Riff Raff Is a Real Boy with a Real Great Album
Exploring the Versace melancholy running through 'Neon Icon,' a serious contender for Album of the Summer.
Illustration by Isaiah Toothtaker
The crux of pretty much everything written about Riff Raff for the last two or so years hinges around the caveat: but is he SERIOUS? Sometimes it’s asked in earnest, sometimes it’s a stand-in for the real question: how do I approach music made by someone who annoys the shit out of me? Typically it’s followed by one of two twist endings. There’s the “but he can rap!” defense, otherwise known as the Upworthy Special (“This Idiot Viral Human Raps… What Happens Next Will Blow Your Mind!”). Or there’s the Art School Thesis, the one where Riff Raff is actually a performance artist, his music, social media presence, and corporeal being all ultimately a commentary on these damn Millennials, with their EDM and their Mang-O-Ritas.
God this is all so mind-numbingly boring. It would be boring even if it hadn’t been done to death in 2012, and again around the release of Spring Breakers in 2013, because it is all ultimately irrelevant. It was boring when Riff Raff’s true identity was a shape-shifting Versace enigma (and when it was still funny to use “Versace” as a viral adjective), and it’s especially boring now that we know he’s Horst Simco, age 32, who grew up in Copperfield, Texas, with two real live parents and three real live siblings. It’s boring to use “authenticity” as a means to dissect Riff Raff because “authenticity” is dead. Riff Raff is Don Draper, Rick Ross, Lana Del Rey, everyone on Twitter: he has decided to be Riff Raff, and so he is Riff Raff. That’s it.
What it all comes down to, ultimately, is Neon Icon: can this guy, whoever he is, make an album? Frankly, it seemed unlikely; there was the increasingly blurry release date, but more importantly, there was the matter of whether Riff Raff even wanted to make an album at all—it’s an endeavor that’s decidedly less fun than getting fucked up and making freestyle videos, or getting fucked up and being the funniest person on Vine, things at which Riff Raff excels with seemingly little effort. (It’s also a decidedly less lucrative endeavor than his steady stream of touring—rice and jewelry don’t pay for themselves.) There’s a different heaviness to an album, a weight under which it’s easy to imagine Riff Raff buckling. There’s a skit, in the album’s opening track “Introducing The Icon,” where he slips into a hilarious impression of Diplo (Riff’s Mad Decent label boss, who produced a good chunk of the album): “‘You gotta focus on the lyrics in your songs, a lot is riding on this album!’” He follows up with a hearty “Fuck that!” It’s mostly meant as a joke between bros, but it’s also a flash of insight into how Riff Raff defied expectations and made the rap album of the summer.
Neon Icon could’ve been a collection of the stuff most people expect from Riff Raff at this point—candy-coated, pop-culture-sponge surrealist wordplay, the stuff that bolsters the defenders’ claims that he can “actually rap.” Of course he can: songs like “Tip Toe Wing In My Jawwdinz,” “Wetter Than Tsunami,” and “How To Be The Man” (along with tried and true fan favorites like “Larry Bird,” “Cuz My Gear,” “Jose Canseco,” “Porche Cayenne,” ultimate game-changer “Bird On A Wire,” the list goes on) are proof enough of Riff Raff’s more-than-capable lyricism, a slightly exaggerated take on early to mid-aughts Houston freestylers, heavily indebted to Swisha House and the Screwed Up Click. These are the songs that’ll likely win over most on-the-fence rap fans, if anything; they may be delivered by a Novelty Human, but the songs themselves aren’t at all novelties. (Prioritizing aesthetics over the actual work—though whether either can really be viewed in isolation is another story entirely—is the main weapon of Riff Raff’s detractors; recall last year’s infamous Hot 97 interview, in which program director Ebro accused him of ruining hip hop after admitting he’d never listened to a Riff Raff song.)
But I’ve always found the most compelling angles of Riff Raff elsewhere, in the glimpses of sorrow and heartbreak and humanity that he’s grown less and less shy of revealing as time goes by. His easy charisma on social media is well-documented, but mostly focused on the zany or the slap-stick. But for years, his Twitter, Instagram, and Vine output has been dotted with deeply personal lifts of the curtain—poignant, relatable transmissions that reveal him as a hopeless romantic (emphasis on hopeless), a person thirsty for any sort of meaningful connection in a starkly lonely world, a person who above all just wants to be happy and still hasn’t figured out how. Sometimes they read as literal cries for help. I was especially struck by his “real boy”Vineseries; it was jokey, sure, but there was a pathos to his Pinocchio act that was impossible to brush off. These glimmers of raw humanity have slipped into his music over the years, too: take the haunting “Break Away,”the bleeding-heart country ballad “Take You Away,” or “Tiger Bear Gargoyle,” the most beautiful love-in-this-club song since “Spottieottiedopalicious.” Held up against these documents of Riff Raff’s naked emotions and deepest desires, the so-called shtick of the performance art theory doesn’t stand up.
These glimpses into Riff Raff the human, not the character, are the real backbone of the album; given the financial riskiness of Neon Icon in the first place, this re-framing of Riff Raff as a real boy feels like the entire project’s mission statement. He’s included refurbished versions of his two most poignant songs ever. There’s “Versace Python,” a weightless, dew-dropped number with the unforgettable hook, “Tears fall from the castles around my heart,” a line that feels way too real to consider just another Baroque non-sequitur. And then there’s “Time,” a twangy, tear-stained country-rap ballad that dares you to laugh it off, like an insecure kid who makes fun of himself so you don’t have to (hence its arbitrarily goofy video, in which Riff’s body is a canvas for Pringles sculptures and foot-to-face massages). It’s honest and unafraid and devastating, a seemingly-biographical account of his strained relationship with his dad, his distrust of the people who surround him, and his acute loneliness. Riff Raff is a funny guy, and he revels in the absurd, but at its core, his music is about love and loss and identity and how to navigate through a world that mostly sucks. Consider the “Jody Three Moons” skit; it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek (“It’s the actual moon”), but there’s an earnestness, too, one that makes me suspect Riff Raff has really asked the moon some big questions before. “There’s some memories we can’t get back. Some of the good, cherishing memories that we just can’t remember. Where do they go?”
There’s a self-awareness here, too, that should (but won’t) be the final word on whether or not Riff Raff is “in on the joke.” Take “Introducing the Icon,” on which Riff Raff revisits the Huf-socks-wearing dude-bro that comprises a hearty chunk of his fan base: “Bro, I don’t even like rappers, it’s just this damn Riff Raff, he’s just fuckin’ off the chain!” (These impressions have popped up on his Vine many times before.) Where, say, Macklemore’s whiteness is something for which he calculatedly faux-apologizes, and Iggy Azalea’s is shrugged off as a non-issue with an “I have black friends,” Riff Raff inflates his whiteness into a gross, fun-house mirror caricature, gently ribbing at himself and his audience. He’s not just in on the joke, he’s a couple steps ahead of it. As with his claim to be “the white Gucci Mane with a spray tan,” there’s layers to this shit.
Neon Iconi s Riff Raff as a real boy, a dreamer, a silver-tongued wordsmith, a practical joker, but for all its uncanniness, it’s also a tremendously pleasant-sounding album. There’s the requisite Mustard micro-slap of “How To Be The Man”; there’s the DJA-produced “VIP Pass To My Heart,” the best blog-house song ever made, (albeit five years late); there’s the atmospheric everyman-rap of “Lava Glaciers”; even at its most pandering (“Maybe You Love Me,” featuring human TI$A snapback Mike Posner), the radio-ready numbers are way more tasteful than they have any right to be. It’s a pop-rap album that cloaks its transgressive moments with democratic, broadly likable gestures; it’s at once curious and familiar, comforting and unnerving. It’s that ineffable sort of truly strange pop music that sometimes reminds me of another largely misunderstood debut album, Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday—an album that unsettled the rap fans and slipped strange ideas into the minds of the pop fans. Mostly, it’s an album that challenges you to consider Riff Raff as a person, not an idea.
Isaiah Toothtaker is a rapper and tattoo artist in Tuscon, Arizona. He, too, is on Twitter - @i_toothtaker
Want more Riff Raff? We've interviewed him, analyzed his lyrics using the majesty of science, and gone to his concerts alone and contemplated suicide.