On some level, rapping is acting: A rapper picks up the mic and transforms into a different person, or at least an augmented version of their real self. At the very least, a small-time hustler becomes Nicky Barnes, the sensible sedan in the driveway becomes three Benzes and a rap battle becomes the scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon where they're flying around fighting on tree branches and shit. It takes a certain kind of charisma to get people to pay to listen to you talk. If the words you are saying are slick or fantastical, it's that much easier. Rappers like Pimp C or Tupac are the exceptions that prove the rule. Every rapper is a compelling personality that demands attention, but Pimp and Pac were able to convey this magnetism without top shelf lyricism or technical prowess. But most rappers are really putting in work to craft the role they settle into when they make music.
The conundrum with Riff Raff aka Jody Highroller aka Kokayne Dawkins is that he lands somewhere in the middle. On the mic, he's a swagged-out yokel three-wheeling through ancient ruins. Off the mic, he's a swagged-out yokel who is trying to three-wheel ancient ruins. By all accounts, Riff Raff lives his art. His interviews are inscrutable. Only from a rando French blog's devoted research do we know anything about his past (although a little more has surfaced). His MTV and BET tattoos make him impossible to take seriously, but then James Franco playing him in a Harmony Korine film makes you reconsider. Lil B challenges listeners in the same way, but his frantic experimentation is high-minded enough to make you think about your definition of art. Riff Raff just makes you think hard about how you feel about Riff Raff: is his whole career a big practical joke on hip-hop or is he actually about that life?
Last night at S.O.B.'s, none of that horseshit made any difference because live, Riff Raff is an entirely capable rapper who performs his lyrics better than a lot of more sucessful MC's I've seen. He ran through a substantial set, hitting a lot of high points ("Deion Sandals" and "Jose Canseco"!), then ended unceremoniously after his Chief Keef collab "Cuz My Gear," exiting through a chorus of "Free Sosa!" Even when rapping over his own tracks (not instrumentals), he matched his on-record intensity live, his nasal flow mismatched with the pure Houston delivery. He sounds like a young Paul Wall on Five Hour Energy. Riff even worked a freestyle with a Fat Pat flow into "Lil Mama I'm Sorry."
What really stands out is how workmanlike Riff Raff's catalog is. He gets good, solid, traditional beats. He works with the hot rapper of the moment. And while his lyrics are ridiculous, he's just extending rap tropes ad nauseum. His existence is challenging, but his music is not. Last night was one of the weirder rap crowds I've seen, with everyone from turnt up rap teens, possible burners, jaded industry types and douches who booed opener Lakutis mercilessly during his opening set all wanting to see what the hell Riff Raff would be like IRL. What they got probably just confused them even more: a pretty good rap show.
Skinny Friedman is Rap Game Rap Writer. He's on Twitter - @skinny412