The Freewheelin' Riff Raff: Embracing The Cagey, Loopy Joys Of Neon Icon

My favorite Bob Dylan interview is the infamously painful sit-down with Time magazine in D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 documentary Dont Look Back, wherein Dylan gets miffed at a prying line of questioning and slams the writer, the publication, and the publication's readership alike for subscribing to a worldview mechanistic enough to require a folk singer to explain his intentions at all. It's striking how incredulous he seems that anyone should have an interest in what makes him tick—the molting character he presented to the masses pleased him more than the one he was assigned by birth.

Riff Raff hasn't written a "Subterranean Homesick Blues," a "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," or anything remotely close to either, but the Texas MC's abandonment of his born self in favor of a more suitable fabrication carries shades of Robert Zimmerman's transformation. In a 2012 appearance on Chappelle Show co-creator Neal Brennan's The Champs podcast, he admonished his interviewer for asking too many personal questions: "The past shouldn't mean shit." Even after a 2013 Houston Press feature pieced together his lower-middle-class beginnings through interviews with family and friends, he remains evasive about his history, as if the vagaries of his backstory are immaterial to who he is today.

Riff Raff earns his keep as a rapper, but his true trade is real-time self-mythology. He crafts his legend on a calculated and constant absurdity rooted in hip-hop, but not necessarily tethered to it. His earliest nationwide renown came in 2009 via VH1's hustler-reform show From G's to Gents, where his colorful dress and demeanor drew eyes but resulted in a quick, unceremonious removal very early in the show's running.

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He's since become massively popular on YouTube and Vine, where a video of him performing or even just goofing around can pull hundreds of thousands, even millions of views. Riff's raps catalog an endless array of custom-made plunder of hilarious specificity: outlandishly colorful cars, jewels, and fields of Versace. You're more likely to hear winding yarns about trips to the club in a Versace helicopter than anything resembling conventional storytelling. Any sense of depth is fleeting, and possibly imaginary. Like his rainbow-cornrowed, quirkily tatted visage, Riff Raff's music treasures spectacle. He's not so much a rapper as a big kid clicking through a viewfinder and calling out the ridiculous shit he sees.

That might sound like fallow ground for a multimedia cult of personality, but Riff's tireless persistence and batshit creativity are ample sustenance. Every time it looks like this thing has subsided, he lurches back into the conversation. Last week, his full-length Mad Decent debut, Neon Icon, finally saw release after two years of promises, and at a time when hip-hop debut albums feel market-tested within an inch of their individuality, this one retains every bit of Riff's kooky splendor. The production coolly swings from candy-painted promethazine haze to Day-Glo rave fodder without a care for the clashing of the pairing. The lyric sheet brings the expected array of outré, occasionally imaginary luxury items and boasts so off-kilter they can't have been cooked all the way through. "I'm from California, but I done moved to Texas / My bad, I'm dyslexic in the four-door mango Lexus." "Neon icon, 57-city touring / I'm first-class to Spain, you still buying Ralph Lauren." "When I wake up, it's a mystery / Every time I open my mouth? History." It's all so airy and goofy, a summer album of a slippery and cartoonish unseriousness.

This hasn't curbed the ongoing withering dissection of Riff's spectacle or persistent questions about the genuineness of his personal style. Pitchfork's review of the album flat out declared, "He's a troll," while XXL's complained that the production "asks to be received seriously" even though Riff's "absurdist imagery runs counter to that." Harsher critics have levied accusations of outright minstrelsy. Riff Raff's first appearance at New York rap-radio giant Hot 97 was essentially an inquisition, with program director Ebro Darden prying excessively in order to contextualize Riff, and discern whether his mannerisms were true expressions of his character or parodic playacting in the garments of inner-city blackness. These aren't answerable questions, but one suspects the reality is a bit of both.

Neon Icon tips Riff's hand a little on the trip-hop deep cut "Cool It Down," the closest thing to an autobiographical tune that we're likely to get out of the guy: "They want to tell you what you can't do based off former facts / If I wanted to hear that bullshit, I'd be in history class/ If I'd been around you five minutes, I'd need a six pack / If I ever listened to your bitch ass, I wouldn't be Riff Raff." We don't need to know what exactly Riff Raff is or why he decided to become it to appreciate Neon Icon, and it's not his job to provide us the tools to.

And if not knowing the motives behind these "2K13 dreams in the limousine" presents an obstacle to entry, the better to thin the herd. In a year where major mainstream players like Rick Ross benefit from our suspension of disbelief without asking, and the South's assembly line of trap stooges effortlessly braids humor into violence, the hip-hop community's reticence to accept Riff Raff can't help but have racial overtones—the sense that his skin color precludes him from dressing and speaking the way he does. It's the handiwork of a populist culture starved of a need to trace the artist back to a humble upbringing, and an personal-information-hungry society struggling to process a guy who's not willing to hand any of his out.

With Neon Icon, Riff Raff and Mad Decent head honcho Diplo have attempted to hone one of rap's more unusual skill sets into a viable commercial entity. The guy is still unfathomably weird, and rough around the edges, too. (Genre experiments like the country song "Time," the barely finished EDM loop "VIP Pass to My Heart," and the pop-rap confection "Maybe You Love Me" are distractingly off-script.) But the record derives its intrigue from his foibles, too, couching this absurdist stream of consciousness in equally bizarre soundscapes like the glacial "Versace Python" or the Muppet death-march of "Wetter Than Tsunami." Meanwhile, the guest list (Mac Miller, Childish Gambino, Slim Thug, Paul Wall, the Dirty Projectors' Amber Coffman) both flexes Riff's indie and weird-rap bona-fides, and poignantly reminds the listener that at the end of the day, all this otherworldly candy-painted reverie is very, very Houston.

After three years of spitballing solo cuts, freestyles, and guest verses of wildly varying quality, Riff Raff has finally delivered the party-in-a-box full-length we'd begun to think was neither probable nor possible. Taking stock of things a week past its release date, the album hasn't exactly set the world on fire: First-week sales reportedly hover around the 8,000-unit mark, which isn't good. It's possible this thing spent too long in the oven, and that the leak, which hit weeks in advance of the street date, damaged Neon Icon's sales potential. But a more likely story is that Riff, an image-centric character whose arch currency is the page-view, who's playing to an audience that streams everything its parents used to buy, can't reasonably be measured in units sold. Versace punchlines proliferate. Butterscotch bliss abounds. That's a kind of success.

Craig Jenkins is a New York City-based writer who has contributed to Pitchfork, Complex, and elsewhere. His Versace think-pieces glow like golden fleeces.

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