Riff Raff. You either love him, hate him, love the fact that you hate him, or hate the fact that you love him.
Five years after making his national debut as a cast member on MTV’s From G’s to Gents—host Fonzworth Bentley kicked him off the show—the man born Horst Christian Simco still leaves serious rap fans puzzled. The nonsensical tattoos, grill, sideburns, clothes, Vines, tweets, music! Is Riff Raff for real? On the heels of releasing more free mixtapes and music videos than some artists do in their entire career, Raff’s debut album, Neon Icon, is finally on deck.
From the start, there’s little doubt that Riff Raff is here to do more than just fuck around. He parodies his frat bro-leaning fan base on the opening track, “Introducing the Icon,” then channels the vocal-stylings of a young Eazy-E over a Deezus-produced track that sounds like it's straight outta Compton for real. Then he’s swimming in late '90s pop punk on “Kokayne,” spitting semi-sensical rhymes—“I’m Michael Bolton, boasting bragging in the Aston Martin/a lot of shit up on my chest, Dolly Parton”—which are partly humorous, but also indicative of a larger trend. Whereas his older material often came off sloppy, the rhymes off-beat, the metaphors ridiculous, here Riff Raff sounds polished and coherent. On the trap-heavy cuts, “Wetter Than Tsunami” and “Tip Toe Wing In My Jawwdinz,” his lines are delivered punctually and precisely; he rides the beat instead of letting the beat ride him. Unlike much of his previous work, Neon Icon doesn’t sound like he just sat with a microphone and spit out the first thing that came into his head, and that’s good.
Riff Raff also shows a wide range, too. He’s in full-on existential mode on “Time” (“Sometimes I feel, feel like my time passed/ Like I’m an hourglass/and the sand is moving fast”), a cleverly-arranged banjo-meets-hip-hop track, but then goes emo (“You get the VIP pass to my heart, you got the key with the lock on it/You’d feel sad if you don’t open it, it feels sad if you don’t open it”) on the nu-disco jam “VIP Pass to My Heart.” He’s also not without help, either. Mac Miller checks in on the skittering “Aquaberry Dolphin” and Childish Gamino guests on “Lava Glaciers,” featuring Harry Fraud’s haunting atmospheric production. Lest he be without hometown cosigns—Riff Raff reps Houston, after all—there’s the “How To Be The Man (Remix),” featuring local legends Paul Wall and Slim Thug. It’s not exactly them passing the torch, because who’s to say they even have it anymore, but a cool way for them to acknowledge that this weirdo is more than a passing fad.
There was a lot riding on Neon Icon. Riff Raff signed to Diplo’s Mad Decent label all the way back in 2012, and for a guy who seemed to make his name by having a firehouse of ridiculous new material dropping, the wait for his official LP became more of a sore point than anything. After pushbacks, delays, Internet-released singles that didn’t quite seem to capture the zeitgeist, maybe what was needed was exactly this—a full album of material that defies expectations. Riff Raff may never be the next Rakim, Nas or even Paul Wall. Hip-hop’s inner circle, it’s older guard, may always look at him with a bit of a side eye. But you don’t get the sense that he really gives a shit either. There’s something honorable, respectable and commendable about not pandering to that crowd. Going against the grain, against the establishment, is the ethos hip-hop was built on. In that way, Riff Raff may be even more serious about hip-hop than most. Neon Icon sure proves it. —Paul Cantor