We used to consider RiFF RaFF a customized creation of every overzealous, hyperbolic Swishahouse freestyle that rolled off the assembly line. The jewelry, the braids, the persona that couldn't be stuffed inside of a box and needed to be constantly out there -- all of it was RiFF RaFF.
Let's not be completely mistaken. Every single expression about him points back to Houston. The drawl, the humorous nonsequiturs that stand out of every verse as if written in 80-point type, they all hark back to those goofy yet utterly believable freestyles where Paul Wall once told us he had a Versace skeleton.
People paint RiFF RaFF as an absurdist or a character who, now 32 years of age, couldn't be any more serious about rap as Humpty Hump or any of Kool Keith's creations. People were turned off by his Houston-stylized idiosyncrasies without doing their homework on the man. Houston rap is full of characters; remember Bushwick Bill outfitted himself as Dr. Wolfgang Von Bushwickin the Barbarian Mother Funky Stay High Dollar Billstir once upon a time. RiFF RaFF is merely the latest one, a fully fleshed-out idea of Internet memes and self-prophecy. He's no longer in Sharpstown (or Plaza de Americas, if you want to be politically correct) hustling mixtapes, he's a damn star.
So for him to jump from mixtape rapper to major-league player, a lot of his act couldn't be considered, in his words, "middle of the mall shit." For every Versace reference or cartoonish idea that left his head, there were gems like "Bird On a Wire" and tracks where he held his own with Action Bronson. NEON iCON arrives Tuesday as the first major rap album to escape Houston's city limits in years, and maybe no local rap album outside a release from Scarface or UGK will be written about as much as this.
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The furor surrounding NEON iCON is because RiFF RaFF employs nearly every piece of weaponry executive producer and Mad Decent label boss Diplo gave him. There's Mac Miller doing his best Jody Highroller impersonation on "Aquaberry Dolphin," morphing his already nasally flow into one any weed head would appreciate. He drops off into that vortex of amazing high-level alliteration on "Lava Glaciers," where he rattles off about Prada pocket protectors next to Childish Gambino.
He goes for Houston legitimacy on the remix to "How to Be the Man," his DJ Mustard-produced banger that borrows from every great Lil Mario Swishahouse freestyle of the '90s and early '00s and pairs it with Paul Wall and Slim Thug. That's a slice of the good NEON iCON , where RiFF RaFF is free. The other side packages him into a pop-rap star who could do literally anything, and flies a bit off the rails.
There are country-rap tunes of the literal variety here, often presenting moments that make you think you're being roped into a joke, but offer nothing there to meet you. I don't think the world is ready for a RiFF RaFF love song, but that's what we get with "Maybe You Love Me" -- featuring lost-but-now-found singer Mike Posner -- or the awkward rockabilly "Kokayne," but we're stuck with them amid plenty of freewheeling fun.
If RiFF RaFF is capable of doing one thing, it's getting people to talk about him, and NEON iCON achieves just that. Ironically, it's a damn good rap album in a year where they seem few and far between. There's even a little homage to Mr. Lee's wayward circus of constantly alive snares and snaps on "Tip Toe Wing in My Jawwwdinz," where he could have easily said he was crawling like Wall would. Instead, he tells us he can fuck around and sing hooks like Anita Baker. If you've been riding the wave for this long, why stop now?
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