Here's a thought experiment. Artist A has a bevy of gold and platinum singles. So does Artist B. Artist A has a successful YouTube channel featuring videos with tens of millions of views. Artist B also has a great YouTube channel, but some of its videos have hundreds of millions of views. Artist A has performed on Saturday Night Live five times. Artist B practically made a career of appearing on the show. Artist A has collaborated with Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and T-Pain. Artist B has collaborated with all of the above, plus Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga. Both artists released pretty awesome rap albums this month too. They're both in my top five for the year. The two artists sound like they're pretty accomplished and at the center of pop culture, right? Maybe there's a slight edge to Artist B, but it's close. Now if I told you that Artist A was Kanye West, it would be little surprise. Dude's famous as hell, and oh, by the way, he can rap. But Artist B? I'm talking about The Lonely Island.
It might be controversial to claim that The Lonely Island, the rap trio composed of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone, make genuinely good music, let alone good rap music. "We try to make fun of ourselves and how we're trying to take part in this culture that we don't belong to," Andy Samberg told Pitchfork. "We always draw that line so people know that it's comedy and not us trying to actually be musicians or rappers." But whether they believe it or not, The Lonely Island and their new album, The Wack Album, fit in quite well with today's rap culture, and they stand above much of it.
From the very beginning, rap has been flush with colorful personalities and comedic sensibilities. The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," the song that most agree to be the first ever hip-hop single, is laid-back and intentionally hilarious. There's an extended tale about eating terrible food at your friend's mom's house, and a self-comparison to Johnny Carson. Even Kanye West's serious, abrasive, and antagonistic new album Yeezus includes a well-crafted laugh line that everyone's annoying office coworker will be shouting all summer: "Hurry up with my damn croissants!"
Rap, with its emphasis on words and storytelling, is a perfect vehicle for comedy. Some of the best rap artists have an inherently comical style: Beastie Boys, Cam'ron, Danny Brown, Gucci Mane, Kool Keith, MF Doom. Like The Lonely Island, all of those rappers portray characters or heightened versions of themselves — like superhero MCs. But because The Lonely Island are comedians making music, rather than the other way around, it's much easier to write them off as inauthentic.
The Lonely Island uses rap's built-in irony for satire rather than dramatic effect. On their latest album, the group makes fun of bro culture, bad grammar, homophobia, people who claim to run New York, the lemming-like pliancy of mass media consumers, and men who wouldn't engage in a MMF ménage à trois because it's "gay." This is important. A lot of music — let alone rap music — just doesn't have anything to say. There's no point of view. That Lonely Island is picking fights with homophobic bros is nice, and it's not something they had to do. They've obviously got something to say, which is strangely lacking from many A-list releases this year.
If The Lonely Island were simply lighthearted moralists, they wouldn't be much better than a guitar mass at your local church. The thing that makes them so good is simple. It's the same thing that makes even shallow, unimaginative music good: It sounds good and it's really well-made. Recently, Steve Hyden of Grantlandnoted the group's reluctance to embrace their role as musicians, saying, "If the music truly doesn't matter on Lonely Island records, then a lot of effort was wasted on The Wack Album making it sound far better than it had to."
As far as radio-ready rap goes, it's hard to imagine a more entertaining collection of songs than what's found on The Wack Album. "Go Kindergarten" has the massive drums and grainy horns that would fit seamlessly into "Blood on the Leaves." Of course, with Robyn's hook and its nonsensical calls to action, it's a thousand times catchier than Kanye's dour rap. "Spring Break Anthem" and "The Compliments" are little ear-wormy tunes that you could imagine being summer anthems in an alternate universe where corporate radio was comfortable with lampooning traditional masculine values.
"Spring Break Anthem," especially, is a smart little song that juxtaposes the "normal" madness of a spring break bacchanal ("Trashing hotel rooms, clogging up toilets / Beer goggles if she's a hag") with the "abnormal" idea of gay marriage ("Planning the menu, picking out flowers / Nailing sluts and writing our vows"). There are a few misses for sure. But as actors and comedians, the trio raps with confidence and aplomb. No one matches the verbal dexterity of Kendrick, but, honestly, who does? Compared with a lot of other big releases this year — J. Cole, Lil Wayne, French Montana, Tyga — the Lonely Island has a lot less credibility and a deficit of hip-hop talent behind them. But The Wack Album outshines them all because of its sharp conceits, well-chosen production, and outstanding humanity behind it. There's nothing wack about it.