I bought two records on May tenth. I’ve already written up my thoughts on Goblin for this blog and for Hearwax Media. In short, it’s an album full of promise that I doubt will ever be fulfilled. But on the same day, I bought the new album by The Lonely Island, Turtleneck & Chain. And since that day, I’ve listened to Goblin around three times in its entirety. I’ve listened to Turtleneck & Chain constantly. I wake up in the morning and put on Turtleneck & Chain, I go to sleep at night and it’s the last record I was listening to. When I’m around the house and nowhere near anything that can play it, I’m singing the songs out loud all day. And for most pop records, that would mean singing the chorus. Except that most of the songs on T&C don’t have choruses. Within days, I’ve memorized nearly all the words to these songs. And it’s got me thinking about a few things.
But let’s save the philosophy of fake rap for later. Band bio time! The Lonely Island are a comedy troupe from California who were transplanted to New York City at some point in the last five years. You might know designated frontman Andy Samberg from his appearances on Saturday Night Live as a regular cast member. The only place you might have heard of designated “supporting members” Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone is in the various songs Lonely Island are already famous for: Kiv is in “I’m On a Boat” and Jorm is in “Jizz in My Pants”, both from previous hit album Incredibad. And since these three were best friends in university (or high school, I’m fuzzy on the details), they’ve been making various comedy sketches and attempts at pilots. But, with Andy’s gig in New York came the opportunity to start making SNL “Digital Shorts”–two-to-three minute sketches made in an attempt to garner some credibility online by Lorne Michaels. And these were farmed out to–you guessed it–The Lonely Island.
Their first success was with the song “Lazy Sunday”, about rolling with a friend of yours through Manhattan on a regular Sunday afternoon and going to see The Chronicles of Narnia. And this video became an unexpected memetic hit–soon enough, people around the country were demanding to hear more from the people that made it. So Andy, Jorm and Kiv (as they refer to themselves) took to the studio and carefully crafted the best fake rap album of all time: Incredibad. A forty-odd minute collection of the bewildering, bizarre and highly entertaining hip hop that took issue with rap’s newfound focus on masculinity and money. And where Incredibad explored these interests with songs about Carlos Santana’s sparkling wine and trustafarianism, Turtleneck & Chain keeps going with the titular outfit (along with a light beer) and epic closing track “No Homo”. Yes, they go there.
Turtleneck & Chain isn’t interested in mocking the obvious follies of rap. Instead, Andy, Jorm and Kiv have recast all rappers as upper-class spoiled teenagers and kept writing from that perspective. And let me tell you, the perspective doesn’t shift that far. There is an uncomfortably small distance between the stating-the-obvious humour of “I Just Had Sex” and the wit and skill of most rappers writing about sex. Even more incredible is that they get sex-rap hook singer du jour Akon to guest star for the chorus. It lends a surreal credibility to lyrics like “This one’s dedicated to them girls/That let us flop around on top of them”–as if that’s all rappers are ever rapping about when they talk about how many girls they have intimate knowledge of. Cos that isn’t what they’re all bragging about, right? Cos if an entire genre was based on the fact that women let those men put their penises inside them, that’d be laughable. (And it is.)
Other highlights include “Jack Sparrow”, featuring Michael Bolton as a chorus singer determined to turn a song about ballin’ in the club into an ode to the titular Captain of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. There’s also the most old-school mockery award to be handed to “Rocky”, a song that parodies golden-age rap’s fascination with songs about beating up famous fictional characters. For all the white people here, think the verse about banging Lois Lane in “Rapper’s Delight”. “Threw It on the Ground” takes Rage Against the Machine’s rage and transplants it to the most useless situations ever; “Japan” is another song about stupidly extravagant rap videos and the reasons the songs are written in the first place; “After Party” is the new “Like a Boss” down to having passionate sex in the sewer.
But here’s where the philosophy comes in. After the huge success of Incredibad, The Lonely Island’s “I’m on a Boat” was nominated for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the Grammys. Not Comedy Song or Comedy Album. This song and by extension this album and these artists were nominated in the “real” rap category–and all of hip hop was pissed. All of the hip hop world said that there was no way these guys could be nominated for real rap awards, cos they were taking space away from real rappers who could use it. But aside from the fact that they say they make “fake rap”, what exactly makes their music fake?
The beats are some of the best I’ve heard on a big-budget hip hop album that doesn’t involve Kanye West or Rick Ross. The lyrics are more memorable and complex than most rap tracks out there. Yeah, most of it is simple proclamations of wealth and fame–as well as inane trivia about success–but they’re as well constructed as any other MCs boasts. Hell, I’d say that they’re even better constructed. In their excess, The Lonely Island find the memorable and effective. So what, exactly, makes it fake?
You know what I think it is? It’s funny. And rappers don’t like to admit that maybe what they do is as funny as what anyone else does when looked at for what it is. We have rap dedicated to bragging about wealth, bragging about sexual assault and bragging about bragging. We have sensitive rap, we have insensitive rap, we have feminist rap, we have masculist rap. And as long as it’s done well, I’m all for funny rap, too. FOUR STARS