At around 1:30 in the morning, Riff Raff stands onstage at SOB’s, wearing a pair of deep ski goggles across his zig-zagged braids, his Thriller jacket unzipped to show nothing underneath. There on his pale skin, one can see his tattoos: BET, MTV, Bart Simpson. He pauses his just-started set to make mention of Spring Breakers’ March 29th release date. It’s a B-movie for teens – starring Selena Gomez and Gucci Mane; James Franco plays someone bearing intellectual-property-strong resemblance to Riff Raff. Affecting a gentle air, the rapper continues: “I’m rap-game James Franco. Now, I ain’t supposed to talk about it, but Spring Breakers 2 ’bout to come out, too, and you know I gots to be in it! I gots to be in it!” Like most of the things Riff Raff says or does, whether it’s true or not remains to be seen.
There isn’t much rapping at a Riff Raff show; take that statement how you’d like. Instead, his performance takes other – more interesting – forms. For about a third of his time spent onstage, yes, he has a microphone and he is using it as an MC would. Usually, though, he drops it, knowing that’s not why people are there: he preens and poses, taking pictures with fans, making kissy boy-band faces at the camera; he then reminds everyone in the front row to “stay hydrated!” He traces the air like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, writing words no one can see, connecting invisible dots with his finger. At one point, he does the Carlton; at another, he claims to have invented a new dance, a half-hearted wiggle that conjures Victor Cruz on an acid trip or vision quest. It’s hard to look away from Riff Raff; he’s a curio, a specimen, a freak show and a hero. When performing during “Pop Another Pill,” he drops down and pretends to launch a pharmaceutical high into the air only to catch it in his mouth. He then proudly drums up applause, as if it were an Olympian feat, this miming. As the song plays in the background, he asks, “What is today? Thursday? Friday? Tuesday? Is it Saturday? Is it no matter day?”
In the times that Riff Raff does rap, he’s certainly using words – that is for sure – but somewhere from mind to mouth his logic gets tangled, as if his synapses are on constant detour; some call it trash, for others it’s origami. On “Lil Mama I’m Sorry,” among lines that wouldn’t make Paul Wall blush he boasts, “I’m gonna lie to your mom, get her mad at your dad.” In last month’s “Chop Another Rock,” he says, “Yeah, I’m a little upset but I drive a jet/Broccoli Corvette shining like a Chia Pet/Shining like a spoon, album dropping soon/Waking up at noon, rap-game Warren Moon.” It’s free-associative jibber-jabber, side-straddling the thin line between fascinating and frustrating. The experience of listening to a Riff Raff song is one spent retracing his steps only to find the keys in his pocket. Some have tried to give explanation to his character, calling him a misunderstood genius or even autistic; there are also questions of whether it’s all a joke, and the possibility that he’s in on that joke. Basically, Riff Raff is a character study in trolling, unless he’s not at all.
Midway through his set, Riff Raff disappears within the 40 or so people on the very-small stage, a congregation of druggies, toughs and skinny NYU nerds. It’s an incredibly diverse crowd, with a way higher average of girls and mixture of races than almost any other New York hip-hop show in recent memory. Two girls mention, without provocation, that they like the rapper “culturally, not musically.” (This is the second show of his that they’ve seen.) Riff Raff reemerges, the sounds of a twangy country song gently floating through SOB’s. After a few bars, he begins to sing along, making it the strangest (and most perfect) cover of John Anderson’s “Straight Tequila Night,” a 1991 chart-topper and boot-dragging line-dance starter. As per usual, it is done with a completely straight face and bugged-out eyes. (Little is known about Riff Raff’s actual life, but it’s a documented fact that he’s from Houston.) It’s 1:50 in the morning. As if intended to give whiplash, the DJ flips over to Parachute Youth’s pulsing “Can’t Get Better Than This,” an empty-headed dance song that is the sound of drugs taking effect. Riff Raff looks out in the crowd and announces, “I can do what I want – this is my show!”
That’s probably the truest thing he’s ever said.