Ryan Buell | This Week in Hip-Hop
Riff Raff’s ‘Ignorant Brilliance’
Published: Monday, October 7, 2013
Updated: Monday, October 7, 2013 01:10
Hip-hop often gets a bad ‘rap’ (pardon the pun) for its apparent ignorance and promotion of materialism, violence and misogyny. From his unique facial hair and the grills on his teeth to the ignorance spouted from his mouth and the sparsely clad models in his music videos, Riff Raff would seem to be a confirmation of hip-hop’s worst stereotypes. Or at least, that’s how it appears on the surface. See, the thing is, Riff Raff doesn’t actually take himself seriously. He is surprisingly self-aware and is even capable of light satire. To fully understand Riff Raff, we have to look at two very distinct trends in hip-hop today.
The first is the mainstream trend of extreme extravagance and braggadocio — what I’ll call the “Rick Ross phenomenon.” Hip-hop has long involved the glamorization of wealth and partying — from its beginnings, hip-hop has been a celebration of rising to a better socioeconomic situation. While that theme certainly still exists today, much of mainstream hip-hop (by which I mean music made specifically with intentions of garnering radio play) has isolated the excess and materialism, making it the sole focus of the music.
That’s how you end up with a former corrections officer rapping about selling drugs, eating lobster bisque and flying in a G5. And it’s not hard to see the appeal — it’s fun to listen to Rick Ross. The sheer extravagance of his music makes the listener feel like they, too, “woke up in a new Bugatti.” No one has ever complained about listening to Ross when they’re partying in the club — and that’s the point. Yet it’s impossible to separate that view of Ross from his fictitious, narcissistic facade. In the end, he isn’t what he claims to be — but the money he makes from saying he is helps him actually live that lifestyle.
In response to this mainstream trend, a sub-current has emerged within hip-hop satirizing this Rick Ross style of music. The rise of irony-fueled media — a product of the so-called ‘hipster’ movement — has given rise to Lil B. Frankly, Lil B is a horrid rapper, with a bad flow and even worse lyrics. Despite this, he has accrued a large, loyal fan base. Fulfilling our culture’s need for irony, Lil B relies on being horrible to be successful. He breaks swag rap down to its core elements and then presents them without the sonic appeal of mainstream hip-hop. Every lyric is a common brag taken to its utmost extreme (see: “Swag to the maximum / Swag 100 thousand / 100 trillion”). Lil B’s music is more than terrible trap rap: it’s full of satire. He exaggerates the “Rick Ross phenomenon” in order to expose the music for its true absurdity.
So, where does this leave Riff Raff? He takes himself more seriously than Lil B and is more suited for the club scene. He relies on many of the same motifs as Rick Ross but also pokes fun at them. Take the recent hit music video, “Dolce & Gabana” (pronounced ‘Dole-See and Gabana’), in which Riff Raff insists that he “Only f**ks with hoes that rock Dolce & Gabana.” In many ways, the song isn’t much different from what we hear on the radio and see on TV: an infectious beat, models dancing, an obsession with designer clothing. But a music video that features the rapper crawling on the floor between models’ legs, dressing intermittently as a gorilla and, at one point, feeding a woman Brussels sprouts leaves viewers no doubt that he knows how absurd he appears. That’s the brilliance of Riff Raff. He is able to combine the entertaining excesses of Rick Ross with the self-awareness of Lil B, allowing him to live egregiously while also making a fool of himself.
Ryan Buell is a sophomore who has not yet declared a major. He can be reached at Ryan.Buell@tufts.edu.