RiFF RAFF bucks conventions, gets weird on "NEON iCON."
Today marks the culmination of the strangest rap career genesis this country’s ever seen, one that has included an MTV reality show, a hip-hop trio name Three Loco, OG Ron C, a Harmony Korine film, a slew of investigative articles and perhaps most importantly, about as much hate as the internet can muster. The career in question is that of RiFF RAFF, AKA Jody Highroller, Jody Three Moons, The Freestyle Scientist, The White (insert any black celebrity here) or anything else he decides to call himself, and we’re gathered here today to receive his long-delayed commercial debut: NEON iCON.
Everyone reading this, myself included, already has their own preconceived opinion about RiFF RAFF. That’s almost inevitable. A guy like RiFF RAFF doesn’t breed passive consumers, with almost everyone falling on opposite sides of the Great Wall of China-esque presence that Jody commands. For the longest time, I was on the hater side, but then one day duty called, and I had to give “How To Be The Man” an honest listen at work. I think it was somewhere around the line “Rap game Uncle Ben pullin’ rice out the oven” that I realized I had to immediatly plunder the depths of RiFF RAFF’s catalog on YouTube. By getting stuck on appearance, media presence and pages and pages of hip-hop head hate, I had failed to give an inventive, restless and utterly absurdist lyricist a chance. So with NEON iCON finally here, let’s try to give it an honest listen.
The album kicks off with an almost perfect satire of stereotypical RiFF RAFF fans: two white bros who “don’t even like rappers” but seem amped for NEON iCON to soundtrack their debauched summer activities. After their banter dies down, “Introducing The Icon” kicks off, pairing a chaotic, Bomb Squad-style beat with classic RiFF RAFF bars that emphasize that he’s the “white Gucci Mane with a spray tan.” As if the self-awareness present in the intro skit wasn’t enough, we get some hilarious lines about Diplo (RiFF RAFF’s boss at Mad Decent Records and producer of three NEON iCON cuts) telling the rapper “you gotta focus on your lyrics, a lot is riding on this album.” While I initially had a lot of trouble determining whether Jody Highroller was delusional or in on the joke, it’s perceptive quips like these that make him seem cognizant of his utterly ridiculous persona. That being said, you really don’t have to deeply analyze RiFF RAFF’s psyche to be entertained by the music — his lyrics and batshit personality do enough heavy lifting on their own.
NEON iCON's best moments all come when Jody Highroller is being Jody Highroller. He's crafted such a specific persona -- the celebrity references (he names 39 total on the entire album), the Houston ties, the name-dropping of Versace products that don't even exist (mattresses, pythons), the complete devotion to nonsense -- that anytime he does anything even resembling normalcy, it comes off as half-baked and forgettable. From the get-go, it's been clear that RiFF RAFF is famous for his personal flair, and not his lyrical versatility or ability to create radio-ready singles.
The first half of NEON iCON is bursting at the seams with personality. "Kokayne," despite its rock-inspired change-of-pace, still fits in with the rockstar image that RiFF RAFF cultivates, and though its chorus screams "Spring Break 2015 playlist," there are still couplets like "I'm stacking up my cheese like a taco shell/I'm sliding through your city on a turtle shell" that no other rapper would attempt. "Wetter Than Tsumnami" puts Jody back in his technicolor trap comfort zone, and contains the immortal lyric "Step up in the club and I'm smellin' like Miami," so you know it's a winner. Don't even get me started on the "Jody Three Moons" skit, which redefines "bizarre" and leads into "Versace Python," which is still a banger despite the fact that Wiz Khalifa was left off the album version due to a label dispute.
Those last two tracks reveal a vulnerability that isn't initially an obvious facet of RiFF RAFF's personality, but behind all of the neon cornrows, tattoos of TV station logos and "aquaberry shark grills" is a melancholic side that slips out every so often, like on the "Versace Python" hook, or even entire songs, like the country-tinted "Time." Somewhat surprisingly, this sadness isn't what drags down NEON iCON, instead acting to further complicate RiFF RAFF beyond his surface-level appearance. It's on the Mike Posner collab, "Maybe You Love Me" that we get the first twinge of boredom, and lots of that's due to shiftless lyrics.
Whereas he was hilariously comparing himself to bygone NBA players "Pistol" Pete Maravich and Quentin Richardson just minutes earlier, RAFF gives us a lazy "Rap game Lebron James" line that could be found on nearly any run-of-the-mill rapper's tracks. That's not to mention Posner's vocals, which are a tad grating, and a complete lack of interesting concepts, production or wordplay, which make "Maybe You Love Me" arguably the weakest song on the album.
Elsewhere, the songs "Time" and "VIP Pass To My Heart" showcase Jody Highroller's singing, which put simply, isn't as enjoyable or unique as his rapping. These songs still have value as fish-out-of-water experiments for RiFF RAFF, but when they come out sounding like a tossed-off Everlast B-side and an auto-tuned cover of Empire of the Sun's "Walking On A Dream," respectively, the pacing of NEON iCON is somewhat hampered by their presence. "Cool It Down," a collaboration with indie rock singer Amber Coffman (of the awesome band Dirty Projectors), the aforementioned "How To Be The Man," and its subsequent "Houston remix" close out the album, making for a relatively strong finish after a somewhat faltering midsection.
The best two tracks on NEON iCON are the two collaborations I haven't mentioned yet -- Childish Gambino's "Lava Glaciers" and Mac Miller's "Aquaberry Dolphin" -- both of which find RiFF and his guests flourishing via absurdism, humor and dope production. If NEON iCON had panned out as originally planned, with guest spots from Drake, A$AP Rocky, Bun B, Juicy J, YG, Future and many others, we may have ended up with more than three dope collabos with other rappers, but instead RiFF RAFF is largely left to cary the album on his own. While his florid, proper noun-heavy rapping is attention-grabbing and earworming, it isn't yet strong enough to command around 75% of the lyrics on a full-length yet.
My ideal RiFF RAFF album would be almost the opposite of my ideal album of any other rapper -- that is, having a big guest list of rappers and producers, and an almost total lack of concept -- because RiFF RAFF seems adept at pulling other artists into his orbit (he even managed to extract LOL-worthy verses from Slim Thug and Paul Wall on this album). A RiFF RAFF album could be a place for other, more successful and self-serious artists to cut loose and vibe with Jody Three Moons for a bit which, if NEON iCON offers any answers, would be a great time. Still, RiFF RAFF exceeded my expectations with this album, and I have no doubt in my mind that he'll continue to buck conventions throughout his career.