Take Donald Glover, Aziz Ansari, and Das Racist's Joke Rap Seriously

A new generation of MCs grapple with how funny they're allowed to be

Suri, along with his partner, Victor Vazquez, hopes Shut Up, Dude will untangle some preconceptions, though the emergence of "Taco Bell" is still telling. For rap, repetition was a popular drink, and it still is. Which explains how the Lonely Island's farcical collaboration with T-Pain, "I'm on a Boat," received a Grammy nomination earlier this year—in the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration category. On the red carpet before the February ceremony, T-Pain was perplexed: "It's more amazing that a lot of my stuff don't get nominated for Grammys, then a mockery of the art is nominated," he noted. "It's weird."

Not too weird. What's so wrong with being funny? Biz Markie and the Beastie Boys were making joke rap before it became a dirty phrase. Nineties films like Chris Rock and Nelson George's CB4 and Rusty Cundieff's Fear of a Black Hat worked in a similar vein: smart but over-the-top parody, deftly written from inside the culture. No one made better satire than De La Soul, one of the most celebrated rap acts ever. Rap is encouraged to be funny: The best stuff is often littered with, ahem, "punch lines," and the biggest stars—from Slick Rick to Biggie Smalls to Lil Wayne—are championed for inspiring guffaws. And though Glover and Suri are both quick to distance themselves from the Lonely Island, there's a kinship there: What made the group's 2009 full-length Incredibad so interesting was not Samberg and Co.'s lyrics—sort of funny, I guess—but how slavishly accurate the production was. "I'm on a Boat" worked well as T-Pain homage, and "Dick in a Box" as Color Me Badd–style loverman r&b. But there was also the Black Sheep nod on "Punch You in the Jeans" and the West Coast pastiche "Santana DVX" (co-starring E-40). There's even a remarkable thematic similarity between Das Racist's "Fake Patois" and Incredibad's "Ras Trent." As instrumentals, these songs poked knowingly, operating in ways beyond "Weird Al" Yankovic's chintzy Casio-and-accordion reproductions of Coolio and T.I. songs.

Ten or 15 years ago, rap became both pervasive and ripe for lampooning—now, the jokes just work better as actual songs. The real comedy comes from outsiders and oddballs. South Africa's zef clowns Die Antwoord. Hollywood club slut Mickey Avalon. Joaquin Phoenix. They're the real jokes. For the polymath Glover, rap is just a natural progression. "Comedians are obsessed with rock stars, and rock stars are obsessed with comedians—it's always been that way. Eddie Murphy. Blues Brothers. They made music, too. And rock stars want to be comedians. Jay-Z raps about Delirious all the time. They're in love with each other. There's nothing weird about it."

Donald Glover, not winking
Seth Olenick
Donald Glover, not winking

Still, it's not hard to see why there's reason to be defensive. "I read all the time, 'Oh, this nigga think he Lil Wayne.' Nobody's saying that about 'Weird Al' Yankovic. Nobody listens to 'White and Nerdy' and thinks, 'This guy thinks he's Chamillionaire!' It's a joke. I don't want to be taken as a joke." 

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