The Lonely Island are a group who have made their name off of appropriation of different styles of music. Well, really just rap, and that’s what I’m going to talk about here. Other song parody bands, at least contemporary ones, have used the “sample from all walks of life” approach to their parody songs. Flight of the Conchords have done country, electro, and many other genres. Weird Al does much the same thing, but instead of original songs, he appropriates current hit singles, muddles the words and concepts, and is still generally funny.
In any case, The Lonely Island isn’t like those people. The Lonely Island is just a fake rap group, and not even a good one. I’ll be honest–I only know Andy Samberg by name. The other two guys are just generic white dudes, as far as I’m concerned. When the group, on “Japan,” remark that they’re “three white douchebags,” I can’t help but agree.
It really comes down to why The Lonely Island are doing rap. I don’t have an answer to that, actually, because the only thing that I can figure out is that they do it because it’s funny.
There’s a lot to be unpacked around “funny” here, though. Funny for The Lonely Island feels a lot like minstrelsy. Minstrelsy was a practice that came to massive popularity in the 19th century, featuring white men blacking their face and acting out extravagant, fantastical acts of entertainment for a white audience. That’s essentially how The Lonely Island treats rap music; it is their aural blackface in order to blow certain characteristics of rap music far out of proportion. The main defense of The Lonely Island that I hear is that they provide a mirror for the strangest portions of rap music–they emphasize the focus on sex, drugs, big hooks, etc. The problem with their reflection is that is makes rap music one dimensional; the genre, in their hands, becomes a method for dispersing a racist ideology that is absorbed, unseen, by its audience.
The tracks on the new album, Turtleneck and Chain, that only feature the vocal stylings of The Lonely Island members are incredibly bad. “We’re Back,” all about the members’ dicks, is painfully bad. “Rocky,” a reference to a series of movies that was made twenty years ago, is uninspired and boring. “No Homo,” about the use of the phrase itself, follows a familiar Lonely Island trope of gradually exploding a silly concept until you have “No homo/ but today I’m coming out of the closet/ wanna scream it from the mountains like a gay prophet.”
The only thing that makes the album worth listening to is the other artists who show up for a song or two. Michael Bolton is phenomenal in “Jack Sparrow,” a track that becomes all about Bolton’s cinematic fixation. Santigold’s chorus on “After Party” is great, too, but just because she’s a phenom.
In any case, appropriation is at work here, and it’s damaging in the end. There are glimmers of hope, and of proper references. “After Party” begins with a pretty explicit reference to R. Kelly, but even that is clouded by the minstrelsy of the band; the song it comes from, “Ignition,” was a massive single that most white people will be familiar with. Even the appeals to other rap artists are shrouded in a white narrative of race and rap.