In Brief: I’m not offended by The Lonely Island’s music, but I am a bit shocked at how many brain cells I lost listening to it.
Almost everyone who still watches Saturday Night Live these days claims that the show has gone way downhill since a number of their favorite cast members went on to bigger and better things. Having never watched in in the “classic” eras of the original cast, or later breakout stars such as Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, or David Spade, I can really only compare the show’s current material to the Will Ferrell years, or to the mostly superior material that was written on Tina Fey‘s watch. (Fey is my personal comedy hero, actually.) But I still get enough laughs out of the show these days to justify watching it. Popularity-wise, though, the show isn’t really “Monday morning water cooler discussion” material, save for Fey’s guest spots on the show last fall to do her uncanny impersonation of Sarah Palin (a.k.a. the comedy gift that kept on giving), and a group of guys known as The Lonely Island, who have created several “digital shorts” for SNL, many of which have made the viral rounds on the Internet and have been viewed by far more people than would actually bother staying up to watch a full episode of the show. While I have to admit that there’s something screwy about one of a live sketch comedy show’s cornerstones consisting of pre-recorded material, I’ve got to admit that some of that stuff has been quite hilarious, in its own non-sequitur way. Even if you’ve never watched SNL, if you have Internet access (which you must if you’re reading this), there’s a high likelihood that you’ve at least heard of the classic hardcore rap send-up “Lazy Sunday” or the smooth, 90’s era R&B spoof “D!ck in a Box”. If you’re prepared for more of the same, then you’ll probably like the debut album Incredibad from The Lonely Island, a group made up of SNL cast member Andy Samberg and his longtime friends Akiva Shaffer and Jorma Taccone, who are writers for the show.
Here’s the thing about “more of the same”, though – it gets tedious real fast. Part of the fun of the digital shorts on SNL is the infectious, off-kilter nature of things. You have no idea where they’re going with it until they get to the song’s inane, absurd punchline, and maybe it’s just peer pressure, but upon hearing the simultaneous laughs and shocked gasps from the crowd (or the laugh track, whatever) at some bleeped profanity or lewd bit of junior-high-mentality slang, it’s hard to avoid at least a minor chuckle at most of it. Taken off the air, away from the mostly PG-13 censorship guidelines of network TV, and away from the live audience, suddenly it’s just you and these three goofy guys trying to make you giggle with their naughty vocabulary. Sometimes it works. Most of the time, the lack of an audience makes their music rather painful to listen to. I’d say I’ve heard enough (and I’ll admit, uttered enough) coarse language over the years that my issue isn’t that I’m shocked or offended. It’s more that I prefer my humor to show a little more cleverness, even if it is a bit vulgar.
At times, I can see that The Lonely Island actually does have a clever streak behind all of the 12-year-old antics. For the most part, the style that they like to parody is hip-hop, and even though I’m not an expert on hip-hop, I can tell that the group has done their homework and that they genuinely enjoy the genre that they’re goofing on. The same goes with their oddball forays into reggae, R&B, euro-techno, et cetera. This saves Incredibad from simply being another spin on the worn-out “white guys trying to be ironic by making fun of rap cliches” punchline. They’re spoofing the mannerisms and the subject matter more than the actual sound of the music, so take away the lyrics and you might just confuse some of these tracks for the real thing (especially given a few of the guest appearances early in the album). That said, I don’t think they’re even remotely attempting to be taken seriously as musicians. They’re trying to make you laugh, and if loading down nearly half the tracks on the album with as many references to sex organs, excrement, and their favorite all-purpose descriptor “motherf*cker” as they can find time for, then so be it, that’s what they’re gonna do. On certain tracks that are really heavy on this stuff without there being much of a clever joke for me to “get”, I start to seriously wonder what I was thinking when I downloaded this album in the first place. But I’ve persevered through the whole thing a couple times, just so that you, the reader, can decide whether you’ve got the intestinal fortitude to give this one a try. (If you haven’t guessed based on my rating, and you’re not inclined to read detailed descriptions of the explicit material contained herein, I’ll cut to the case and say that my recommendation is going to be, “don’t bother”.)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
1. Who Said We’re Wack
This minute-long intro turns out to be one of the funnier tracks on the album – and probably also the only one that wouldn’t make you blush if you played it with your mother in the room. It’s an obnoxious shoutfest dedicated to the mildest insult in the annals of hip-hop. The boys have vowed to hunt down whoever the person is that dared to call them “wack”. Of course every word that could possibly rhyme with “wack” is used to bolster this redundant song, but I actually find it amusing despite its repetitive nature. This idea of taking something miniscule and silly and shouting to the high heavens about as if it’s the most awesome (or fearsome) thing ever is a template for the rest of the album – just cut and paste that general idea and overlay a ton of profanity, and you can guess at this point whether you’ll want to stick around for more. (It’s not too late to turn back!)
2. Santana DVX
I don’t even get why this track is funny. It’s a perfect example of taking something random (in this case, a fictional brand of champagne made by Carlos Santana that apparently gets you f*cked up in record time) and bragging about how awesome it is, hoping that the sheer repetition will turn it into a running joke. Rapper E-40 makes a guest appearance here, and other than the fact that the track is loaded down with odd bits of trivia about Santana’s musical career, it doesn’t strike me as all that different from your average hip-hop anthem extolling the virtues of a favorite alcoholic beverage.
3. J*zz in My Pants
Alright, I’ll admit to being naughty enough to get several chuckles out of this one. It’s a Euro-trash, nightclub sort of song that finds the guys doing deadpan raps about meeting girls and having some rather “premature” responses before they can successfully get into the sack. I’ll end up saying this many times over the course of the review, but “the video was funnier”. Samberg and his buddies’ facial expressions are what really sells it, but even without that perverse visual aid, I’ve gotta admit they still came up with a helluva strong hook that is now unfortunately stuck in my head. (Note to self – never listen to this one while logged into Gmail with your chat status displaying the song currently playing in iTunes.)
4. I’m on a Boat
Here’s another one that I don’t see much humor in at all. I see how it parodies the old favorite “brag about having rich stuff” approach that a lot of rap songs take, and just for authenticity’s sake, they brought in T-Pain to sing the hook (alright, so perhaps there’s a little irony in my use of the word “authenticity”, since I’m convinced that T-Pain is really just a dude who lip synchs to an entirely computer-generated voice, kinda like a post-modern Milli Vanilli). This track brags about how they’ve got a big expensive yacht and you don’t, and there’s some slightly amusing incongruity in the way they describe having fancy afghans and that sort of thing while doing the usual hardcore rap posturing. But this would be the track with the highest concentration of “motherf*ckers” per minute – I still can’t figure out for the life of me how the video this one managed to get aired on SNL without nearly every line of lyrics being obscured by the constant bleeping.
5. Sax Man
Taking a cue from his own over-the-top comedy band Tenacious D, funny man Jack Black makes an appearance here to narrate this wacky jazz-pop hybrid sort of song that extols the virtues of an unseen saxophone player, who apparently has stage fright, because he can’t manage more than a few aborted notes every time there’s a break in the music and Mr. Black gives him the cue to break it down. Eventually Black is forced to improvise and sing his own “sax solo”. It’s pretty stupid, but kinda funny.
6. Lazy Sunday
This one probably doesn’t even need a description, but if you missed it waaaaaayyy back in 2005 (ironically, it first aired during an SNL episode hosted by Jack Black), this is a rap duet by Samberg and Chris Parnell (who was fired from SNL the following year despite featuring in their most popular sketch in like, forever), which is all about a day spent navigating the streets of SNL to catch a matinee of The Chronicles of Narnia. Excuse me, I mean the Chronic-WHAT?!??!-cles of Narnia! Emphasis on the word “Chronic”. That’s most of the joke. The rest is cultural flotsam and jetsam, half of which probably makes the most sense to their fellow New Yorkers. This was good for what it was – the national debut of The Lonely Island, and an introduction to their sound. Once you’re already familiar with it, this isn’t really one of their funnier songs.
7. Normal Guy
This interlude plays like one of those awful skits that would air at the butt end of an SNL episode (you know, in that “dump the garbage” slot at 12:55), where the joke is revealed not twenty seconds into it and then dragged out for the rest of it. Mercifully, it’s several minutes shorter than your average SNL skit. Samberg basically does a slight variant on his “Hype Man” persona and plays a socially awkward friend with a really annoying voice who doesn’t realize he’s the weird guy in the group. This culminates in a morbid and not at all amusing punchline. Ugh. Next!
Here we get some guest vocals from Julian Casabalancas, lead singer of The Strokes, in a bizarre, synth-overloaded dance track about the sheer force of music itself. Here the everyday, mundane object having its virtues extolled is a boombox, which apparently holds the power to make everyone in the room start dancing and screwing each other like crazy. Including old folks who like to eat boiled goose. Laugh with me now… HA. Okay, I’m done.
This short, helium-voiced interlude sounds like the theme music to Super Mario Brothers, and attempts to recreate the feeling of being on ‘shrooms. I chuckled a little. But there’s really nothing else here once you take the first five seconds to get the joke.
10. Like a Boss
This one is, hands-down, the most disgusting track on the album. Seriously, I wanted to throw up when I listened to this one. It starts off innocuously enough, with the boastful subject du jour being office work, as one of the guys raps in response to a performance review asking him what his typical day on the job is like. It starts out much like a scene with a similar premise in the movie Office Space, only to turn into a tale of sexual harassment, projectile vomiting, fellatio, and graphic violence. None of these things are particularly funny. Sure, maybe it’s amusing that this dude’s “typical day” involves him crashing into the sun and dying, but when it gets to the point where you’re just throwing random nonsense at me and expecting me to laugh at the sheer extremeness of it, that’s when I start to realize how rapidly you’re killing my brain cells. NEXT!
11. We Like Sportz
The guys go “nerdcore” on this one, for a robotic, white-as-it-gets rap about two goofy guys who like to sit around and watch sports. There may or may not be some gay subtext here. If there is, there’s not enough of it to be funny. If there isn’t, then I’m probably just trying to find something funnier about this song than what was actually written.
On the one hand, I suppose it’s good to know that Norah Jones doesn’t take herself too seriously. On the other hand, I kind of thought that she had enough class and overall common sense to not participate in this sort of thing. But whatever. It’s nice to hear her voice in this unlikely setting, as the boys take on more of an R&B approach to sing about their “Dreamgirl” who, based on the way they describe her, sounds like a rather freakish individual. I’ve heard more amusing caricatures in your average Weird Al song on the same subject, but I’ll admit that Weird Al can’t sing a hook like Norah can. Thankfully they didn’t bog her track down with a ton of profanity – instead, they go for the “mundane tangent that takes over the whole song approach” by slowly turning the whole thing into a jingle for Chex Mix. Nice try, guys, but if you want to know how to make ironic product placement funny, take a lesson from Tina Fey’s show 30 Rock.
13. Ras Trent
I remember seeing this video for this one on SNL, but I don’t think it really caught on like the others did. It’s another one of those cases where it plays better as a music video than just as audio. Samberg does a send-up of the stereotypical dreadlock-wearing, heavy into reggae, and even heavier into cannabis white boy that we all knew in college – you know the type. He knew every Bob Marley song by heart and took every chance he could to proclaim that we should fight the system, while working some grunt job at the local ice cream shop (“Jah Coldstone Creamery”, as Andy puts it) and basically being a poseur. This would be a lot funnier if not for Andy doing yet another variant of the “Hype Man” and his wacky, off-key, dorky-as-possible delivery. The kicker is that he’s actually listened to enough reggae to make a lot of references to the lingo – some of them are probably being used in humorously incongruous ways, which would likely make the song a lot funnier if I were a reggae fan. Still, there’s no getting over those obnoxious vocals. Ow.
14. D*ck in a Box
I would never in a million years admit to liking Justin Timberlake‘s music, but the two times he’s hosted SNL have been an almost continuous laugh riot. The man knows his way around sketch comedy (which makes sense, given his Mouseketeer origins). His second hosting gig in 2006 gave The Lonely Island a chance to team up with him for the video that basically proved “Lazy Sunday” wasn’t a fluke – for my money, it was even funnier. Alas, knowing the title before hearing the song ruins the punchline, as Justin and Andy sweetly croon to their lovers that they’ve got a special gift for them this holiday season and we all know what that is ahead of time. Still, the “instructions” for how to put this gift together are hilarious, and the tag-team between Andy’s “low sexy voice” and Justin’s “sweet falsetto voice” makes for a spot-on sendup of mid-90’s R&B, complete with the pauses that fake you into thinking the song is over, only for the beat to keep grinding along a second or two later. I don’t know, for some reason I laughed a lot more at “(BLEEP!) in a box” than I do at the uncensored version – maybe it’s because my mind puts even naughtier words in there? Whatever. It’s still pretty funny on the album – probably the track that best survived the transition from TV to CD.
15. The Old Saloon
This is an interlude about things getting rowdy in a saloon in the Old West. Once again, Samberg relies on his “goofy voice” to sell the wacky antics. Blah. Let’s move on to better things.
16. Punch You in the Jeans
You’d expect this one to be about as bone-headed as they get, based on the title which once again tips the group’s hand on their upcoming punchline. But this might be the track where TLI best demonstrates their skills as lyricists. It takes the mentality of a fourth grader to come up with a song about socking a guy in the nads, but I have to admit that it took some doing to put all of the tricky rhymes and metaphors together that comprise this song. That makes the idiotic subject matter almost forgivable, since it plays as a halfway-decent “diss” song to the person who has thus offended them by wearing jeans. Try these lyrics on for size: “If I had three wishes, I would do the same / We see eye to eye in this jean punch game / I’d lay em in a field, where there’s chemicals sprayin’ / But I’d punch em first, yo that goes without sayin’ / Acid wash pleats or a nifty cuff / It’s just another jean for my fist to stuff / Throwin fisticuffs, eat pants like bag lunches / Jeans pronounced dead, cause of death? Hecka punches!” Idiotic, to be sure, but also very cleverly phrased.
17. Space Olympics
Now we’re back to being just plain bone-headed. I remember Samberg starring in the video for this futuristic theme song with its campy low-budget special effects, more of his dorky singing voice, and increasingly tragic mishaps (mandatory drug testing, sporting events being unilaterally canceled, the spaceship running out of air) incongruously lining up with exhortations like “You’re a winner!” I didn’t find it all that amusing now, and I still think it’s more random than funny. That seems to be the M.O. of the Internet age – throw something really random at the wall (or, more accurately, at YouTube) and see what sticks. I’d wager about one out of every thousand attempt at something like this actually makes its way to “Internet meme” status. The rest, you just forward your friends the URLs anyway, because you’re amused by the fact that it will annoy them.
18. Natalie’s Rap
These days, it seems everyone who attains celebrity at a young age finds the need to deconstruct their family-friendly image a la Britney Spears to prove how grown up they are. Natalie Portman showed an ironic awareness (at least, I hope) of this trend when she participated in the recording of this image-sabotaging hardcore rap during her hosting gig on SNL. Basically she attempts to be vulgar and offensive as possible, to shock audiences by telling people she did hard drugs at Harvard, that the kids who see her as a role model can suck her d*ck, etc. (Um, you don’t have a d*ck, but I guess that’s beside the point.) There’s something slightly amusing about the pure shock value of it, but coming on the heels of an entire album of the same type of humor, it’s not shocking any more. It’s just mind-numbing.
Mercifully, we have now arrived at the end of the album. The group closes with a lovely (note my sarcasm) little tale about how the group formed, when they were all a bunch of innocent little tweens playing Nintendo games, and on one fateful day, an alien from Mars landed and told them that they were the chosen saviors of his species. How were they supposed to save the Martian, you ask? By getting drunk and having four-way sex with it. Oh, how HILARIOUS!!!!! (Insert eyeroll emoticon here.)
The more uptight among us might choose to rant and rave about how music like this is going to corrupt our youth and so on and so forth. I don’t have an issue with that aspect of it, because honestly, have you ever hung out in a locker room with a bunch of twelve-year-olds? They sound kinda like this already without any adults around to give them ideas. (They just don’t have a fancy recording studio and exposure on national TV.) I can take a reasonable dose of profanity and even some vulgar subject matter if you can highlight some unusual aspect of it that makes me laugh because either your phrasing is clever or because you’re goofing on something that’s funny because it’s painfully true. The Lonely Island shows occasional skill with the phrasing, but as far as being comedians go, they don’t quite have the observational skills down, and this is what keeps them from being truly hilarious. They’ve shown the attention to detail as far as the music goes; now they just need to figure out a way to joke about something that’s worth listening to three goofy guys joking about for three minutes straight, rather than just making up random crap.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Who Said We’re Wack $1
Santana DVX -$.50
J*zz in My Pants $1.50
I’m on a Boat -$.50
Sax Man $1
Lazy Sunday $1
Normal Guy -$.50
Like a Boss -$1
We Like Sportz $0
Ras Trent $0
D*ck in a Box $1.50
The Old Saloon $0
Punch You in the Jeans $1.50
Space Olympics $0
Natalie’s Rap -$.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.