to the rapper’s enigmatic narrative. Lines like “Step inside the club and I smell like Power Ranger” and “I’m in East Texas giving Versace swimming lessons” are commonplace in Riff Raff’s writing. He’s playful, vapid. He’s consumed by consumerism to a laughable degree.

But what makes Riff Raff’s lyricism worth noticing is that it isn’t comedy, it’s biting satire. Hip-hop today has made a complete one-eighty from the paradigms of its inception in the Bronx. Of course, there are modern performing MCs who are saying things of value and worth in their art, but hip-hop is now pop music, and pop music caters to the lowest common denominator of consumer in order to maximize economic profit. Hip-hop is stuck in a rut of over-done themes and topics, namely smoking weed, drinking, going to clubs, having grotesque wealth and hyper-sexualizing women.

Riff Raff takes these topics in his lyrics, makes them ridiculous, and constructs with them his own lyrical rut of repeated plugs for designer clothing and sports cars. Riff Raff’s most popular single, “DOLCE & GABBANA” riffs on line “Seven butt-nakeds sipping drink in my song. Only fuck with hoes who rock Dolce and Gabbana.” This single phrase highlights almost every trope of modern rap in one catchy swipe. If we are assuming that there is intention behind Riff Raff’s work, then his lyrics are actually a very poignant observation on the stupidity, shallowness and looks-obsessed American culture that hip-hop must claim a degree of responsibility for today.

The first forty seconds of “Introducing the Icon,” Riff Raff’s first song on Neon Icon, is a skit, a more light-hearted version of the skits Eminem popularized on his first two LPs in 1999 and 2000. The conversation is between two California dudes, driving down the interstate and speaking in mincing SoCal accents. Says one of the Bros: “Bro, the Neon Icon album, it seriously finally came out today… I don’t even like rappers, this is just damn Riff Raff, he’s just fucking off the chain.” In just a few playful words, Riff Raff is saying everything about where he stands in the rising tide of the white appropriation of rap.

Riff Raff’s persona and music can’t be described without the context of black culture. His appearance is laced with  cartoonish, traditionally black masculinity. His music is riddled with explicit reminders that he is a white rapper in a black culture, calling himself the “white Eddie Murphy,” “white Danny Glover,” and “white Warren Sapp.” While most white rappers generally don’t dwell on their race, Riff Raff’s whiteness is practically the center of attention. He is making it incredibly clear to his predominantly white listeners that he–– along with Iggy Azalea, Robin Thicke, Macklemore, Mac Miller, Meghan Trainor, Watsky, Justin Timberlake, Brother Ali and countless other white performers–– is cashing in on an art that his culture had almost no part in creating.

If anything can be ascertained from Riff Raff’s skit, it isn’t that white appropriation of rap is, in all purposes, a bad thing. What he is saying is that he is part of a paradigm in white culture where hip-hop isn’t worth paying attention to or critically analyzing unless the performer is white. It’s a racism that Eminem gladly pointed out right at the beginning of The Eminem Show (2001) in his scathing song “White America.”

Riff Raff also serves as a great example of how the paradigm is evolving. According to the LA Weekly, Riff Raff as a boy was “nothing like he is today.” His childhood friend Juan Sosa described him as a “shy, clean-cut kid,” and a “bookworm.” He grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, in a functional and happy family. It makes Riff Raff’s metamorphosis all the more mind-boggling, but it also hints at an inauthenticity which he shares with Iggy Azalea, with Mac Miller, with Robin Thicke, that Vanilla Ice was never able to entirely get away with only twenty years ago.

2013 was the first year since 1958 that no black artist had a number-one grossing song. Maybe it was a fluke, but the evidence for the rise of white hip-hop is hard to ignore, and Riff Raff is proudly sticking out like a sore, white thumb at the center of the issue.

People hate Spring Breakers because it’s a trashy, misogynistic, poorly put-together film. They hate Riff Raff because he is a trashy, talentless, poorly put-together person. But some people love Spring Breakers. As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times puts it, Breakers “looks different depending on how you hold it up to the light.” In just the right light, when Riff Raff isn’t taken simply at face value, he becomes something much more than his name implies. In just the right light, Riff Raff’s work is dearly needed, brutally honest commentary.

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