By Ben Westhoff and Katie Bain
Last night at Sonos Studio, The Lonely Island — Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schafer — talked about their music, debuted a video, and hosted a listening party for their forthcoming Wack Album, out Tuesday.
Collaborators include Kendrick Lamar, Solange, Pharrell, Too $hort, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, and Hugh Jackman, they noted. But their dream collabo remains Bill Clinton on sax.
It's jokes on jokes with these guys, all formerly in the employ of Saturday Night Live. But one thing about them is often overlooked: Though they call themselves a fake rap group, they're actually, perhaps, the best rap group going right now. Seriously.
The evening opened with a DJ set by Asa Taccone, Jorma's brother and the lead singer of the group Electric Guest. The trio then fielded questions. They were asked about the best time they've had making a video (“I'm On a boat” they agreed, though the helicopter swooping past their faces on the boat's prow freaked them out) and how realistic “3-Way” was. (“Zero percent realistic,” said Samberg.)
Our judgement may be a bit impaired because we love these guys so much, particularly Samberg, who briefly left the stage to give the rest of his Newcastle to his fiance Joanna Newsom. But fuck that, they're amazing, and considering that Wack is continuing in the same dynamic and hilarious tradition of their previous works Incredibad and Turtleneck and Chain, let's talk about what makes them so.
They call themselves a fake rap group much like The Daily Show claims to offer fake news. This despite the fact that The Daily Show completely works as a real news show, and The Lonely Island completely works as a real rap group. Call their songs parodies if you want, but they succeed beyond that. For starters, they use the same production styles (and often the same producers) as those on radio hits. Sure their beats may not be not breaking much new ground, but their production is as compelling as almost anything else out there. Long after “I Just Had Sex” stops being funny, you can still rock out to it.
They make jokes, yes, but there's more to it, especially in comparison with someone like Weird Al, to whom they admit they owe a great debt. (Last night Taccone talked about how they had him in the studio to hear “I Fucked My Aunt” and he doubled over laughing — Taccone called it one of the greatest moments of his life.) But unlike maybe half of Weird Al's songs, The Lonely Island's stuff is all original; it's one thing to turn “My Sharona” into “My Bologna,” it's another to satire entire musical motifs, which Lonely Island does on song after song. “Semicolon” lampoons hashtag rap while “Diaper Money” satirizes “grown man” rap, which yes is a real thing. “I got that wife pussy,” raps Taccone, “And the best part about it/ Is no one else can have it/ And also I can't have it/ Unless she says I can.”
Are they the best rap group going right now? A strong case can certainly be made, especially considering that the era of great rap groups has long since passed. (Our sister paper Denver Westword's survey of the 50 greatest rap groups, for example, has barely anyone from this decade.)
You could counter with a bunch of duos, though we'd argue that duos have a different dynamic than a true group. You could also mention Odd Future, although the best music from their catalog tends to be their various solo projects. Then there's Black Hippy, but, let's be honest, they're less a group and more four amazing individual rappers who enjoy each other's company. A rap group needs to have chemistry on record, to bounce off each other, to make the other members better. To, literally, finish each other's sentences. Think the Beastie Boys, the Fat Boys, Wu-Tang Clan.
And then, think The Lonely Island, who are clearly greater than the sum of their parts. Schaffer noted last night that their songwriting sessions are more like, say, the Saturday Night Live writer's room, than a traditional rap songwriting scenario. That, actually, is often an individual pursuit, whereas The Lonely Island is a true collaborative process.
Are there holes in their case? Yes! The group is pretty much incapable of performing live, a one-off on Kimmel (above) or what have you notwithstanding. Those expecting a live show last night were disappointed, and it's clear that the trio aren't practiced enough to perform forty minutes of their songs in a row. That's understandable, considering they have busy film careers (Hot Rod was a classic, by the way, even if The Watch, which Schaffer directed, was a bit wack, in a bad way.) But they're far from the only rap act not to bring it live: Future's show a few weeks ago on that same Sonos stage, for example, was miserable. He let his backing track, and the crowd, do most of the actual performing.
If live shows are your standard than The Roots are probably your favorite group. But the truth is that hip-hop remains an art form mostly focused on recorded output, and by that standard The Lonely Island is setting the pace. Humor has long been an underrated, but crucial, component of rap, as has a subversive streak. Hip-hop's game-changers have always been those who toss aside predominant styles and clichés in favor of something original, and it's fair to say that no one has a sharper eye toward the game's flaws right now than Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone.
But at the end of the day their music comes from a place of respect; they kid because they love. And, besides, the vast majority of the time, the butt of the joke is they themselves. “I think there might be something wrong with my dick,” Samberg imparts on “We're Back.” “It's like a melted stick of butter so soft that it can't fill a rubber.” Now that's a subversive hip-hop image.