There’s a very good chance you’ll hate Riff Raff. In fact, if you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance you already do. For a certain breed of rap fan, Riff Raff is a kind of exaggerated boogeyman version of everything that’s wrong with the genre: Embrace of novelty, voracious consumption, bad tattoos, Soulja Boy affiliations, shamless earworm addiction. And he certainly plays the village-idiot part with rare elan: The MTV reality-show origin story, the on-camera cocaine consumption, the willingness to ink the logos of MTV and BET and Worldstar into his skin. It took me months to get from “holy shit this guy’s an idiot” to “holy shit this guy’s amazing.” Plenty of others will never make that leap, and that’s fine. Respectable, even. But Riff Raff is amazing. He’s what happens when free-associative Ghostfacian riddle-brags worm their way into swag-rap neon, when ridiculous nonlinear punchlines become halls of mirrors, when questions become more important than answers. He’s the evolutionary Paul Wall, a self-created palefaced rap cartoon character whose mouth-diamonds sometimes obscure his ability to craft lines that bounce around in your head for days. He’s Lil B if he had a sense of rhythm and an idea of how funny he is. He’s the guy who brings the credibility to Andy Milonakis’s rap trio. He is a euphoric conundrum, and he’s better at getting me lost in YouTube wormholes than anyone else in rap today.
Birth Of An Icon is Riff’s debut for Mad Decent. He’s signed to Diplo’s label, as far as I can tell, the same way he’s signed to Soulja Boy’s SOD Money Gang — in some vague capacity that presumably won’t impede his ability to drop infectious YouTube hits whenever he feels like it. The elevator pitch on Birth Of An Icon is that the tape was supposed to collect a vast handful of Riff’s past YouTube jams, except in professionally-mastered form, and with a little new material sprinkled in, all intended to maximize Riff’s appeal to the whole new generation of Diplo fans presumably just now catching on. Well, on its own terms, it’s a glorious failure. The tape is rich in old YouTube gems — “Larry Bird,” “ICU,” “Jose Canseco” — but they don’t sound any less digitally distorted here than they do on the vast numbers of unofficial (and great) Riff Raff collections that populate DatPiff’s seedier edges. And the finished project is a sprawling mess, programmed with no sense of flow or narrative. But all that is fine, since Riff Raff has to be a mess. It’s his nature. If those old songs aren’t particularly well-mastered, I don’t think it’s because Mad Decent’s engineers did a shitty job. I think it’s because Riff Raff is unmasterable.
In that sense, then, Birth Of An Icon really does make for an ideal Riff Raff introduction, since you have to deal with all the moments of deep annoyance and low bitrate to get to the jewels of awesomeness. This being Mad Decent, the tape has more of a dance-music bent than I’d prefer, since Riff’s more comfortably rapping over slow, tinny, winding synths than jacked-up BPMs. But that dance-music side means we get to hear some delirious pieces of absurdity like “Only I Can Hear Your Broken Heart,” in which Riff raps surreal loverman talk (“Don’t limit me, I’m limitless / Diamonds on my neck, diamonds on my kiss / I really hate to be quaint / Questions on my Anne Frank”) in a fake British accent that reminds me of the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant. Or like the glimmering, pounding “Rice Out,” which has been stuck deep within my brain-matter since the moment I heard it. I keep wanting to post lyrics from it on Twitter, but I’m worried people would think I was having some kind of stroke: “Don’t you know I iiiced out my liiiightouse / Don’t make me bring the rice out.”
And anyway, even the best Riff Raff tracks have moments where he trails off mumbling, or where he seems to lose any track of where he is in the world. Riff reminds me of prime-era Lil Wayne in ways that go beyond his deeply strange sartorial choices; in floating from one subject to the next so effortlessly, he can often lose the thread completely. And that sense of perpetual highwire is one of his great gifts as well as his drawbacks. When he’s just moving freely between ideas, he’s at his best: “See, I know to propaganda / Your boy’s at Rucker Park with improper handles / The paint is egg nog, the seats is butterscotch / The flow irregular, freestyle unorthodox.” After Action Bronson bodies the fuck out of the floaty beat on “Bird On A Wire,” he doesn’t try to compete for pure firepower; instead, he turns in a Tourettically weird verse that jumps all over the meter and never quite settles in, fragmenting a regular guest-verse through a verbal prism.
Riff Raff will probably eventually move on to making planned-out albums with set collaborators, because that’s just the way the world works. But for all its glaring flaws, I love how Birth Of An Icon — and its unlicensed cousins like Summer Of Surf and The Rap Game’s Larry Bird — capture a rapper who exists as much as a spectral YouTube presence as an actual human being.
Download Birth Of An Icon for free here.