Tuesday, June 10, 2014

album review: 'neon icon' by riff raff

I don't even know where to start with this.

Okay, if you're not familiar with certain subsections of hip-hop, you might not be familiar with Riff Raff - and after I describe him, you might start wishing that that remained the case. Riff Raff is a white rapper from Houston and who started his career in show business on reality TV before becoming affiliated with Soulja Boy. Eventually the two of them parted ways, with Soulja Boy leaving the passing shot of calling him a 'cokehead', but Riff Raff was somehow able to garner enough attention through his mixtapes and self-released album to get signed to Diplo record label Mad Descent and release his many-times delayed album Neon Icon.

And from what I had heard from him before going into this album, I had no idea how seriously I was supposed to take this. On the one hand if it's self-aware comedy... well, I didn't exactly find him funny or clever or witty, at least on previous releases. But on the other hand if I'm supposed to take him seriously, as some people clearly do, or say that he's the 'white Lil B'... look, as much as I don't like the based god, it's clear something was knocked loose in Lil B's brain that causes him to spew the inveterate pop culture free association that he calls lyrics. Where Lil B could reasonably be called an outsider artist, Riff Raff feels a bit like a poser, or at least someone attempting the same style of gaudy bargain-barrel luxury rap. As much as Riff Raff claims James Franco's character Alien from Spring Breakers was based on him, I don't see it because there was an air of menace and sleaze to that character that was undercut by a honest naivete. And while it's debatable how 'honest' Rifff Raff's portrayal is, it's so silly that I can't feel the slightest element of menace from his rap persona.

But putting that aside, I was curious about this album, and at the very least I could look forward to guest verses from Mac Miller and Childish Gambino, so how's Neon Icon?

Well... I think I'm starting to get it, at least a little bit. Which is good for me, but not exactly good for Riff Raff. Let me put it this way: do you remember right after Tommy Wiseau released The Room as a serious indie drama and then immediately jumped and said that he meant it to be a black comedy? When I listen to this album, I get the feeling that Riff Raff is taking himself as seriously as Wiseau did when he made his 'masterpiece', but he hasn't quite realized that most people are laughing at him instead of laughing with him - mostly because there are some people laughing with him and that's just sad. So what I'm going to do is analyze this album from two angles: from the group that is laughing with Riff Raff, and the group that's laughing at him, see if I can find at least one level where he can work for me.

So let's start with the instrumentation and production, where arguably ironic and unironic appreciation can meet in agreement... and honestly, it's a real mixed bag. I've said before that I'm not a fan of trap beats in luxury rap, because it's a really awkward tone to have what supposed to be fun party music fused with such cold, sinister tones, and thus we get songs like the clunky synths on 'Wetter Than Tsunami', the hazy warble of 'Versace Python',  and the borderline-chiptune keyboards on 'Tip Toe Win In My Jawwdinz' and 'How To Be The Man' that don't really come across as all that fun to me. That's not saying there aren't some ridiculous instrumentals I actually did like: the introduction had some bouncing grime that had energy, 'Aquaberry Dolphin' had the sampled dolphin chittering which was kind of fun, 'VIP Pass To My Heart' is standard disco-inspired 90s-era dance music but at least has a decent groove, and the Diplo-produced 'Kokayne' at least has a fun sizzling guitar riff and a pretty great hook that easily makes it the best song of the album. And then you have the moments that come straight out of left-field, like the pseudo-psychedelic 'Lava Glaciers' that had a good vibe courtesy of a prog rock Nektar sample until Riff Raff opened his mouth, or the terribly overwrought acoustic ballad 'Time' or 'Cool It Down', a song that feels important from a bad early 2000s R&B/hip-hop crossover, especially with Amber Coltman on the hook. Now the problem you get when you bring this many genres on board and play them as relatively straightforward as Riff Raff does isn't just wildly diverging levels of production quality and no consistent tone, but also a sense that Riff Raff wasn't intending songs like 'Time' or 'Lava Glaciers' to be played as jokes and that he does have something he thinks is deep to share with everyone.

And that's when the ironic/unironic appraisal of Riff Raff must diverge, so let's start with those taking Riff Raff seriously. Now in terms of the luxury rap I like, I'll admit Riff Raff isn't my cup of tea - at least when T.I. or Ludacris or even 50 Cent in his better moments used to rap about their wealth, they played it with a little more class and swagger and charisma. Riff Raff doesn't have that degree of class or dignity - he's not the sort of person who would invest his wealth, but spend it all on gaudy chains, bad tattoos, hookers and blow, and that's not a lifestyle or even an escapist fantasy that interests me - at all. It's flashy, it's got no class, it's a side-show attraction and one I can't even admire for its construction. And the sad fact is that Riff Raff really has very little to say outside of that luxury rap that even approaches depth. It makes Childish Gambino's self-flagellating verse on 'Lava Glaciers' feel completely out of left-field, taking the psychedelia of the track and reaches a sad clarity where Gambino laments the fact he wants to create deeper, more introspective art and yet is expected as an entertainer to make, well, what Riff Raff is doing, the art that Gambino considers token and worthless and lacking in deeper meaning - because it is. Now to be somewhat fair to Riff Raff, he does try on 'Time' to make statements about how 'time goes on', but it's resoundingly trite because the consequences are so shallow and there are no real dramatic stakes to the song. And then there's 'Cool It Down', which seems to be an anti-hater track against those who doubt his hustle - and honestly, I'm not doubting that, but there's no self-awareness here that shows he knows how his newfound status makes him appear.

So okay, is there some level of irony on which I can enjoy this? Is this supposed to fall into the category of 'So Bad It's Good' or just be funny in some way, that we aren't supposed to take this album seriously? Well, I'm not sure I can totally buy that either. Yeah, there are some ridiculous lyrics, especially in 'Aquaberry Dolphin' and mostly courtesy of Mac Miller who seems to have some level of self-awareness about it all, and then there's Mike Posner's contributions to 'Maybe You Love Me' which screams obnoxiousness but at least seems to know it on some level. But beyond that, here's the 'joke': that it's so funny that Riff Raff is such an exaggerated hyperbolic caricature of a rapper that you can't take him seriously, that he's so bad you can pity him on some level for trying. But there's two huge problems with that joke, the first being that you can't really say it works when many mainstream rappers who are taken seriously use the same level of hyperbole. Rappers like Lil Wayne and Rick Ross use similar hyperbolic language and metaphors when it comes to wealth and sex, with Riff Raff just being more in your face about it. And here's the second part: the joke isn't funny, because we live in an era with The Lonely Island where 'I'm A Boat' does the exact same thing as the 'joke' of this album and does it better because Samberg and company have real talent and know such jokes work best as a three minute song, not an entire album. 

Because let's face facts: Riff Raff is barely passable as a rapper. His wordplay is boilerplate, his rhymes are often forced, his flow is incredibly basic, and once you can tune into his hyperbolic mindset, he never really pushes boundaries or has anything to say beneath it. Any philosophy he brings to the table is painfully shallow and his metaphors are extended pop culture references: he's the equivalent of a late-period episode of Family Guy. And say what you will about Seth MacFarlane, but at least he can sing, a talent that Riff Raff does not have, and his barely on-key squawking is intolerable.

Look, the most I can say about this record is that the song 'Kokayne' is kind of fun on a visceral base level - but that's it. To me, reviewing this album was a little sad, because Riff Raff doesn't seem to have a clue how he looks to everyone outside of the fanbase that encourages his puddle-shallow worldview, and I don't get the feeling this is a schtick or a pose: you don't put the sloppily-written skits like the ones he chooses for this record without the delusion that it is, on some level, profoundly deep. You don't let Childish Gambino get on a melancholy verse that shows the inherent emptiness of this material and  effectively break the entire record unless you have bought into your own myth so thoroughly you can't see the forest for the trees. For Riff Raff, this album is not a joke - and for me, it isn't one either - it's just bad. The rapping is subpar and impossible to invest in, the singing is atrocious, and the instrumentation and production is so-so at best. For me, it's a 4/10 and not recommended. Look, if you want comedy rap, go to The Lonely Island or Weird Al or any number of intentionally funny rappers on YouTube, and if you want shallow luxury rap, there's enough established artists who are far better at it on a technical level than this. And least you could dance to 'Party Rock Anthem' - this... just skip it, it'll go away on its own.

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