RiFF RAFF is unarguably the most enigmatic rapper in existence. There are weird rappers like Danny Brown and Yung Lean, and there are rappers who have a shtick that they stick to, like MF Doom and Captain Murphy. And then there are people who defy categorization. RiFF RAFF falls into that milieu, and with his long-awaited debut album, Neon Icon, he furthers himself from being an artist that is easy to box in. Whether or not his aggressive experimentation works doesn’t change the fact that there are few, if any, other rappers currently on a RiFF RAFF-level grind.
Let’s get this out of the way: This album is not the best “debut” statement RiFF RAFF could be making after having delayed this record several times to continue work on production and marketing. The latter of those developments is stellar, the album art eliciting laughs from even those who don’t know RiFF by name or face. To be clear, he’s the kind of rapper who can go on a date with Katy Perry while rocking a perm, shark tooth grills, and a neon tank top with a crossover of his face and Bart Simpson’s, a logo he’s been co-opting and bringing back in its best manifestation since the Black Bart years. He’s always been his own best salesman, too, so drumming up interest in the album was easy for RiFF RAFF and Mad Decent, who put out the album.
The production is where most of this album’s faults are, landing somewhere between Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet and Dr. Dre’s probably-never-gonna-come-out Detox in regard to overthinking the concept. Fans of RiFF RAFF know what to expect: syrupy and/or skittering beats with quotable rhymes whose sincerity is hard to gauge. But with his introduction to a larger audience, RiFF decides that this is the time to mix up the messages, which doesn’t work out as well as it was probably presumed it would. “Kokayne” might be one of the worst songs he’s ever put out, the faux rock track overproduced by Diplo and starting the album off with a thud. As far as opening statements go, this is like Kramer busting into Jerry’s apartment to rattle off racist epitaphs. It’s jarring, not what people who like the rest of RiFF RAFF’s catalog would expect. This isn’t the only misstep on the album either, with “Maybe You Love Me” featuring an unimpressive Mike Posner feature and sounding far too formulaic for someone so opposed to unoriginality, and “Time” sounding like what would happen if George Strait’s son tried his hand at rapping and failed miserably, with a banjo serving as part of the backing beat and likely inducing nightmares for weeks.
Don’t fret, though, because RiFF RAFF still does what he does best: dropping some of the most entertaining and comical trap rap in the current rap landscape. “Aquaberry Dolphin” is classic RiFF, as he claims he can freestyle to a dolphin noise and then does so while also referencing David Hasslehoff, Pierce Brosnan, and Allen Iverson in the same breath. Mac Miller stops by to drop one of his better features, letting us all know he’s still richer than us, but we all watch the same episodes of Game of Thrones. “Lava Glaciers” has a hypnotic beat supplied by Harry Fraud, who continues to mastermind some of my favorite tracks, and a guest spot from Childish Gambino, who continues to impress more outside his own solo efforts. It’s not a typical RiFF beat, but it works more than the rest of the experimentation, and the subdued feature from Gambino probably has something to do with helping to level the track out. (I do have a bone to pick with Childish’s Terrio line, which I’ll address straight to him: Mr. Gambino, I know that the Terrio reference is just a part of your 15 minutes of fame bit, and it’s a good bit, and I understand that rhyme schemes are somewhat sacred in a lot of hip-hop, and you adhering to one is nothing unusual, but bruh, you can’t seriously be asking Terrio if he’s eating enough. Come on. Alright, back to RiFF RAFF.)
Opening track “Introducing the Icon” has a manic “Insane in the Brain”-esque beat and finds RiFF RAFF rapping with more urgency than anywhere else on the record. It seems like he knew he was going to be doing less rapping later, so he just tried to jam as much in as he could in the beginning. It’s the fact that this song is so good in contrast to “Kokayne”, which follows it on the album, that makes this album confusing. RiFF RAFF is a good rapper, so why all this posturing as a Swiss Army Musician, capable of hip-hop, country, rock, pop, and techno all on one album?
We probably aren’t supposed to understand why RiFF is doing the things he’s doing. We should just be glad he’s doing them and we get to witness. While Neon Icon likely won’t be the push that RiFF needs into the public consciousness, it certainly won’t hurt his reputation as a VERSACE ALiEN DOiNG THiNGS LiKE NO ONE ELSE.
Essential Tracks: “Introducing the Icon”, “Aquaberry Dolphin”, and “Lava Glaciers”