Hip-hop wise, 2009 was a big year for the Bar Mitzvah dance floor. We were gifted Sean Kingston’s “Fire Burning,” 3OH!3’s “DONTTRUSTME,” and, of course, the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.” Big, cartoonish, easily-danceable pop-rap hits ruled the airwaves. But few songs were bigger and more cartoonish than the Lonely Island’s iconic, T-Pain-assisted single and SNL Digital Short, “I’m On A Boat.”
“I’m On A Boat” is the fourth single from Incredibad, the debut “fake rap” album from comedians and childhood best friends Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone (AKA the Lonely Island). While it was written and performed by three adult men, Incredibad oozes youthful energy and rebellious charm. It feels like an album made by three middle school class clowns in their parents’ basement, if their parents lived at one of the most prestigious and well-connected entertainment institutions to ever exist.
If there was ever a song made for a tween-covered dance floor, it’s “I’m On A Boat,” an iconic party anthem about living your best life and achieving your goals…on a boat. As an awkward middle schooler, you don’t have to worry about looking uncool in front of your friends, because it’s supposed to sound silly. You’re “on the deck with your boys” rapping about “flippy-floppies” and riding dolphins. For a few minutes, you can borrow the Lonely Island’s put-on confidence, singing about climbing buoys and fucking mermaids. In under three minutes, it makes you feel, “like Kevin Garnett, anything is possible.”
Of course, Incredibad — released 10 years ago this Sunday — didn’t just resonate with young people. It was a national sensation, garnering a level of commercial success nearly unprecedented for a musical comedy album by anyone not named “Weird Al.” Incredibad peaked at #13 on the Billboard 200 chart and became the #1 comedy album in the US, selling 250,000 units in its first year.
In the four years between the Lonely Island joining Saturday Night Live in 2005 and dropping Incredibad in 2009, they established themselves as comedy juggernauts and viral hitmakers. In December 2005, the Dudes — as they refer to themselves — premiered Incredibad’s first single on SNL: “Lazy Sunday,” a cut-throat, heavy-hitting rap about Samberg and fellow SNL cast member Chris Parnell’s aggressively mundane adventure through Manhattan to see a matinee screening of The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. It transformed Samberg from “the hipster-looking new guy,” as Stereogum’s Tom Breihan referred to him in the Village Voice 14 years ago, into a household name overnight. Meanwhile, Taccone and Schaffer would prove themselves to be two of the most original and innovative sketch writers in SNL’s history, winning an Emmy — along with Samberg — for Incredibad’s second single, the Justin Timberlake-featuring ’90s R&B tribute “Dick In A Box.”
Suffice to say, nobody was surprised when the Lonely Island made a good comedy album. What was surprising was that they made a good rap album. And not just a good rap album, but the eighth highest selling rap album of 2009.
Despite largely consisting of material their fans heard as many as four years earlier, Incredibad racked up accolades that could inspire envy in the very music legends they were satirizing. The album spent 27 weeks on the Billboard top rap albums chart, peaking at #7, while their third single, the Pet Shop Boys-inspired Europop hit “Jizz In My Pants,” was viewed over 73 million times by the end of 2009. “Dick In A Box” gave them two platinum records and an Emmy. “I’m On A Boat” gave them a third platinum record and a ticket to the Grammys, where they would lose to Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Rihanna for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. It was an honor (and a surprise) just to be nominated.
Incredibad appealed to everyone from hip-hop heads who appreciated the subtle nods to N.W.A., Slim Thug, and Puff Daddy to listeners who appreciated high-quality dick jokes and catchy hooks. Four years after their television debut, the Lonely Island was more than a fake rap group people loved to laugh at; they were a fake rap group people loved to listen to.
It would be easy to attribute the Lonely Island’s meteoric rise to a case of “right place, right time.” “Lazy Sunday” debuted on SNL on December 17, 2005, and was uploaded to YouTube the following morning, only two days after the video streaming service launched. It became YouTube’s first true viral video, hitting over 5 million views before it was taken down by NBC. YouTube is equally indebted to the Lonely Island for its success— for context, the second-most watched video at the time had only 50,000 views. SNL might have given them a national platform, but YouTube gave them an international one—allowing the Dudes’ audience to rewatch and share their videos ad infinitum. “We know our fan base is on YouTube,” Schaffer told Paper in 2013, ”there’s a whole generation of people that are like, ‘If it’s not on YouTube, it doesn’t exist.’ So I know for a fact the reason we have two gold records in Australia is because of YouTube.”
Chalking up the Lonely Island’s success to coincidence undermines the talent, persistence, and ingenuity that it took for them to get to that right place at that right time. Long before “Lazy Sunday” launched them into superstardom, they made a name for themselves as pioneers of internet comedy. Coming of age along with the internet, they set sail into uncharted seas and had the rare opportunity to experiment in the soon-to-be oversaturated digital playground. They built a catalogue of work that was a click away for agents and producers who were used to wheeling in a TV and popping in a VHS tape to scout new talent.
To understand Incredibad’s cultural impact, it’s helpful to understand what the album is not. Fortunately, it is not just an SNL Greatest Hits compilation. While eight of the album’s 19 tracks aired as SNL Digital Shorts, Incredibad wasn’t just a quick way for Lorne Michaels to fund another European getaway with Paul Simon. Rather, it was a passion project for the Dudes: the debut studio album of artists who had spent nearly a decade mastering their craft. As their website notes, they’ve been sharpening their dick-joke writing and fake rapping skills since 2001.
In a 2011 interview with Stereogum, Shaffer explained that the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike finally afforded them the opportunity they’d been longing for: “All of our side-projects fell apart because of the strike and we realized that we’d all have this time off during the summer . . . which was the perfect opportunity to go off and make the album we’d always been talking about.”
When Schaffer says this is the album they’ve always talked about, he means it. Incredibad is rooted in Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone’s shared adolescence, growing up as massive hip-hop and comedy fans in early ’90s Berkley, California. You can hear it in their lyrics. With help from music legends T-Pain, Norah Jones, E-40, Julian Casablancas, and Justin Timberlake, the Dudes wax poetic about topics you might hear discussed at a middle school lunch table– their favorite snack/crush, premature ejaculation (“Jizz In My Pants”), nautical ejaculation (“I’m On A Boat”), and extraterrestrial ejaculation (“Incredibad”). This might make the album seem sophomoric, but beneath every diss track from Natalie Portman or reggae jam about whitestafarian posers, there’s a nuanced understanding, respect, and admiration for the music they’re satirizing—the music they grew up with.
Over the course of their careers, the Lonely Island have exhibited an encyclopedic knowledge of early ’90s hip-hop West Coast rap in particular. Like master chefs, the Dudes take bits and pieces from their favorite rap recipes, perfectly capturing the genre’s essence without sacrificing their own inimitable flavor. That synthesis is most potent on Incredibad’s title track and on “Natalie’s Rap.” The West Coast gangsta rap influence is palpable. Anybody could follow a recipe step by step, making a rap song that sounds like another rap song. But with samples as their ingredients, the Dudes made an original product from scratch.
Part of what makes this album so goddamn funny is how seriously the Dudes take “fake-rapping.” As a result, Incredibad feels more like a love letter to the music of their youth than a traditional parody album. Take the Puff-Daddy-inspired “Lazy Sunday”: As with the rest of the album, the Lonely Island aren’t using parody to mock the song or the artist. Instead, the humor comes from subverting hip-hop, pop, and R&B tropes and rapid-fire punchlines that would make Big L blush.
Confidence and credibility might be crucial tenets in the hip-hop game, but the Lonely Island play on a different field, where MCs deal with exaggerated performance anxiety (“Like A Boss,” “Jizz In My Pants,” “Sax Man”) and fear of rejection (“We Like Sportz,” “Normal Guy – Interlude,” “Who Said We’re Wack?”). For the Lonely Island, dick jokes have always been a means to an end, the surface layer above a deeper cultural satire of sustained adolescence.
Incredibad taught us many things. It showed us the internet’s potential to discover and foster talent. It let us bump a song about flippy-floppies at the club. It proved that Natalie Portman has bars. Mostly, Incredibad’s timeless satire taught us to take ourselves less seriously. Congratulations, Dudes. The alien you fucked on Incredibad’s closing track granted your wish: You became “the greatest fake MCs on Earth.”