This is probably the funniest song Riff Raff performed last night, so I thought you should listen to it.
Recall, for a moment, a time before Riff Raff enjoyed the same level of cultural ubiquity as non-Red Bull energy drinks and the lesser Kardashian sisters. He was simply a rapping curio, a side effect of an internet-addled rap culture that hadn’t quite gotten used to its exponentially-increasing oddness. People were drawn in by Riff Raff’s idiosyncrasies—the YouTube videos, the absurdist interviews, the nearly overwhelming question of, “Is this dude a genius, or does he really, really suck? And by really, really sucking, is he a genius?”
Slowly, such issues melted away. First he vexed the rap internet, then he conquered it, and now, like a Versace phoenix rising from its own ashes, he has transcended it. Watching Riff Raff’s audience last night at the Highline Ballroom was perhaps more telling than the set itself. Besides a few rap nerds—myself included—milling about in the back, the audience was made up by a truly staggering number of teenagers, despite the fact that the show was ostensibly 21+ (it’s probably worth mentioning that the venue’s security tried to deny me entry for having a fake ID despite the fact that I’m fucking TWENTY-FOUR YEARS OLD). These teens were scarily obsessed with Riff Raff, many wearing his signature Neff gear (sold at PacSun, natch), some even going to far as sporting Sharpied-on beards in the style of Riff Raff’s. Lots of them were drunk, perhaps for the first time. I am lucky no one vomited. I am luckier no one tried to fight me for being old.
But before the audience could pay homage to their hero, they had to find out what a post-Das Racist set by Himanshu Suri might be like. Maybe it was just me, but Heems’ set seemed to be informed by a sense of gravity—over the weekend, Suri issued a series of tweets alluding to serious drug use and the remorse he felt for indulging. Indeed, he made one telling concession in his set—during “Soup Boys” off of Wild Water Kingdom, he reframed a lyric alluding to purchasing cocaine to the past tense instead of the present. Though he stumbled in spots—he doesn’t yet quite seem comfortable performing as a solo act—Heems managed to capture the balance of the madcap avant-garde and knuckleheaded New York hip-hop that he’s seemed to strive for in his recent work. He brought out Meyhem Lauren and AG da Coroner to spit a capella, only to soon thereafter ask the audience, “How many of y’all know about a band out of Seattle named Semisonic?” and rap the word “Semisonic” a bunch of times over a Clams Casino-fied flip of “Closing Time.” Teenage minds were blown. It is in moments like these that Heems is the best kind of artist: smart, funny, provocative, political without being preachy, effortlessly sublimating between undercutting himself and building himself up.
After a quick DJ set that approached Rap Game Middle School Dance levels of obviousness and schlock (Quick side note to New York DJ’s: just because you can make the audience happy by playing five A$AP songs in a row does not mean that you should under any circumstances), Riff Raff showed up onstage at the relatively conservative hour of 10:40, drinking champagne and convincingly playing the part of “awesome famous rapper.” Contrast this with the last time I saw Riff Raff, it was nearly a year ago—he played at Santos Party House, alone, wore a headset, and performed five songs with an intermission and “press conference,” whatever that might have meant. Blame it on the influence of aligning himself with Diplo or the fact that he’s probably had lots of practice putting on stage shows in the past year, but it seemed that Riff Raff was, improbably enough, becoming a professional.
And with that, dear reader, we reached the Versace Dubstep portion of the evening. Part of no longer needing the rap internet means not having to fit within its perfectly manicured sense of taste (not that Riff Raff was doing that anyway, but people liked to pretend that he was which nearly counts). And really, fuck taste when you have the people on your side—Riff Raff can rap over dubstep all he wants, people will love it, and in hating it the rap internet will inadvertently prove its own innocence.
The thing about Riff Raff, and this cannot be emphasized enough, is that the man has a few genuinely great songs. “Bird on a Wire” is the best Rick Ross song ever to be made by Action Bronson and Riff Raff, and Bronson showed up to perform the track with him, bursting from backstage like a rotund meteor of Versace justice. “Lil Mama I’m Sorry” is wonderful, as is his semiofficial contribution to Young Jeezy’s “R.I.P.” Riff Raff also claims to have a song due out with Justin Bieber, and performed a really bad song he made with Big Sean.
Towards the end of the set, Riff Raff performed his portion of the Chief Keef collaboration “Cuz My Gear,” another landmark moment for him, musically speaking. By that time, it was pretty obvious that Riff had been lip-syncing the entire time, something he emphasized by leaning into the adlib “TWILIGHT!” instead of rapping the line, “Hanging fangs down like a vampire.” This is fine; it’s way funnier than anything else that he could have done. However, it did foreground the fact that for all the things that people love Riff Raff for—his Twitter account, his style, his Vine account, his Zelig-like ability to be everywhere with every other famous rapper all the time, his addition to rap’s slang lexicon, his penchant for saying ridiculous shit 24/7 etc.—his rapping rarely figures into the equation for many. Whether Riff should get more recognition for his music is indisputable (download his Hologram Panda mixtape if you need any persuading), but in this musical landscape, every public move a musician makes holds equal weight. A Vine is no less worthy an artistic statement than a verse full of dizzying lyricism if you are your own product. Riff Raff is rap, but modern, or perhaps rap, confronted with its own terrifying modernity.
Drew Millard understands he ran the Versace joke into the ground. Find him on Twitter - @drewmillard