If Noz and The Onion collaborated, they might come up with a scenario like this one: Gucci Mane and Selena Gomez star in a Harmony Korine-directed film alongside James Franco, whose character is loosely based on the little-known YouTube rapper Riff Raff. But, of course, this is the era of trollgaze, so that movie is very real. (Which should be obvious considering the presence of Franco, Hollywood’s most visible and consistent troll.) Real, too, are these photos of Franco—in full Riff Raff regalia, cornrows and all—mugging on a fake Spring Break concert stage holding a pistol in each hand.
All of which brings up many questions—but here’s an important one: Just who is Riff Raff?
Riff Raff first came into the public eye on the unmemorable MTV reality show From G’s To Gents, which might give a hint about his motivations and personality. Early in his career, he stylized his name as MTV Riff Raff; he dropped that in favor of Riff Raff SODMG when he was “signed” by Soulja Boy’s label of the same name. He claims to be from Acres Homes in Houston, and his style of rapping would support that, but it’s pretty possible that Riff Raff the character is from Houston while Riff Raff the person is from somewhere else entirely. He is a blatant panderer, with tattoos of the logos of the NBA, MTV and WorldStarHipHop on his torso and neck; he’s also a brazen troll, having collaborated with rap blog memes such as 50 Tyson and Lil Debbie.
Yet, all of that noise distracts from a pretty simple truth: Riff Raff is a really good rapper.
Riff Raff is both an utterly shameless biter (which probably explains Soulja Boy’s interest) and entirely unique MC. He steals flows (from Fat Pat to OJ Da Juiceman) and beats wholesale, and he puts absolutely no effort into masking his influences (iconic Houston label Swishahouse, Gucci Mane, Young Dro, Lil B). It should come as no surprise that he has songs actually named “Lil B” and “The White Gucci Mane,” which play up his shamelessness while also goosing YouTube views. His videos from two years ago show him in the projects, but now he splits his time between making legitimate strides in his career by appearing on tracks with Soulja Boy and Action Bronson and hanging around with trolls both professional (Andy Milonakis, Simon Rex) and amateur (V-Nasty, Diplo).
All of this is very knowing, and so is Riff Raff’s pushing of Southern rap to its breaking point. His rapping contains plenty of lyrics that are classically Southern (“my screens hang like the teeth on a sabertooth” or “Riff on them blades/ candy marmalade”) but often he’s daring you to blow the whistle on him for operating outside the field of play. His freestyle—and where most rappers “freestyle,” Riff Raff actually freestyles—over Jay-Z & Kanye West’s “Otis” is a pretty exact distillation of what makes him alluring to some, maddening to others, and maybe a genius to a select few.
Much of the rapping scans as perfectly normal if a bit off-kilter, but he also spits out phrases and shards of images that are like the pot of Southern rap boiling over. Some of the lyrics play on genre conventions, but are just slightly askew (“I pull up in the bowling ball swirl,” “Pull up in the Mickey Mantle fleece/ wood wheel unleashed”) and some seem like they could make sense, but almost certainly don’t (“Glass on the toners/ icy toners/ flash guard/ Flash Gordon,” “Now you pull up with the equinox/ Leave the eclipse on/ Leave the Mitsubishi/ I pull up in Tahiti”). It is rap as Mad-Libs, or an unending succession of fever dreams as an entire persona.
His rapping brings up questions that have always been at the forefront of hip-hop—Is this authentic? Is any of this possible or plausible? Should I, or anyone, care about either of those things?—but he spits on them and throws them in your face so they stick there. Maybe the most important question his music asks is, “Does talent trump everything?” Because the ace up Riff Raff’s sleeve is that he is undeniably talented, as evidenced best in either the freestyle where he snorts coke on camera and then loses his mind for eight minutes or the pretty jaw-dropping one where he chops and screws his lyrics in real time. It could be argued that his nonsense approach to imagery is so low-stakes and without repercussion that it’s extraordinarily easy to do, but as he rolls out more and more songs, it becomes clear that Riff Raff is a very singular presence.
Despite his affixation to Southern rap, Riff Raff is much closer to Lil B than Slim Thug, and that ultimately explains why James Franco is now sort of playing him in a movie. The personas of Riff Raff and Lil B are governed only by their own minds; there’s no right answer to whether or not they both are geniuses, or idiots, or lunatics, or boring attention-seekers, or a plot point somewhere on that matrix. But people have long been drawn to figures like that, and Riff Raff—up from the streets of Houston, or wherever—is the next in line. Enter Harmony Korine, and eventually maybe NYU.