This is, of course, the go-to punchline about hip-hop. Weird Al spelled it out when he swapped the guns and racist cops of Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’ Dirty” for fanny packs and Star Trek shout-outs in the helpfully titled “White and Nerdy.” The same routine underlies the career of the nebbish Lil Dicky, whose biggest hit imagines him switching bodies with Chris Brown. SNL and The Lonely Island mined similar territory to huge success in the early 2000s, starting with Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell’s trip to see the Chronic(what!)cles of Narnia. The show’s recent dive back into hip-hop parody comes as rap continues to emerge as the center of pop culture—but it still presents the music as hilariously outside the (heavy on the air quotes) “normal world.”
Still there’s a specificity, a nowness, to the recent parodies. That might be thanks to the stars: Redd wanted to be a rapper before he was a comedian, and Davidson always comes off like a sentient meme. The “RBG” song riffs on “Live SheckWes Die SheckWes,” a trending dirge-slash-banger by a 20-year-old rapper who himself seems pretty funny. The “Tucci Gang” skit is a shot-by-shot remake of the video for Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang,” another viral delight that is almost post-language in its appeal. You might expect a show as middlebrow as SNL to reach for artists who’re more recognizable across generations, but instead it’s going for what kids today actually listen to.
The thirst for relevance goes beyond the song choices. The Lonely Island had fun with the absurd, but SNL’s recent works scan the headlines for serious meaning. “Music is always a way to sneak some good information into people’s ears, even if they don’t want to hear it,” Redd told Vulture. “RBG” thus tries to be a crash-course in RBG’s importance (“For those who care to know, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a noted figure in the Supreme Court Justice system,” explains Hot New Hip-Hop). “Trees” has info about ways to help the environment (Al Gore tweeted it out). “Permission” can be taken as, per Refinery29’s writeup, “The Woke Rap We Want To See.” This is all, obviously, very corny: Schoolhouse Rock with Davidson as the stoned student, unable to name an RBG decision and taking “trees” to mean marijuana.
Currency, comedy, and conscience can often be at odds in these sketches. Take one of the stronger bits, “Friendos,” which drew on something that’s in the air in the culture: mental health. Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Vince Staples have rapped about going to therapy, striking against the stigma of discussing topics like depression. And so that fact undermines the point of the sketch, which is to ask how ridiculous it would be if party-obsessed rappers opened up. Still, Redd (with Kenan Thompson, guest host Donald Glover, and the show’s other writers) came up with a pretty good subplot—group dynamics. One rapper vents his Lambo-related resentment. The guy who does the ad-lib owns up to feeling under-appreciated. It’s charming because you can imagine similar dynamics amid the actual Migos, and the music itself is a pretty dead-on imitation.
More Info: theatlantic.com