Lazy, Indeed.

For the scores of people who had long abandoned Saturday Night Live since its various “hey-days,” Lazy Sunday represented a return to form for the sketch comedy show. I haven’t watched SNL since I was 15, so I can hardly judge if Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell’s rap sketch is any funnier than what the show has been doing for the last ten years. But if for no other reason, the sketch’s forceful emergence on the internet – a tool that did not exist when the show “was funny” – suggests that SNL finally connected with its audience again. What is it about Lazy Sunday that’s so funny? What is it that makes it good? I’ve heard various interpretations, but none so infuriating as that of Slate’s Josh Levin.

According to Levin, Samberg and Parnell’s rap about going to see The Chronicles of Narnia is less significant for its resuscitation of life to SNL than it is for its reinvention of hip hop. Levin writes:

"…it’s notable that these moments of goofiness and whimsy are what make Lazy Sunday work as a rap song, not just a comedy sketch. It’s hard to think of a Top 40 hit that's similarly playful."

There are a lot of things one can say that contemporary hip hop might lack, but I don’t think that levity is one of them. Levin goes on to discount Eminem’s “silly songs” because his “calculated” references are designed to ensure MTV airplay. Levin’s only other acknowledgment of silliness in a recent rap song is 50 Cent’s lyric, “I love you like a fat kid loves cake.” What about Jay-Z in “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” singing with childish glee about how buying certain consumer items makes him feel more grown-up: “I paid a grip for the jeans, plus the slippers is clean/No chrome on the wheels, I’m a grown-up for real.” Or take this string of absurdities in Ghostface’s prose:

"...chicken and broccoli, Wally’s look stinky/
With his man straight from Raleigh Durham, he recognized Kojak/
I slapped him five, Masta Killa cracked his tiny form/
E’rybody break bread…"

Even if one were to ignore the fact that there are countless examples of recent rap songs with silly lyrics, the more pressing point is that “silly” is a loaded term with socio-economic and cultural baggage. In other words, different kinds of people have fun in different kinds of ways.

It is difficult not to interpret Levin’s nostalgia for “old school rap” as the preference of someone who is white and upper-middle-class. He gets right to the point by citing The Beastie Boys as a crucial influence on Samberg and Parnell. The inclusion of Run-DMC in Levin’s pantheon feels like a safeguard against accusations of racism.

I’m not saying that Josh Levin is a racist. I’m saying that he can probably identify with rhymes about answering movie trivia “so fast it was scary!” or about getting caught reading your “best porno mag” a little more acutely that he can with lyrics about “puttin’ 5 karats in my baby girl’s ears” or being put “anywhere on god’s green earth” to “triple my worth.” The playfulness in songs by black rappers – specifically of the gangsta rap set, as opposed to the more explicitly political and African-roots-oriented groups from the ‘80s – tends to involve the fruits of becoming rich and famous. When white critics deem raps about “big screen TVs, fo’ties and bitches” tacky in favor of the self-loathing, sad-bastard lyrics of white indie-rockers or the kitschy-ironic lyrics of The Beastie Boys, I can’t help but be reminded of the argument that emerged in academia between First World postmodern theorists and Third World multiculturalists. Third World critic Denis Epko writes, “For the African, the celebrated postmodern condition [is] nothing but the hypocritical self-flattering cry of overfed and spoiled children.” In other words, an artist who has just achieved the ability to feed his family is more likely to write about that than to toil in ironic self-depreciation.

What ultimately allows a white person like myself to appreciate contemporary hip-hop, and to get past the socio-economic barriers that disrupt identification, is the music itself. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the direction hip-hop has taken over the last ten years is that it has become less lyrics-centered. The most common complaint about rap from white adults is that it isn’t very musical – it’s just people talking over a beat. Of course, this has never quite been true (and it was always a little dubious coming from Bob Dylan fanatics). I do believe, however, that rappers like Jay-Z, Ghostface and Clipse, as well as producers like Dr. Dre, Timbaland, The Neptunes and Kanye have advanced hip-hop well beyond the days of The Beastie Boys and Run-DMC. The pleasure of listening to a Beastie Boys song – especially their early stuff – was mostly the pleasure of recognizing clever wordplay, and the best of their songs were the ones that actually had a good guitar riff or hot beat to accompany the words. Jay-Z, on the other hand, might have some great lyrics, but the words are lent their force by the virtuoso musical production. What we are talking about here is the difference between poetry and music, the latter being a more universal language that can unite disparate audiences.

So if, by “silly,” Josh Levin meant to suggest that rap has become less lyrics-centered, then I wish to celebrate that fact. And I also wish to suggest that the significance of the Lazy Sunday video is not for the world of hip-hop, but for the world of comedy, a form that is far more reliant on words.

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