There are two ways you can listen to Neon Icon. One, as a not-good rap album that rests on dated pop culture references and attempts (but fails) to blend radio-friendly rhymes with shiny pop and country, created by a fairly insane person. Or two, as self-aware performance art; a method acting project meant to examine the absurdity of money and fame, created by a dedicated intellectual. I’m inclined to think it’s somewhere between the two. In any case, an album that references David Hasselhoff in multiple songs opens itself up to some kind of criticism.
It’s strange that Riff Raff has managed to land on any level of the fame game, given that he first entered the limelight on MTV’s sleazeball etiquette reality show From G’s To Gents. Since then, he’s convinced more than a few people of his hip-hop skill set, including Mad Decent label head Diplo. Raff’s 2013 single, Dolce & Gabbana solidified his place as a talking head for a certain brand of bizarre, speed-balled, new-money rap. But on Neon Icon, over and over again, he makes you question your tastes, his tastes, and wonder exactly how seriously you’re supposed to be taking all of this. It’s a difficult listen, mostly because it’s fucking confusing.
Neon Icon is, vaguely, a concept album, I think. Spoken word interludes pop up as an attempt to propel the LP forward, but their strangeness just stutters any existing flow. In Jody 3 Moons Riff Raff says he’s “the moon” talking, offering nuggets of weirdo advice: “And it’s okay to let them tears flow like waterfalls, like Versace little raindrops.” The Bloomingdale’s At Windshire Palace has Riff assuming an upscale British accent and talking about wine, grandfathers and stockings as a violin plays in the background. It’s completely skippable, but it leaves you thinking there must be a point to it. The tiring designer name-dropping, pseudo-sponser speak and lack of focus don’t stop either. Versace Python is soft-boy radio R&B, like the Backstreet Boys in the Deep South. Lava Glaciers sounds like a lullaby, except for Riff Raff yelling like your crazy neighbor over a misplaced Nektar sample. Childish Gambino sounds fine, and his emoji-referencing stoned flow is a nice break from Riff Raff’s unfettered mania. The ever-present DJ Mustard takes production credit on How To Be The Man, which flatlines a bit, because Riff’s brick-throwing flow stales easily against the thin beat.
What prevents Neon Icon from completely imploding under the weight of its own surreality is the fact that, when he wants to, Riff Raff really can rap, and he has a way of making words do what he wants. In the Mac Miller-featuring Aquaberry Dolphin, Riff shuttles through a bright trap tingle and a dolphin squeak, shoving out twang-speed lyrics like, “It’s Pierce Brosnan, cross you up like Allen Ivey/It’s Allen Iverson/Versace rim with lemon tint/The lime Benz candy coated with the applesauce.” Mostly nonsense, but sonically appealing nonsense. Even the Diplo-produced Kokayne, with its crunchy country-rock guitars, is ultimately enjoyable, fitting Riff Raff’s dirty snarl into a stadium wrestling kind of beat.
Neon Icon is the weight the internet has left us with. It’s a much-delayed product of Tumblr art, Big Brother reality TV, corporate worship and urban fetishism. Or, maybe it’s pushing against these things. I dunno, whatever, at least it’s pretty fun.