By Sam Ozer-Staton and Harold Getz /// Staff Writers
The cover of Riff Raff’s (born Horst Christian Simpco) new album, “Neon Icon,” features the grilled, cornrowed, tattooed, penciled-bearded Houston rapper holding a smiling baby girl in one hand and his scowling dog, “Jody Husky,” in the other.
Like his cover art, Riff Raff is equal parts trashy, startling and brilliantly irreverent. And with “Neon Icon,” Riff Raff has ascended to such a level of commercial popularity and cultural relevance that he can no longer be ignored– and he knows it. Riff references his growing status as a cult icon in the album’s opening track “Introducing the Icon,” a brash track reminiscent of 90’s rap in beat and cadence, particularly NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton.”
Facetiously mimicking the voice of a stereotypical college bro, Riff satirizes, “I don’t even like rappers it’s just this damn Riff Raff. He’s just off the chain.” Herein lies Simpco’s true genius, or possibly his greatest contradiction (likely both at the same time).
In poking fun at his particularly fratty listeners, is Riff ridiculing the segment of his fan base that listen to him simply because they think it is cool or ironic, similar to Lil B’s “fans,” and don’t actually have a real appreciation for his lyricism and art? Or, perhaps deeper, is he poking fun at frat bros to point out the absurdity of liking Riff Raff himself, the ridiculous spectacle that he has made himself to be? Is he playing all of us to show just how much society worships outlandish caricatures like Riff? Riff is such an enigma that one wonders if he is not satirizing at all; merely bragging about how much people will love “Neon Icon.”
Riff toes the line between self-aware businessman and I-don’t-give-a-hoot madman/cocaine proponent. He has privately sworn off the booger sugar, all while tirelessly maintaining the image of a cocaine maniac (cocainiac?), suggesting that he is a perceptive showman rather than a thoughtless hedonist.
This oscillation is perhaps most apparent in the jump from drug-obsessed braggadocio in hard-rock track “Kokayne,” to deeply reflective and existential sad boy in the twangy, country-influenced “Time.” While it’s unclear if Riff himself is sure of what he means when he says or does anything, his deft metaphors like “I can clean glass like Ben Wallace,” (which alludes to both his ability to rebound balls from the backboard of a basketball hoop and his skills with cleaning drug-synthesis beakers) and hittin’ beats are undeniable. Perhaps the latter is a product of his label/production team changes over the past four years, having been dropped from Soulja Boy’s record label SODMG (after the split, all Soulja Boy could say is that Riff was a “cokehead”) in 2011.
These days, Riff records with Mad Decent, a progressive mostly EDM-focused record label led by the revered producer/DJ Diplo (who also executive produced the album). Whether Riff Raff is a tasteless neon sideshow or a well-deserved cultural icon, it is impossible to take your eyes off him. And that’s exactly how he likes it.