Schwartz: It’s All About the Money
By Benjamin Schwartz, Staff Columnist
Published on Thursday, September 13, 2012
Before the camera is a formidable, rather pale white dude with long, frizzy hair, reminiscent of an American Girl doll dunked in water and then left out to dry in the sun. He’s topless, rocking hot pink 3D-style glasses, a sparkling set of grills and a hefty jack-o-lantern chain. In the course of the video, which has garnered over 140,000 views on YouTube, he conducts a tour of an apartment that he claims is somewhere in “East Brazillia” but looks pretty obviously to be one of any number of identical models forming some generic American suburban community. Actually, the video is less a tour of his crib than of the assortment of things in it: “Piggly Wiggly” sneakers; seasoning sauce he picks up off the kitchen counter; a “Gucci” can-opener; a refrigerator “that stay empty cuz I eat good;” a Ruby Tuesday-style chandelier that he claims to have bought from Mike Tyson. As he lists each of these seemingly mundane items, his exuberance over his possessions comes through in a way that’s oddly endearing, even contagious. He’s like a kid who owns a candy shop.
As some of you may have recognized, the manchild star of this video is the Houston rapper Riff Raff. In the past couple of years, he has made the transition from amassing virtual fans on lone corners of the Internet to finding real money and mainstream recognition. Since his first real exposure on the MTV reality show “From G’s to Gents” in 2009, he has collaborated with artists as notable as Soulja Boy, Wiz Khalifa and Chief Keef, and he recently signed an eight-album deal with Diplo, one of today’s highest profile producers. To the great delight of some, and to the shock and horror of others, Riff seems poised to take over the game, spearheading an ebullient, aggressively materialistic subgenre of rap that is sometimes referred to — not least by its proponents — as simply “ignorant.”
To some, his recent ascent speaks to the vapidity of a generation raised on Facebook and Twitter. He raps almost exclusively about commercial goods, showing a particular penchant for cell phones (“I’m on my cell phone / Now I’m on my iPhone / She thought it was the cat phone / Now I’m on my bat phone”) and jewelry. Despite his age, which is not precisely known but typically estimated to be north of 30, he makes songs that are nothing if not modern sounding. But regardless of its distinctly 21st-century trappings, the content of his music has roots that stretch back in history to a time before you could get famous from a YouTube video. Indeed, Riff Raff is the inheritor of an artistic tradition uniquely American and, despite all his outrageous lies — or perhaps because of them — he is the genuine modern American artist.
In his 2009 biography of Andy Warhol, critic and philosopher Arthur Danto described the pop artist’s revolutionary appeal with reference to his realistic painting of a Coca-Cola bottle: “The mandate was: Paint what we are. The breakthrough was the insight into what we are. We are the kind of people that are looking for the kind of happiness advertisements promise us that we can have, easily and cheaply.” As Warhol did so successfully before him, Riff makes art that is nearly indistinguishable from advertisements — for Motorola, Apple, Louis Vuitton, various car companies — that embody that promise, and he demolishes the boundary between his work and his life, between his person and his persona. His lyrics are a catalogue of brand names; on his body are tattooed the NBA, BET, MTV and WorldStarHipHop logos.
Like a Zen master whose personal equanimity makes the most persuasive case for his religion, Riff Raff conveys the idea that material things can actually make you happy, a notion intrinsic to the American dream, simply by virtue of his exuberant, materialistic lifestyle. As the great postmodern author Don DeLillo wrote in his debut novel, “Americana,” “To consume in America is not to buy; it is to dream.” In his very being, Riff embodies this dream. As he raps in “Jose Canseco,” one of his best tracks: “Sometimes they don’t feel you / ’Til you pull up Lamborghini.” This is not a commentary on the tenuousness of the friendships that celebrities make. It is a promise. A promise that you too, like Riff Raff, can win the admiration and respect of your peers and vindicate your existence on this planet. All you need is a $200,000 sports car.