No fan ever wants to be taken for a fool, certainly not by a white boy with braids, a diamond grill, a Simpsons family tattoo, and the iciest of straw-/blueberry ICEE pieces dangling at his gut. Is he kidding? Should we beat him up, snatch his chain, and be done with him? Well, like him or not, legitimize him or don’t, RiFF RAFF’s long-hyped, long-awaited Neon Icon is out this week, the Houston rapper’s sophomore album with a lead single from DJ Mustard and executive production from Diplo. All hail the rap game Tracy Jordan, even though RiFF RAFF swears that he’s the “white Gucci Mane with a spray tan,” the “white Wesley Snipes,” the “white Eddie Murphy,” “the white Chris Rock,” et al., etc.—you get the picture.
Somehow, by some kinda divine luck, RiFF RAFF has leveraged his 2012 split with founding benefactor Soulja Boy and then a high-profile identity dispute last year with actor James Franco to achieve an unshakeable zen of spectacle befitting the duke of white trash rap. An MTV reality TV alum, RiFF RAFF is the culmination of Ali G, Gangstalicious, PaRappa the Rapper, and Malibu’s Most Wanted. He’s most recently been spotted on Instagram straight flexing with Chief Keef, with whom he’s collaborated a few times and praised as one of the easiest rappers to work with. Apart from his trap leanings, RiFF RAFF tends toward heavy, aggressive electronic beats—the signature of his current mentor, Diplo.
RiFF RAFF’s rapping on Icon isn’t any less fantastical and/or ludicrous than earlier boasts like “I Shoulda Won a Grammy,” “10 Is What They Rate Me, and “Larry Bird.” Spitting live and direct from whatever trap house has got ahold of Princess Peach, RiFF RAFF boasts, “I can freestyle to a dolphin and a tambourine.” No, really, he can! The track’s called “Aquaberry Dolphin”, and sure enough there’s a sample of a dolphin on the track, giggling. Are you not entertained? Are you rolling your eyes? Well, I’m not too cool for the home-cooked gross-out of “Rapper’s Delight,” nor am I too cool for “Kokayne’s” shaggy tweaking in the name of retro shout-outs: “I’m Michael Bolton, boasting, bragging in that Aston Martin/I got some shit up on my chest: Dolly Parton.” Even the most traditionally trill of Icon’s trap beats, “Tip Toe Wing In My Jawwdinz,” hosts a sort of kidding-but-not-really that indeed makes it tough to distinguish between RiFF RAFF and Soulja, between satire and the real deal. “My shirt say ‘Versace’; TV screen in my left pocket,” RiFF RAFF raps, “My bad, I’m dyslexic in the four-door mango Lexus.”
Hip-hop gatekeepers and radio hosts including Hot 97’s Ebro Darden and Power 105’s Charlamagne Tha God have given voice to a common skepticism of RiFF RAFF’s shtick. Late last year, after a few rounds of viral beef between RiFF RAFF and Hot 97, Ebro compared RiFF RAFF's Internet fame to the sensationally turnt Vine star TerRio: "Is it entertaining? Yes. Should he have real fans? Come on, son." But then you hear RiFF RAFF on a track with Action Bronson, Childish Gambino, or Mac Miller, and he holds up. He pairs well. He belongs. He’s flourishing.
Neon Icon’s mission is fun but its strongest moments come when RiFF RAFF and the producers relax the trap caricature and commit to, well, whatever else they like—“Kokayne’s” karaoke rock, the prog-rock stupor of “Lava Glacier,” the hick-hop twang of “Time.” In fact, it’s the more stereotypical tracks like “Tip Toe” and “Wetter Than a Tsunami” that, while honoring RiFF RAFF’s creative debt to Soulja Boy, yield the weakest payoffs on Icon, an album that’s ultimately got more dimensions than the two-dimensionality of RiFF RAFF’s caricature suggests.
True to that caricature, Icon’s lead single is “How to Be the Man,” a twinkling DJ Mustard ditty that’ll do nothing to counter your doubts re: the L.A. producer’s proficiency with a piano. The album’s improbably universal pleaser, however, is “Cool It Down,” which features fat drums, skimpy guitar, and R&B-leaning vocals from Dirty Projectors' Amber Coffman, no stranger to ornament herself. “Versace Python,” with a beat from Houston producer Atira, hosts a similar indie pop proficiency, one that’s never so earnest or corny as Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ formula.
Across Neon Icon’s spectrum of tones and whole genres, RiFF RAFF’s wit is remarkably consistent. Jody Highroller’s in character, of course. Yet the album sacrifices some of RiFF RAFF’s most grating, cringe-worthy trap stylings for the sake of pop variety. Yes, this is a rap album. Yes, RiFF RAFF is a jester. Yes, Icon is energetic, ambitiously varied, and, for the most part, impressive. Hip-hop is vast, and RiFF RAFF came correct with the multitudes.
Which isn’t to say that disliking or dismissing RiFF RAFF means you hate fun and can’t take a joke. If you’re allergic to Soulja Boy, Keef, and even YG, there’s no winning you over to RiFF RAFF’s music. He’s here to amuse you, take it or leave it. It’s really that simple. After Roots drummer Questlove spent 11,000+ words over at Vulture last month to investigate when, why, and how hip-hop shed its cool while simultaneously making hip-hop sound like the most self-serious musical frontier known to man, I wondered whether maybe, just maybe, the elders need to relax and concede that hip-hop is sometimes revolutionary, sometimes profound, and sometimes it’s kids with all the required electronics on hand, and they’re bored, and they’re creative, so they’re dicking around.