Penny Arcade put a classic artistic issue well.1 There is a question about how to determine the meaning of a work of art, often of who gets to determine it. “Death of the Author, Birth of the Reader” is basically a platitude among college sophomores, such that citing any intentions at all from the originating artist gets you side-eyed. The trouble with an authority on meaning doesn’t just happen in museums, of course: “That’s not what I meant!” “Well, that’s what you said.” Exchanges like this persist even among the philosophically innocent. What you mean is not just up to you.
Enter Riff Raff’s Neon Icon, which begins with an imitation:
“Bro, bro, the Neon Icon album is so serious — it finally came out today — it’s so — brah — crank the windows down brah, I’m about to — shades down, bro. Bro I don’t even like rappers, it’s just this damn Riff Raff, he’s just fucking off the chain, I mean he knows damn near everything in the book, what are you going to do about it? Bro, did you see Jennifer last night? She was like smoking hot, bro. She had a total nip-slip. Yeah. It’s like she doesn’t even grow hair on her body, she’s just this tan beauty-queen that came from the Eastern Peninsula.”
– from “Introducing the Icon,” Riff Raff
This is an album aimed towards critics, but with what ammunition? A friend and I wondered if we would love the album as much if it didn’t begin with that ironic self-advertisement of Riff Raff as the best rapper of all time with a a serious album — the superlative briefly recognized before moving on to beautiful hairless women. This introduction and other lines (often a reference to his whiteness, “white Gucci Mane with a spray-tan,” “white Wesley Snipes,” “white Chris Rock”) seem to pointedly recognize the easiest ways to undercut Neon Icon as an album to take seriously. One way to confront criticism would be to counter it as wholly unfounded, to present himself as utterly serious, whatever that might mean. Phrased differently, one way way to confront criticism is to demonstrate invulnerability to it. But the two best tracks on the album seem fraught with the kind of human honesty that could serve as further ammunition to dismiss Riff Raff: ‘VIP Pass to My Heart’ is an autotune refrain and an earnest invitation, “You get the VIP pass to my heart, you get the key with lock on it, it’d be a shame if you don’t open it”;’Time’ describes the kind of culpable loneliness those of us who are not perfectly loving have, “In this life I live, my dad is my best friend, but it seems like I never call him, unless I need some money.” Both songs fold around arguably the strongest and most usual song on the album, ‘How to be the Man.’ Initially, I thought it was rather clever of Riff Raff: he never says that he’s the man, but can teach you the performance. I was wrong, but the actual citation is still telling.
“Mark my words, I don’t need acceptance.
I’m catching interceptions on you innocent pedestrians. (Touchdown!)
Suckers keep on flexin, I’m bringing out the rice,
Jody shaking dice watching Miami Vice,
syrup in my slice (that’s a given).
Now I’m the man but I’m crawling like a kitten, teach him.”
– ‘How to be the Man,’ Riff Raff
Before catching that, I thought ‘How to be the Man’ was the challenge of the album. That is, Riff Raff can talk the talk that marks serious rap — beautiful women, drug dealing, substance abuse, sports analogies — and it would be up to the audience whether or not being able to make these claims was enough.2 Is this enough to be worth consideration as an artist? (“It’d be a shame if you don’t open it.”) Now that I’ve caught it, I think I’m still convinced that’s the right read. If there’s something that marks him for unseriousious, it’s his inability to omit ‘crawling like a kitten’ from a claim that he doesn’t need your acceptance anyways.
Childish Gambino’s feature on ‘Lava Glaciers’ could be about either rapper.
“By heart, my art, I don’t wanna explain it.
I knew it, he bullshit, he up his own anus.
Instagrams with his fans, man, he wish he was famous.
Stop talkin’ about your heart, we give a fuck, entertain us.”
– ‘Lava Glaciers,’ Riff Raff featuring Childish Gambino
It’s a fantastic combination of artists, both stuck with the stigma of unseriousness,3 both producing work frequently about emotional vulnerability, and both creating albums that seem for the critics. Yet Gambino’s Because the Internet seemed to respond differently. Riff Raff’s critical ammunition seemed to be stringing the usual serious markers with his admissions of, well, humanity. In contrast, Because the Internet seems to be mostly about taking on the public image of Donald Glover as a “rich-kid asshole, paint me as the villain”4 and still making a fucking great album. (It is that.) The difference in countering critics is interesting. Neon Icon is about full disclosure, with a sense that the decision is up in the air. Because the Internet seems to be an exercise in making do. Rather than correcting perceptions, Gambino’s work is to work within them and demonstrate sufficient skill anyway, despite the additional challenge.
Though the latter is dense and nuanced, I inevitably prefer Neon Icon as the more interesting album, because it offers a more cohesive response to critics. While both albums have diverse subjects and pacing, I think only the Icon delivers a challenge that cannot be ignored, and I think it does so in part by the directness with which it acknowledges that there is something not simply up to Riff Raff, yet also an attempt at honesty. I think that’s ultimately what makes Because the Internet more common fare. The use of that kind of artifice is not as interesting to me. This might be one way of making sense of the difference:
Later on in Ways of Seeing, Berger considers classical paintings of women in varying states of undress and makes a critical distinction between the female subjects who are naked and those who are nude. “Nakedness reveals itself,” he writes, “Nudity is placed on display. To be naked is to be without disguise. To be on display is to have the surface of one’s skin turned into a disguise . . . Nudity is a form of dress.” With the nude, the woman addresses herself to the viewer. She watches herself being watched. She “offers up her femininity as the surveyed.”
– “Against the Nude,” Jordan Kisner
Neon Icon is naked. Because the Internet is nude. Of course, even that distinction is less than easy. Riff Raff’s album is not a leaked set of basement tapes, it is something he prepared at great personal cost for public consumption, and it is something that he did with a specific bent towards criticism. Yet he does seem a little more naked. Mary Cassatt’s paintings often seem like the best blend of the two. To be painted, her subjects had to be posed, and that might mean artifice, and therefore nudity. But there is an intimacy in those portraits that seems not to be a result of the careful choice of bodily position. They were arranged, but the feeling of the pose, between the subjects and the kind of eye required to see that position as a specific pose, “reveals itself.” To make an obvious connection, nakedness, or authenticity, or whatever you want to call it in art, is not just up to the arrangements required to make it.
The nude are bold, the nude are sly
To hold each treasonable eye.
While draping by a showman’s trick
Their dishabille in rhetoric,
They grin a mock-religious grin
Of scorn at those of naked skin.
The naked, therefore, who compete
Against the nude may know defeat;
Yet when they both together tread
The briary pastures of the dead,
By Gorgons with long whips pursued,
How naked go the sometime nude!
– excerpt from “The Naked and the Nude,” Robert Graves
Because the Internet might really be naked, in the end. I feel the emotionality of it. Sometimes as a direct result of the loneliness he often describes, but more often because the album seems so very aimed towards critics; what an immense feeling Gambino must have had as a result of criticism, to have crafted this work as a response. That’s the nakedness. Maybe that makes Neon Icon the nude-er. Criticism is referenced, toyed with, admitted. He begins the album with his expected audience of stoner bros. That was an admission of the truth. But so was the painful brevity of the conversation about him, before moving on to Jennifer’s nip-slip. Ultimately, it’s that feeling of admission which makes the work seem ultimately naked to me.
Naked and nude might be stupid terms. Apt for portraits of odalisques, but increasingly metaphorical and so increasingly unclear with other works. But rap is a genre often openly obsessed with the pursuit of authenticity, where that authenticity determines meaningfulness. Nudity describes a state of affairs in artistic works where one can see, perhaps fall in love with, a particular story that someone is trying to present about themselves. Nakedness describes a state of affairs that is not strictly up to the presenter. Something like whether or not the story rings true. Whether the story works. Whether it is interesting. You can aim for interpretation, but you can’t muscle your way into one. And it’s that sense of muscling, absent from Neon Icon but riddled through Because the Internet, which makes it more interesting. Admission, as I said. The feeling that he’s put something forth for your consideration. It’d be a shame if you don’t open it.