, June 30th, 2014 12:01
It's been a long, strange and thoroughly entertaining journey to this moment, the release of thoroughly contemporary renaissance man and rap enigma RiFF RaFF's official debut long player. It began with him selling his CDs in Houston shopping centres, to parlaying a two episode run on MTV Reality farce G's To Gents into a nationwide rap buzz that would eventually find him "signed" to Soulja Boy's SODMG without them ever having met. Next came announcing the "deal" via a dramatically shot rap video of him sitting on a sofa in an untied doorag, cementing it with the most awkward chain gifting ceremony of all time, then the transition into the jiggier alter ego Jody Highroller, before he quit the "label" not long after, amidst a flurry of twitter arguments and signing to Diplo's Mad Decent. All the while he stuck to an intense schedule of weekly, always riveting, ever increasingly lavish and insane music videos. (Oh yeah, and being played by James Franco in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers.) Deep breath.
The releases slowed down as RiFF moved from the virtual world of YouTube to the "real" world of never-ending touring, but the Tweets and the Vines and the Instagrams didn't stop, letting the ever-ballooning follower count in on an increasingly showbiz lifestyle and celebrity-studded guest list for the album he'd been waiting his whole life to make, the perfectly titled Neon Icon. Snoop was gonna be on it, Drake, Wiz, Mac Miller, Usher, Skrillex, Gucci Mane, A$AP Rocky and countless more. For two years the album received release dates and for two years those dates came and went, no Neon Icon. "Rap Game Detox" grumbled fans, but the touring continued, and the Swishahouse spawn's star continued to rise. There's RiFF with Nicki Minaj! There's RiFF at the Grammys! There's RiFF with Justin Bieber! Etc!
And, then, one hot June morning in 2014: "Bro, the Neon Icon, it finally came out today," drawls RiFF RaFF, in character as some cartoon Bro during the first moments of the oft delayed near mythical official album. "I don't even like rappers, it's just damn RiFF RAFF, he's off the chain. Bro did you see Jennifer last night, she was like smoking hot bro, she had total nip slip."
The accusation is thus: RiFF RaFF is not serious, he's a clown, he's spectacle over substance, his fans are short attention span idiots that don't even like rap.
The answer comes fast. Bro hasn't even finished fondly reminiscing about the "tanned beauty queen from the eastern peninsulas" before RiFF launches into a relentless and spectacular three minute barrage of vivid, visual, visceral freestyle rap over some classic beefed up Bomb Squad-esque 90s industrial rap production, gleefully racing through a checklist his various trademark rap traits:
"Rap game [insert name]", "Versace _ [insert awesome object Versace doesn't actually make]", his esoteric fragrance and love of jewellery ("big jewels on myself with the tiger smell/straight out the jungle sting like a kiss/ice real cool/top lip cost bit"), random stuff he says mainly cos it rhymes so nicely ("who you? Who come through doing kung fu?"; "Hygiene clean you Jean dream I dream"), boasts of extravagant wealth and rare possessions ("electric maid cleans the house/Jetson Judy"), complaints about his label ("could I get some RiFF promotion? Where the fuck the label at? Diplo talking bout 'you gotta focus on the lyrics on your songs', fuck that!"), stuff about how he's not married and he hates the concept, ("what the fuck a wife do? No wedding shoes, no wedding shoes," repeated three times). "It's the white Gucci Man with a spray tan!" he declares breathlessly at least twice. This is not, as he's told us so many times before, "no middle of the mall shit." This is certainly not something someone who was merely taking the piss could pull off. This is arguably the best rap album of the year.
Suddenly, the barrage is over, and we're thrown headlong into the album's first Diplo produced RiFF RaFF song, and shock horror, it doesn't have any stolen reggae breaks, or bleeding edge EDM affectations. Nay, it is a straight up bonafide breakneck bubblegum singalong un-fucking-apologetic rawk stomp, about how totally fucking awesome cocaine is. From a man who's smashed rap taboos by gleefully snorting coke on camera before freestyling on multiple occasions, the subject might not be a surprise, but the switch up of pace definitely is; a glorious and welcome addition to his kaleidoscopic existing ouvre.
Fans of Trip Trap RiFF are well served. 'Wetter Than Tsunami' and 'Tip Toe Wing In My Jawwwdinz' both employ the perfectly-executed, sparse, stilted four note acapella plucks, bowel-loosening sub and and skittering hi-hats that were the cornerstone of so many of his earlier records. Country RiFF is in evidence on the emotional, heartfelt yet thoroughly affected 'Time', the only full song from RaFF's hyper prolific YouTube phase to turn up here, albeit in smoothed out, exaggerated form. Autotune Crooner RiFF shows up on the achingly beautiful, glacially cool, rap free synth work out of VIP 'Pass To My Heart', sounding a little like a Kavinsky-produced Campa, but mostly like the Autotune Crooner RiFF of 'Jody Highroller'.
The RiFF that serious rap heads eventually warmed to on the Action Bronson collaboration 'Bird On A Wire' shows up on the similarly Harry Fraud-assisted acid freakout Childish Gambino collaboration 'Lava Glaciers', rapping about bi-curious mermaids and how he "ate the pork chop sandwich with the tartar sauce in the packet that I found in my purple Prada pocket protector". The juxtaposition of Jody's breathless, freestyle manner and Gambino's more traditionally polished rap delivery perfectly underlines RiFF's herculean strengths as both poet and picture painter, his deceptively byzantine stream-of-consciousness expulsions evoking vivid imagery and sensations in the listener. "How does it make you feel?" he once asked a journalist trying to make sense of his approach. "That's what matters." Rap game Bruce Lee.
Hook King Riff is in full effect on the DJ Mustard-produced club hit 'How To Be The Boss', and the long awaited studio version of 'Versace Python', previously devoured on loop by millions when it first appeared as part of the second notorious YouTube coke freestyles. Here it's polished and scrubbed up, twinned with verses, but no less effective and emotional in its impact. "Tears fall from the castles around my heart," he intones over a heavenly carnival of syrupy trap-synth sonics.
RiFF can operate on levels cognisant and emotional, and yes, RiFF can be funny. The skits here are all brilliant; "I've only got so many ribs" lulsome, and simultaneously trippy and mildly disconcerting in a Chris Morris-ian fashion. But who erected the decree that a human being cannot make music and sometimes be funny without being banned from the Real Artist club? Not that RiFF cares much for clubs, or the constraints of others. "If I would've listened to your bitch ass I wouldn't be RiFF RaFF," he points out in one of the album's more reflective moments.
As for the much-hyped superstar collaborations, they're mostly notable by their absence. Mac Miller shows up doing his best RiFF impression on the syrupy menace of 'Aquaberry Dolphin', and Amber Coffman lends a sort of Mary J and Method Man as directed by Wes Anderson vibe to the boombap reminiscence of 'Cool It Down' (produced again by an expectation ducking Diplo). A proud moment for RiFF is certainly the appearance (and co-sign) of Houston heroes Paul Wall and Slim Thug on the bonus track 'How To Be The Man' remix.
But there's no Drake, no Snoop, no Usher, No Justin. And the album is all the stronger for it. Coming in at a lean, mean 12 tracks (minus skits), there is no flab whatsoever, and unlike many a contemporary rap opus it never strays from its star's vision. It's the RiFF Show from start to finish. Considering Jody's oft proclaimed Madonna-level megastar aspirations there's shockingly little in the way at obvious attempts at crossover pop hits in here. Only one song, the glossy ultrapop of the Mike Posner assisted 'Maybe You Love Me', feels even slightly deliberately aimed at any kind of contemporary charts, but it still fits firmly within RiFF's established overuse, drenched as it is in a kind of Balearic joywave previously evidenced with the likes of his Mod Sun collaboration 'Nightstand'.
"You should practice martial arts the way you karate chop my heart," he laments, and you can't imagine anyone else in the charts doing similar. RiFF RaFF is a one off, and Neon Icon is that rare product of a rapper in the modern world – an album that perfectly encompasses everything they became loved for on their come up, amplified to the glorious maximum, aiming confidently into the future.