The first time I encountered RiFF RaFF was through a link on Twitter about a year and a half ago. I clicked it and came across a YouTube video entitled “Versace Python Freestyle.” Versace Python Freestyle? Versace Python Freestyle. The video commences slowly panning across a desk covered with your typical cliché hip hop fodder- gold chains, rubber banded stacks and cocaine, but amongst it all sits a python. A fucking python. This is the world of RiFF RaFF, a.k.a. Jody Highroller, a.k.a. Blueberry Jones, a.k.a. the inventor of “tannicure” (tanning+manicure) – an infinite sea of non sequiturs, absurdist references, and an unbridled stream of consciousness creativity varnished in all the glamour of turn-of-the-century video era hip hop. I watched incuriously until the camera turned to him, his white skin covered in pop culture tattoos ranging from Bart Simpson to the BET logo, grills peeking out between his lips, braided hair running down from his forehead to his back. Was this supposed to be ironic? Racist? Funny? Serious? I didn’t care. All I knew was this guy was a complete idiot.
Less than a year after this 2 Chainz blew up. He toured with Drake, signed to G.O.O.D. Music, and released his debut album, Based on a T.R.U. Story. Backpackers the world over denounced him, like they have every popular non-lyrical rapper, “the end of hip hop.” Some of my peers deemed him dumb, lowbrow and beneath them. Others, including myself, roistered in the unwavering hilarity of lines like “she got a big booty so I call her big booty” and “extra garlic sauce I got Benihanna issues.” Soon after came fun fact of the year: 2 Chainz graduated from Alabama State University with a cumulative GPA of 4.0. Suddenly everything he rapped wasn’t being taken as seriously as Chuck D, Kafka, and the President. You just can’t expect philosophical musings from someone formerly named “Titty Boi.” And so the great debate about irony in hip hop continued.
I went to high school during the height of club tethered hip hop. Soulja Boy and Flo Rida were everywhere. Every piece of radio-ready hip hop was being written for two intentions: 1. ringtone sales and 2. to make assholes in Affliction tees drinking Red Bull and vodka dance. And every song came with its own tailor-made dance from “the stanky leg” to ” the dougie.” It was during this period that “swag” was starting to find its way into everyone’s mouth. Mainstream hip hop was certainly at its nadir in terms of intellectually engaging subject matter and, to all the sensitive teenagers out there at the end of the naughts, it just seemed cheap and uninspired. This isn’t to come off as pretentious, even though I was then. I, now, understand the necessity of both KRS One and Weezy. We need music to party to as much as we need music to think to. That is to say when I’m drunk I eat Taco Bell not filet mignon. Lil’ B can be seen as the genesis of what I’m going to refer to here as “post-swag” hip hop. It is a form of hip hop rooted in postmodern ideas of humor, appropriation, and lowbrow fetishism. Rappers like 2 Chainz, Lil’ B, Das Racist, and RiFF RaFF, who blow braggadocious hip hop to such insane proportions it becomes comical. Cultivated by, of, and for the internet, post-swag hip hop mirrors internet culture from memes like “rap game___” and the Based God to the ever ubiquitous hashtag flow. RiFF RaFF and Lil’ B are as prolific tweeters as are they rappers, generating as much of their fandom through social media networks as they do through their mixtapes.
The question of the last year has been “is this good or bad for hip hop?” Does this magnification of swag and social media culture act as a form of self-aware satire or does it represent the complete end of substance in mainstream rap? I think neither. The former implies a since of irony that, in my opinion, is absent from most of these artists’ approaches. While I do think RiFF RaFF and 2 Chainz are far more self-aware than they are self-serious, I don’t believe, at the end of the day, RiFF takes out his grills, undoes his braids and becomes Jody Christian, some middle of the road dude from Houston. I don’t think he’s ironic or, in any way, attempting to satirize hip hop. There’s sincerity buried under all that Marc Jacobs. So why did I feel this instinctive hatred towards him when I first saw that video on YouTube a year and a half ago? Was it just because he’s white? It seemed to be the only difference between him and 2 Chainz. We’ve come to a point in hip hop where we’re stuck with a sticky situation involving cultural appropriation and ideas of racial authenticity. In other words, rap game complicated.
It just comes down to the question of the artist’s intention. But it’s never entirely possible to understand this. In Death of the Author the French post-structuralist thinker, Roland Barthes, discusses the necessary separation of author from their work, stripped entirely of historical context and social constructs like race, gender, class, etc. From this perspective one must approach RiFF RaFF the same way they would 2 Chainz. So when I listen to him now I laugh at the undeniable comicality of lyrics like “I done spilled codeine on my white silk pants.” Whether or not he’s “good for hip hop”, satirical, ironic, or entirely self-serious I don’t care. All I know is this guy’s a complete genius.
The opinions and views expressed here are the opinions of the designated author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or views of any of the individual members of Dead End Hip Hop.