Netflix's Anything-Goes Philosophy Gets to Parody Rap
After surprising Super Bowl 2018 viewers with an ad announcing that sci-fi movie The Cloverfield Paradox would be arriving imminently, Netflix chose not to make a habit of similar ambushes. Instead, it left that practice to the musicians. Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Eminem, Death Grips, Drake, and Beyoncé again (this time as half of The Carters) have all leveraged the factory-free nature of the streaming industry in recent years to unleash albums with little to no advance warning.
Well, Netflix seems to be warming up again. In April, its partnership with horror studio Blumhouse Productions spawned two separate cinematic jump-scares, Mercy Black and Thriller. Earlier this month, Chinese sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth snuck onto the platform with nary a US trailer or official acknowledgment. Each makes sense in its way; genre fans were presumably likely to find the newcomers in their suggested new releases, simply by virtue of their viewing habits.
What's a little less obvious is who, exactly, would find out about The Lonely Island's The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience, which landed on Netflix late Wednesday night. The comedy trio's Lemonade-style "visual poem" crams 11 short songs into 30 minutes—all about, and in the guise of, late-’80s baseball superstars and steroid poster children Jose Canseco (Andy Samberg) and Mark McGwire (Akiva Shaffer) of the Oakland A's. Like most of Lonely Island's musical oeuvre, it's rap and R&B. Or parody rap and R&B. Or somewhere between the two.
Admittedly, I'm the second L in the bullseye at the center of The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience's intended audience. Like TLI, I'm an ’80s kid, lodged in the forgotten years between Generation X and the millennials; like TLI, I grew up with rap as my personal dominant cultural form. Back then, I loved baseball and vividly remember watching the Bash Brothers beat my beloved Red Sox to progress to the 1988 World Series. Living in Oakland completes the Ideal Viewer trifecta. Every reference to Hilltop Mall, every mention of gated suburb Blackhawk (where Canseco actually lived) or hard-R slang drop or drone shot of Oakland's Lake Merritt feels like a personal shout-out.
Even setting those personal qualifications/failings aside, TUBBE navigates its core nostalgias deftly, cutting through a sea of steroid jokes and forearm high fives with a heaping spoonful of nihilism. (If you're expecting "Lazy Sunday," you won't get it; this is more "Space Olympics" than "I'm On a Boat.") The Lonely Island's success has always depended on specificity, surrealism, and straight faces, and all three are well represented here. The 808-anchored Beastie Boys tribute "Uniform On" turns on a dime, devolving from Alf references to a nightmarish roid-rage fantasia of self-mutilation. On "IHOP Parking Lot," an homage to Janet Jackson's "Nasty Boy" turns into a battle of the sexes by way of Shirley Jackson, a quintet of women—which includes Maya Rudolph and rock sister-trio Haim—chanting "shake that butt" with ominous, dead-eyed insistence.
I'm just going to say it: The Lonely Island has always been underrated as songwriters. While white comedians tapping hip-hop for punchlines tends to feel grossly ironic, Samberg and Shaffer—along with third Islander Jorma Taccone, who shows up sparingly here—obviously grew up listening to it in Oakland-adjacent Berkeley and over time have turned in more-than-competent distillations of Nice and Smooth and Bay Area legend E-40 (who a decade ago lent his considerable talents to the group's "Santana DVX"). The culture for them is a premise, not a punchline—a distinction missing for Samberg's SNL-mate Chris Parnell, who always seemed to think that a doofy white guy rapping hard is intrinsically funny. That comes through here in songs like the bouncy, synth-drenched "Let's Bash," a hyphy ode that works in everything from Dru Down-style vocal flourishes to Norcal-specific A Tribe Called Quest references ("I left my steroids in El Sobrante").
Over time, The Lonely Island's ear has been joined by a keen sense of dada and its limits. The troupe helped produce Hulu sitcom PEN15 and Netflix sketch series I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson, two of the past year's most compelling—and combative—comedy projects. All three are less disorienting than Adult Swim's live-action shows but still more challenging than Comedy Central's anodyne recent output: a just-right blend of WTF and LOL that's helped streaming comedy feel surprisingly healthy. In fact, TUBBE's biggest stumble comes when that dada goes too far, its nods to Lemonade's interstitial poetry proving so comically grandiose as to feel mean-spirited—a quality that Samberg has always avoided, even when he's supposed to be mean. Bashing, it seems, has its limits.