Monday, June 10, 2013

album review: 'the wack album' by the lonely island

As I've mentioned in a previous review, I don't tend to like reviewing comedy albums, and this is mostly rooted in two factors. For starters, everyone has different tastes in comedy, and I've long ago accepted I have differing tastes in comparison to the general population. Thus, if I'm going to be judging a comedy album (and since, I'll stress, my reviews are my undiluted opinions and thus are framed through my contextual vision), I feel that my review might be misleading, even if I explain my point of view in advance.

But even if I did lay all my cards on the table ahead of time, I'm still not sure I'd be a good comedy album reviewer, mostly because my knowledge of comedy is - at least in my point of view - somewhat limited. I don't tend to consider myself funny, I understand the fundamentals of setting up a joke but really have difficulty grasping some of the subtleties, and I haven't seen a lot of the comedy gold standards. Sure, I'm trying to catch up, but in comparison with my knowledge of music (I can play an instrument and sing, I can read sheet music, I've done a bit of production work, I have an in-depth knowledge of the charts, and I listen to a grotesque amount of material), I don't think I'm at a level where I can speak to comedy with the same expertise.

So why am I reviewing the new Lonely Island album, an act formed by three SNL actors that is fairly explicitly a comedy act? Well, here's the funny thing: I have a hard time dismissing them as a purely comedic exercise. Or to put it another way, like with Weird Al, I actually will give them credit as musical artists. That's something I don't often say about comedy acts, or even comedians attempting to be musicians (in case you all forgot, Eddie Murphy had a semi-successful singing career).

Now some of you are probably asking why I give The Lonely Island a pass here, particularly when you break the act down to its disparate elements, they really only have one main joke: taking the shallow conceits and style of modern hip-hop and rap and talking about sillier material, with the joke being that it's inherently funny to see a trio of white goofballs behaving like hardcore gangstas. Now there's more in the details, but The Lonely Island have structured a great deal of their career off of this joke, and for the most part, it has held up. And I do not mean to dismiss the talent or the ingenuity of The Lonely Island at all here - while they occasionally go for the gross-out humour more than I prefer, they still have great comic timing and a wide variety of subjects they tackle well. It also helps that unlike former SNL acts of the past - namely the Blues Brothers featuring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd - The Lonely Island aren't trying to be taken as 'serious' musicians or demanding respect from the musical community.

But here's the thing - in a bizarre twist that could only be explained by the changing trends in hip-hop and rap, The Lonely Island got respect from the musical community, and the incredible plethora of high-profile guest stars they continue to recruit for their work speaks to it. And while part of it likely comes from the fact that some pop stars wanted to jump on the bandwagon after Justin Timberlake and take the piss out of their own material, the major point is that in the shallow and increasingly ridiculous pop and rap landscape of the late 2000s, The Lonely Island fit in astoundingly well. Songs like 'Jizz In My Pants', 'I'm On A Boat', 'Jack Sparrow', 'Dick In A Box', 'I Just Had Sex', and many more did surprisingly well on the pop charts because their lyrical content wasn't that far removed from the pop scene as it was. And coupled with the fact that Andy Samberg and the rest of his crew knew how to write decent hooks, it's not entirely surprising why The Lonely Island did as well as they did. Hell, I'd argue on the musical front they managed to beat a fair number of the 'legit' artists that were putting out material during the club boom, with the most immediate comparison point being LMFAO (with their one joke from 'Sexy And I Know It' being 'Heheheh, butts'). 

But now it's 2013, and the hip-hop/rap world has changed a bit. The wave of darker, more serious-sounding PBR&B isn't as easy to parody. Well, that's not quite true, but I'd argue that serious, more conscientious rap is a little tougher to make silly jokes about than the avalanche of ridiculous club music. And there's also the legitimate concern that The Lonely Island, by attempting to sound like the darker, bleaker rap might lose some of their lightweight and fun personality. So, can they pull it off?

Well, sort of. And while I think The Wack Album is probably the weakest of the three Lonely Island releases, it's still an admirable parody effort that occasionally manages to be very, very funny. Obviously, I'm not going to spoil any of the jokes, but just in case you want to go into this album completely unaware of any possible material, potential spoilers start now.

Now I'm sure I raised a few eyebrows a moment ago by stating that I think this album is arguably the weakest of the trio of albums The Lonely Island have released - but the frustrating thing is, as I've mentioned above, rap and R&B have somewhat evolved since The Lonely Island debuted, and they really haven't kept up with the pace, at least not to the sharp level that their previous album Turtleneck & Chain did (which I still hold as the best of the trio). For me at least, what made The Lonely Island a great act was the fact they managed a note-perfect pop culture parody of the genre, and yet were good enough in terms of musical production to lend their jokes a real flair. 

And it appears that the majority of that is still true. Their production is still top-of-the-line hip-hop bombast, they've managed to recruit an impressive amount of guest stars (from Swedish pop artist Robyn to Pharrell to Justin Timberlake to Lady Gaga to Adam Levine to Billie Joe Armstrong (?) to Kristen Wiig (???) and of course T-Pain), and their flow is probably better than ever. In fact, if The Lonely Island weren't explicitly a parody act, I'd be hardpressed not to consider them a follow-up to the Beastie Boys, particularly in terms of flow and lyrical delivery. And for the most part, everyone brought their A-game and are throwing themselves into their material with a surprising amount of energy.

But now we have to talk about the jokes, and here's where my issues with the album start coming up. To properly explain this, I want you all to go back to the first time you heard 'Jizz In My Pants' or 'I'm On A Boat' or 'I Just Had Sex'. These songs work as professionally executed pop satire, writing a parody song that was easily catchy and strong enough to stand alone, with a memorable hook and subject matter that stands out from the crowd. They were the centerpieces of the album, and rightly so.

But on The Wack Album, we don't quite any songs that really have that bigger ambition, or the desire to go for broke. I mean, there's an attempt with 'YOLO', a justified parody of that ridiculous catchphrase courtesy of Drake last year, but neither Kendrick Lamar or Adam Levine have the charisma or vocal presence to match The Lonely Island like T-Pain or Akon. Fortunately, The Lonely Island have enough presence on their tracks to carry one of these bigger hits on their own, but the lone entry on that list turns out to be 'Spring Break Anthem', which takes the piss out of the bro spring break party by juxtaposing it with gay marriage as something equally hyper-masculine. 

And it's not The Lonely Island's fault that Harmony Korine already sort of tore apart the masculine fantasy in Spring Breakers, nor is it their fault that their collaboration with Robyn ('Going Kindergarten') is attempting to do ironically what did completely unironically on his most recent release with 'Getting Dumb'. But it's indicative of the big problem with The Wack Album: none of the jokes feel all that fresh or original. It doesn't help matters that a fair chunk of their material for this album was released on Youtube long before this album was even announced - so sure, '3-Way' with Lady Gaga and Justin Timberlake is funny, but I heard it over two years ago! And even going back to their newer material, 'Spring Break Anthem' might be yet another song of theirs taking the piss out of college douchebags, but between CollegeHumor and Spring Breakers and the fact I live in Canada and gay marriage has been legal for some time, the joke is really kind of stale for me.

That said, there were more than a couple of occasions where The Lonely Island deliver here. 'Hugs' featuring Pharrell is a hilarious takedown of club romance featuring one of the hottest crooners in the genre (particularly right now with 'Get Lucky' and 'Blurred Lines'), and I particularly dug 'Semi-colons' with Solange for another well-deserved takedown of hashtag rap. As much as Billie Joe Armstrong's performance was all too reminiscent of 'Nightline' (off of the execrable 'Dos!' album), 'I Run New York' was pretty damn funny and I enjoyed the 'Like A Boss'-esque payoff to the song (albeit with less giant fish-fucking). And 'Meet The Crew' takes the style of overloaded rap posses to their logical extreme and it's funny as hell. 

But as I said above, none of these songs are strong enough to give the album some real punch or satiric energy, so like any comedian running out of material, The Lonely Island go straight for funny accents, bad puns, 'gay panic' jokes, and ramping up the dark/gross-out humour. And sure, dark/gross-out humour has always been a staple of The Lonely Island's collection, but too often on The Wack Album is just becomes kind of incredibly unfunny. This are songs like 'I Fucked My Aunt' (haha, incest humour and bad puns) or 'The Compliments' (haha, these guys are complimenting each other, so they must be gay) or 'You've Got The Look' (haha, genitals are funny and Kristen Wiig isn't funny) - sure, it's humour, but it's stale and overdone. And remember how I said the big gag with The Lonely Island is that it's inherently funny to see a trio of white goofballs behaving like hardcore gangstas when they really aren't? Well, they take this subtext joke and hammer it into the ground about six times on this album, about five times more than it needed to take to stop being funny. 

So here's where I ultimately come down on The Wack Album, and why I really can't recommend it to the same degree I can recommend Incredibad or Turtleneck & Chain: it's really nothing you haven't heard before. Sure, there are a few good jokes and a few hilarious songs, but as a whole, there's a lot of empty, laughless stretches of this album that just aren't musically or lyrically interesting enough to recommend. The more I think about it, the more I conclude that the biggest strength of The Lonely Island came from precisely on-point parodies of the modern pop cultural scene, and on The Wack Album, we don't really get that. Is this the fault of The Lonely Island not being able to come up with jokes when so much of pop culture today is a massive joke?

I really can't answer that question, to be honest. What I do know is that they could have done a lot better.

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