Music Review: RiFF RAFF - 'Neon Icon'

One might expect the world's foremost Riff Raff expert to begin a review of his debut album with at least a brief history lesson. After all, for years I've wanted to write the authoritative Riff biography/think piece to be used by college professors teaching what the human mind is capable of producing. 

We won't be doing any of that here. I've given up on explaining Riff Raff. Instead, I want to take a moment to defend Horst Simco. 

Most reviews you'll read of this album will be written by someone on an assignment. They'll ask themselves the same questions a clueless interviewer asks Riff, and end up with no answers. They'll settle on the easy criticisms  that Riff isn't authentic, that his rhymes are stupid and lack cleverness, or that the whole thing is a hoax. 

Those who dismiss something they don't immediately understand are doomed to miss out on the best the world has to offer. Riff doesn't look like a normal rapper, lot alone a normal human being. His style is so outrageous many assume they're witnessing parody, an elaborate hoax aimed at mocking hip-hop culture. Even Hot 97's Ebro Darden is not immune from this disease.

But why? Why would someone choose this life? Riff Raff isn't a Jamie Kennedy routine, he's a guy from Houston and then Minnesota and then Houston again. He's had tattoos of the MTV, BET and WorldStarHipHop logos for longer than he's been in the corner of the public eye. I doubt he sat in a chair, grimacing as someone pressed ink into his skin, and thought about the moderate profits he would turn by lampooning rap culture a decade down the road. 

Perhaps if Riff saw a need for such a character in the landscape and switched his style overnight to fill the niche (::cough:: Larry The Cable Guy), those accusations would be reasonable. But implying that this is all some sort of scheme to capitalize on white America's deep-seated beliefs about black stereotypes borders on insanity. If that were the case, Riff deserves an award for being the world's most determined minstrel show, considering he's been doing this for ten years with almost no real success. 

Riff Raff is interesting and entertaining for a variety of reasons, but his attitude might be what makes him so appealing to the younger demographic. These days it seems everyone wants you to know that they "give zero fucks", and Riff is the embodiment of not caring what anyone thinks. If Horst was worried about the opinions of others, he probably would have gotten a regular job and covered up his Bart Simpson tattoo long ago. In fact, he says as much on the album. 

Let's talk about the songs. 


"Introducing the Icon" 
There's no hook on this old school beat. It serves more as an introduction in Pinterest board form. Icy chains, candy painted cars, rice (aka cocaine), random celebrity mentions  it's all here as Riff bounces seamlessly from one topic to the next. For the most part, this track accomplishes its goals of showing Riff can actually rap while also revealing his quick and outrageous wit. 

Best line: 
Diplo trippin' talkin' bout
"You gotta focus on the lyrics in your songs...a lot is riding on this album'"
Man fuck that 

The second track on the album is a bit of a departure from typical Riff Raff, if there is such a thing. It sounds like it belongs on a Tony Hawk's Pro Skater soundtrack, and has a catchy hook with some shock value. Intended as a college house party song, whether or not cocaine is present. 

Best line: 
I'm stackin' up the cheese like a taco shell 
I'm sliding through your city on a turtle shell (cowabunga dude!) 

"Wetter Than Tsunami" 
Vintage Riff Raff on the intro. "Ice on my wrist and I ball like Q-Rich." This tried-and-true formula (icy jewelry + balling like a random basketball player) can be found in chapter one of Riff's Rapping Guide. 

Though this isn't the best beat, there are still a few gems worth listening for here. For one, Riff genuinely thinks he should have won a Grammy by now. In his mind, he deserves to be recognized among the great artists of our time, and it's hard to argue that delusion is insincere. Year after year, he lobbies to be included on XXL magazine's annual "Freshmen of the Year" cover. Year after year, he is surprised when he doesn't make the cut. 

Best line: 
I can shoot a beebee through a Frosted Cheerio 
From 50 yards away 
I can ride blades 

"Jody 3 Moons" (skit) 
Here, Riff Raff talks to us while pretending to be the moon. That's really the only way to describe it. 

Best line: "This is the moon speakin' to you right now. The actual moon." 

"Versace Python" 
Don't let the title fool you, there is no mention here of Versace or pythons. This is an introspective look at Riff's soul disguised as a slow, trippy alt song. 

Riff has put up a guard after years of being hurt. Whether by girls, friends, family, media, whoever. He's built castles around his heart, and it's nearly impossible to get close to him on a personal level. Even though he's achieved some level of fame and fortune, deep down all he really wants is love and friendship. In fact, it's because of that fame that he's finding it more difficult than ever to get a handle on his true relationships. 

Best line: The hook. 
As the days keep turnin' 
As the world keeps burnin' 
As my soul keeps lernin' 
Tears fall from castles around my heart 

"Lava Glaciers" (ft. Childish Gambino) 
Here we have a beautiful, relaxing beach beat that grows on me every time I listen. Some research reveals that "Lava Glaciers" heavily samples a song called "It's All In The Mind" off the album Journey to the Center of the Eye by Nektar, an English progressive rock band in the 1970's. It is quite possibly the most obscure sample I'm aware of. 

With Childish Gambino providing the second verse, now is probably a good time to mention all the big name artists who were supposed to appear on Neon Icon, at least according to Riff. A$AP Rocky, Drake, Wiz Khalifa, Snoop Dogg, Future, YG, Action Bronson, Asher Roth, Bun B, Fitz and the Tantrums, Juicy J, Skylar Grey, 2 Chainz and Justin Bieber were all alleged to be working with Riff in the months and years leading up to the album's release, but only a few "big name" artists can be found here. Perhaps music journalists will pump the brakes a bit when reporting these collaborations as fact the next time Riff mentions one in passing. 

Back to the song. In addition to the beautiful beat, the contrasting styles of Raff and Gambino works quite well. Though I'm not a big Childish fan, his smooth, understated flow fits well with the dreamy beat, while Riff attacks it in a totally different way with his usual pointy delivery ("purple Prada pocket protector"). This song has it all. 

Best line: 
Yeah mysterious (mysterious) 
My mermaids are bi-curious 
She done got intoxicated 
Girlfriend is furious 

"Tip Toe Wing In My Jawwdinz" 
Just as we're recovering from Riff's deep look inside his own soul, we get a shallower song about sneakers and shrimp tempura. 

This entire track is based on a Vine Riff posted after getting a new pair of Jordans, in which he simply walked gingerly while "tip-toeing in my Jordans." It is vintage Riff, rapping over a cheap beat about nothing in particular. See "Jose Canseco," in which the baseball player is not mentioned, and "Porsche Cayenne," where Riff holds a snake around his wrist and talks about dodging trash cans in Iran. 

Best line: 
All my girlfriends gorgeous 
You probably can't afford her 
My Brazillian twins got flagged and deported (damn!) 

"Maybe You Love Me" (ft. Mike Posner) 
Here's one song that appropriately matches Riff's neon merchandise. More of a dance track than a traditional rap record, this summer jam is solidified by the presence of Mike Posner. Likely to be the non-Riff fan's favorite song. 

Best line: 
You used to be so pretty 
I kiss you on the titty 
Take trips to Mississippi cause your attitude is shitty

"Aquaberry Dolphin" (ft. Mac Miller) 
The second notable rapper to be featured on the album is Mac Miller. While this track certainly sounds like something he'd be involved in, it remains unquestionably Riff at its core. There are literally dolphin noises in the background. 

Best line: 
The lime Benz candy coated with the applesauce 
The apple gloss 
I'm on a beach 
David Hasselhoff 

"The Bloomingdales at Windshire Palace" (skit) 
Here, Riff pretends to be some sort of British elite/Downton Abbey-type having conversations with other people in a courtyard as classical music plays. 

Best line: "Oh it's just a thick of a day. My grandfather just knitted me some stockings." 

Originally released a few years ago, "Time" represented the first real departure from rap for Riff Raff. Easily his most thought-provoking song, Riff reflects on friends lost, his relationship with his dad, and being alone. 

Unfortunately this version has more of a country feel to it, with some of the vocals re-recorded and a few twangs added in to the background. It's not something a first-time listener would notice, of course, but it's a little disappointing to fans of the original, especially since that's no longer available. 

That's right, the relevant authorities managed to scrub the original video completely, joining Owen Hart's tragic fall at WWF's "Over The Edge" pay-per-view event in 1999 as the only pieces of video to be completely removed from the World Wide Web. 

Best line: 
When I was broke and dropped out of school 
Nobody was broke with me 
Now they all wanna roll with me 


"How To Be The Man" 
This was the first single for the album, and for good reason. It's one of the most party-ready tracks with a sound unique enough that it would never be confused for anything else. 

Best line: 
Might hit the club and it's the white Danny Glover 
Rap game Uncle Ben pullin' rice out the oven 

"Cool It Down" (ft. Amber Coffman) 
Another chill summer song for the bro tank crowd. Here, Jody reflects on how far he's come and how hard he's worked to get here. The "cool down" occurs when Riff pours himself a glass of wine to tune out everyone who said he couldn't do it. 

Best line: 
They wanna tell you what you can't do based on former facts 
If I wanted to hear that bullshit I'd be in history class 
If I had to be around you five minutes I'd need a six pack 
If I'd have listened to your bitch ass I wouldn't be RiFF RAFF 

"VIP Pass To My Heart" 
If you like Empire of the Sun, you'll enjoy this fun love song to no one in particular. 

Best line: 
You got the VIP pass to my heart 
You got the key with the lock on it 
It'd be a shame if you don't open it 
It'd be a shame if you don't open it 

(Those are actually all the lines.) 

"How To Be The Man" Remix (ft. Slim Thug and Paul Wall) 
This might be the most important song for Riff personally, though he'd never admit it. 

While Horst came up in Houston, and has Texas on his chest, he doesn't claim his city much. Though he had a small crew of supporters, Riff wasn't really accepted there. In most cases, an artist's popularity swells in their hometown before spreading around the country. That's was not the case for Riff Raff. 

This remix featuring Houston legends Paul Wall and Slim Thug represents some validation for Riff, especially as they mold their style to fit his. It's no secret that Riff looked up to these two early in his own career, and he even deepens his voice to sound more like them. It's endearing. 

Best line: 
Rap game Sadie Hawkins 
Got a ticket for jay walkin'