Photo by Geoffrey Dicker
The Lonely Island stopped by Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on Thursday to perform their Adam Levine/Kendrick Lamar collaboration “YOLO.” The Roots backed them up, while Fallon joined in for the hook in place of Levine and Black Thought assisted for Lamar's verse. The video can be seen below.
Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone and Andy Samberg were born and raised in the Bay Area during the rise of the Hyphy music movement. Brought up on a healthy diet of Eddie Murphy, movies paired with E-40 and Too $hort albums, the three met in middle school, forming a bond over their similar interests. Years later, the trio would form the comedy rap group, The Lonely Island, something that was never intended to become what it is today.
The trio combined their love of comedy and hip-hop during their time on the hit NBC show, Saturday Night Live.
“The very notion of rapping for comedy is a very fine line and we try and be really careful about how we walk it because when it’s not done right, it’s like the thing we hate the most in the world ... the joke is that we’re white nerds rapping,” says Samberg.
That white-nerds-rapping thing took off after The Lonely Island released a video for “Lazy Sunday” as an SNL digital short. Samberg was shocked by the response, not expecting the video to become an instant hit as the rap racked up millions of views on YouTube. The comedians took the success and rode it to three full albums, Emmy wins and Grammy nominations. As their third studio album, The Wack Album, was released in June, the trio have never changed their process for turning jokes into a full-fledged hip-hop genre.
It all starts with a joke. The guys are not interested in delivering something that could be considered corny or insulting to their favorite style of music. Schaffer is not willing to just throw something out in a song without a purpose behind it. “There has to be a joke and then rap, R&B, pop is the vessel in which we deliver the joke.” Taccone notes that as pop music and rap music change, they try and change with it, twisting their references to modern day.
The content of the The Wack Album certainly fits the bill for feeling more 2013 in terms of the themes in each song. The Lonely Island has earned a reputation for daring lyrical content (“Motherlover” or “The Creep”), but on their third effort, the songs feel slightly less bombastic. Referencing things like YOLO or Spring Break parties, the jokes are more developed and well-written. They push silliness to new extremes while also working in a few socially-conscious topics like gay marriage.
“I wouldn’t say we try and push the envelope in terms of shock value, but certainly try and think of different jokes so it doesn’t feel stale and we try and think of different ways to construct a comedy song,” says Taccone.
Stale is certainly something The Wack Album is not. Despite already having two albums under their belt, the group finds a way to keep the jokes fresh and the listener on their toes. No longer having to adhere to the busy schedule that comes with SNL, The Lonely Island took its time making sure it truly produced a record it was proud of and something the people wanted.
The trio thinks their longtime friendship with one another is what makes these albums truly come together. They remain each other’s checks and balances. If two people laugh at a joke, it stays in the song. If two people do not laugh, the joke is thrown out.
“It’s harder in some ways because you can’t get away with anything because you know everything about one another. We have all the same references. There is no learning period about what is going to work, we can just hit the ground running,” explains Taccone.
As usual, the tracklist features a list of marquee names ranging from Robyn to Kendrick Lamar, Adam Levine, Kristen Wiig and Hugh Jackman. Some collaborations were easier to come by than others. Jackman was brought in for a collaboration after meeting Samberg at a New York Knicks’ basketball game. Others passed on songs because the lyrical content pushed their boundaries too much.
The comedians are very aware that some guests are more willing to get raunchy than others. Schaffer says, “We’re very conscious of the different personalities, if someone doesn’t want to curse as much, or if someone doesn’t want to play with their image too much.”
He recalls the collaboration with Lamar. The rapper wanted to write his own verse for “Yolo.” He took a few minutes to jot down lyrics and the group just looked at each other and said, “Well, we hope it’s funny.” The song ended up becoming one of the strongest on the album.
“For rappers, we’ll leave open which bars of music they’re going to do, and give them bullet points of the joke ideas that they can put into their own words. We want the rapper to feel like himself, and not like he’s doing someone else’s lyric,” says Schaffer.
The trio remains highly involved in the entire process of creating the album. Working with a group of producers, they sift through a stack of beats until they find one that matches. The yellow pads are pulled out and the troupe writes things that hopefully make one another laugh. With this album, The Lonely Island appears much improved on making an actual song. The production is more slick, the beats are less generic and the song structures feel more formal and cohesive.
The Wack Album works in a wide range of musical genres. There is the familiar auto-tuned R&B from Samberg and Justin Timberlake on “3-Way (The Golden Rule).” The current dubstep trend is worked in with Robyn on “Go Kindergarten.” The Lonely Island also maintains the era of throwback rap that inspired it in the first place on “Diaper Money” or “I Run NY.” They play with pop-rap while also venturing into trap with “The Compliments.” Samberg wanted to present as many different sounds as possible in order for things to not feel redundant.
The album was promoted through a weekly video release labeled, “Wacky Wednesday.” No longer on the television each week, The Lonely Island felt the video releases were a good way of reminding America they still exist. “We took a page out of Kanye West’s book,” laughs Samberg.
The reality is the music videos are what The Lonely Island on the map in the first place. Taccone says that as a group they are very visual writers. He knows exactly what each video would look like for each song off the album. Much to Taccone’s dismay, the group cannot release a video for each song, but certainly intend on getting as many out as possible.
Despite no longer being on SNL, the trio still follows the strict schedule they were once used to. Most videos are done in a short 48-hour time frame. Some videos will take up to a week to be put together, depending on individual schedules. Samberg believes the video is just as important as the song itself.
“We are always writing very visually so obviously it is another great way to get the joke across. Some people have trouble hearing jokes. With the videos, it is just being like, ‘Here is what the joke is,’” says Samberg.
The videos have done their job, essentially being responsible for the three records the comedians now have out. Schaffer said the friends never truly imagined that one video would create the culture phenomenon that is The Lonely Island.
With great success comes the demand for touring. Fans have been begging the comedy troupe to do a tour and present the music in a live format. A tour has always been a hope for the guys, but as emerging stars in Hollywood, their busy schedules have been tough to coordinate.
Samberg is setting up shop in Los Angeles as he begins the new television comedy, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The show was picked up by FOX for next season. Taccone, who made his directorial debut with MacGruber, will begin writing the sequel with fellow SNL alum, Will Forte. He is also completely down for a return on HBO comedy, Girls, where he played Marnie’s lover, Booth Johnathan. A tour is certainly a dream for The Lonely Island, but making it work is easier said than done.
All three have said goodbye to SNL, the show that catapulted the comedians into their careers and was a launching pad for The Lonely Island. The Wack Album does not feel like a series of random comedy sketches formed into music, but full-fledged songs in the genre the group has dubbed “joke-hop.” The Lonely Island is no longer a silly side project created after Lorne Michaels discovered the three at the 2005 MTV Movie Awards, but a real music group, setting out to be taken seriously in the least serious format.
**Editor's note: This is a portion of the article originally featured in the new issue of Variance. Read the full interview here.