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Riff Raff at First Avenue, 4/15/14

Riff Raff at First Avenue, 4/15/14
Photo by Erik Hess

Riff Raff
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Tuesday, April 15, 2014

After "Rose Gold Stripper Pole" -- in which Riff Raff managed get a decent bounce going simply by occasionally saying "stripper pole" out loud, over his own vocal track -- his DJ addressed the crowd. "You know you're looking at the future of music!" he said. The future of music, aka Riff Raff, aka Jody Highroller, aka Horst Simco, aka Rap Game Shirley Temple, was kneeling down on the side of the stage. "I apologize to the state of Minnesota," Riff Raff said, not acknowledging the mantle just placed on him by his DJ. "I'm very drunk right now."

See also:
Slideshow: Riff Raff at First Avenue, 4/15/14


It would have been weird if he wasn't. Riff Raff's reputation and persona is of a mad clown, and his shows have never been based around actual displays of rap skill. Live, Riff Raff is almost like a hype man for his own music -- doing push-ups on stage, getting people involved, and just generally being Riff Raff in all his iced-out glory.

Riff Raff at First Avenue, 4/15/14
Riff Raff at First Avenue, 4/15/14
Photos by Erik Hess

The stage itself was simple -- three projector screens and a DJ deck, with "Riff Raff" emblazoned across the front in what looked like cut-out white Styrofoam letters. The crowd was more than ready during the warm up set, which gave a hint of the manic-ness to come. The screens showed what looked like a Tumblr dashboard collage of cultural icons -- Carlton Banks from Fresh Prince dancing in between clips from Dragon Ball Z. After about 20 minutes of this, the man himself took the stage, looking his most Spring Breakers in a tank top with neon guns and tropical shorts that reached far past his knees.

The first two minutes were simply dedicated to his presence, no rapping required. Riff Raff looked over his kingdom while getting a few curls in with a 35-pound dumbbell -- Versace, no doubt. He wore no chainz, unfortunately. Behind him, three conventionally attractive white women between the ages of 21 and 30, who would share the stage with him the whole night, "twerked" with various degrees of success and enthusiasm.

Riff Raff had an unfocused stage presence, moving with very little rhyme or reason outside of his own id. He switched between posing before his followers (often with one hand under his chin), making out with one his backup dancers, drinking a 40, and moving a projector screen for basically no reason. When he rapped, using a headset mic, he often delivered it from an upright posture, delivering his words with the body language of giving directions. Not that he had to rap much. The Hannibal Burress bit about his shows is right -- he plays his own music, vocals and all, and hops on when he feels like it, often just for the ad-libs or punchlines.

Sometimes this worked well, like in the beginning of the show. Riff Raff is one of those people who is just naturally entertaining, even when he's not really doing much of anything. Though the rapping wasn't impressive (or even good), the vibe he created with the first five songs of the set was infectious. And it's hard not to be charmed by the massive cutouts that joined him on stage at various points -- how can you resist someone holding up their own face, six feet high adorned with neon blue cornrows?

Also included in the cutouts was his dog, Jody Husky, whose baby blues shone out over the audience, the cover of his upcoming album Neon Icon, due out later this month, and Katy Perry with blue hair, for some inscrutable reason. When it was working, it was fun as hell to go along with his ridiculousness. In "How to Be the Man," for example, he compares himself to Adam Sandler, Danny Glover, Uncle Ben (of rice fame), Julies Caesar, Eddie Murphy, and Mary Poppins. The crowd was hype.

 

Riff Raff at First Avenue, 4/15/14
Photo by Erik Hess

The set went on for more than an hour and a half, all told, and Riff Raff wasn't successful in maintaining pure charisma for that long. There are stretches of the show in the middle 40 minutes that I have a hard time remembering anything specific about, which is a bad sign when you're as much about creating a spectacle as Riff Raff.

There were many moments when things came together and Riff Raff really did seem like the he could be (at least part of) the future of music, just by virtue of pure persona. But more often, the long set felt directionless, and the phoned-in musical performance didn't lead to the type of ridiculousness I expected from someone who claimed to have an iPhone 7 in the 5th grade.

Riff Raff at First Avenue, 4/15/14
Photo by Erik Hess

Most of the highlights of this bit have little to do with the music -- like when he brought out a special guest, his dog Jody Husky, after "Rose Gold Stripper Pole." Riff Raff called him "my little son," and it was really sweet, seeing this big Siberian Husky just held up like a little puppy. But for the most part, the sloppiness of the middle of the show wasn't irreverent or fun or charming -- it was just sloppiness.

I don't have a problem with rapping over one's own tracks on principle, especially in Riff Raff's case, where displays of verbal dexterity are not exactly the point of what he's doing. However, it created some problems throughout the show. Very often, Riff Raff was about a half second behind his own song, and that made it hard to pick up on some of the often-hilarious lines he weaves in. In "Suckas Askin Questions," he said he was giving "Versace swimming lessons" and I didn't even notice.

 

Riff Raff at First Avenue, 4/15/14
Photo by Erik Hess

After all this, I'm still going to listen to Neon Icon as soon as it comes out, based on the strength of the end of the his set. After uncharacteristically slowing down for "Time," a country ballad about the nonstop march of life (the video includes Pringles), and "Lil Mamma I'm Sorry," he brought it all the way back up with a suite of three legit bangers -- "Illest," featuring Far East Movement, "Dolce & Gabbana," and "Gear," featuring Chief Keef.

"Dolce & Gabbana," the lead single from his upcoming album, especially stands out. The DJ Carnage beat slaps. He claims to be eating fried Okra with Oprah and says he looks like Mufasa. The five-word lines are Riff Raff at his nonsensical best: "I pull up at Ruby Tuesday's/ Rap game Oklahoma Sooners." I would play this for my parents with no shame; it's that good. The live performance more than did it justice.

Just as suddenly as the mainroom had turned up again, it turned back down -- Riff Raff left the stage in the middle of "Gear," a great track in its own right, with no warning, and no encore, at 12:15. The crowd slowly trickled out as the house lights went up, maybe not knowing exactly what they had seen, but knowing it was something. And probably Versace.

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: I like Riff Raff, for the most part, but I think everything he does is done better by Lil B and/or 2 Chainz.

Notebook Dump: Though Riff Raff was born and raised in Houston, Texas, he has a little-known connection the state of Minnesota. After high school -- he dropped out his senior year and earned a GED -- he spent some time going between Houston and Duluth, where his father had moved after divorcing his mother. He briefly enrolled in community college in Hibbing, Minnesota, birthplace of Bob Dylan, but soon dropped out, and in 2003 he was back in Houston, candy painting cars and beginning to become who he is today -- he started rapping in 2005.

Riff Raff's back story has been the subject of many articles over the years, most of them trying to get at exactly who he really is. Some see him as a brilliant court jester, absurd for the sake of absurdity, while others see him as doing nothing more than mock hip-hop culture in a modern day minstrel show. Still others think Riff Raff's status as a walking think piece is giving a very simple artist too much cultural credit. It's hard to stay out of your head when the performer in front of you might as well be a case study in post-modernism.

The crowd: Uniformly young. Lots of distinctive glasses, lots of crop tops, lots of neon hats and shirts -- many people were dressed like they wish they were at Coachella.

Setlist:
Versace Python
How to Be the Man
Deion Sanders
Jose Canseco
Raiders v. Hawks
Mexico
Rap Game James Franco (Deezus)
Versace Shirt [Neon Icon] (?)
Up all Night on Cocaine (?)
Second Chance (?)
???
Hologram Benz
Rose Gold Stripper Pole
Blue Jays
Suckas Askin Questions
Brain Freeze
Real Boyz
???
Deion Sanders verse
???
Time
Lil Mamma I'm Sorry
Illest
Dolce & Gabbana
Gear

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