A funny thing happened on the way to the Lonely Island’s first-ever, multi-city tour, which kicked off at Bonnaroo this past weekend. At their third stop Wednesday at the Met Philadelphia, the hip-hop comedy trio of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone proved they could parody rap-pop with comic plausibility and their own brand of musical validity, all wrapped up in a hi-def, A/V graphics-heavy bow.
Imagine a juvenile “License to Ill”-era Beastie Boys replacing their AC/DC guitar samples for Skrillex EDM bass drops, and swapping Brooklyn baller humor for silly, literal pronouncements, and you get what Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone cooked up.
How literal were these declarations? “We Fell Off a Horse” found them rapping hard and repping harder about the title’s dippy action while footage of the event played behind them. The night’s closer, “I’m on a Boat” … same thing. “I got a nautical-theme pashmina afghan,” mused Samberg before standing on his ship’s bow, arms outstretched a la “Titanic.” Even “Threw It on the Ground” was basically just a list of stuff they hated and tossed — hot dogs, birthday cake… you get the drill.
The trio’s first tune of the night, “We’re On Stage,” set the stage for that level of deliberate and dopey dryness, as it found the Lonely Island rapping in unison, essaying every move of the hammily theatrical backstage-to-front experience: “We are, backstage / But soon, we won’t be / Yeah, we’re walking up the back of the stage / Now we’re at the top of the back of the stage / Building suspense.”
Along with an evening full of T-shirt guns (the printer supposedly screwed up and the tees were blank, so Sharpies were handed out) and hints as to where to meet them for post-show sex (in Philly, the nearby Ross Dress for Less was the hot spot), the trio poked fun at the over-dramatics, machismo and braggadocio of the star-concert experience — the glossy gi-hugic-ness of pop culture in general, really — while reveling in it, dumbly and uproariously. Just as they did in their 2016 film, “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” the Lonely Island teased the typical while showing it love and devotion. Even when they played dress-up but once — as Oakland A’s Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, in a “Jose & Mark”/”Uniform On” medley dedicated to their new Netflix half-hour “The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience” — it was performed with respect and adoration.
A massive part of what allowed the Lonely Island to be raging rappers and believably naturalistic comedians was the aid of a stage-wide video screen playing everything from their original video clips (like “YOLO” with Adam Levine) to newly produced (and often goofily grotesque) cut-and-pasted graphics for songs such as “Jizz in My Pants” and the decidedly non-#MeToo conscious “Like a Boss.” For all of the screen’s utility, however, it was always complementary to what the Lonely Island had cooking on stage.
Maybe that meant providing vintage Microsoft screen-in-screen, stop-start video of track guests John Waters and Nicki Minaj on “The Creep” while the gangly-limbed trio danced — creepily — dressed in nerdy, ill-fitting suits. Or presenting their most soulful “Saturday Night Live” musical moments with Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga in a “Dick in a Box”/“Motherlover”/“3-Way (The Golden Rule)” medley. While original video blocks appeared on-screen, Samberg dueted with hand puppets mouthing Timberlake and Gaga’s vocals, with the JT puppet getting randy in the medley’s final moments.
While their “SNL” clip of “Lazy Sunday” and its paean to “The Chronicles of Narnia” was played out sparely — the boys dressed in black, straight rapping to the video, until they went into a song from “Hamilton: The Musical” at the sight of a $10 bill — their stage rendition of “Jack Sparrow” was far more elaborate.
Featuring a “live via satellite” appearance from the song’s featured performer, Michael Bolton (he “proved” as much by showing a day-dated newspaper, but it was in Japanese), the Lonely Island let the soulfully bellowing singer share his cinephile obsessions with “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Erin Brockovich” and “Scarface” while the trio looked on as if that was a normal part of being rappers.
Ultimately, it was exploding such normalcy that made the Lonely Island so charming: They’re just husbands and dads trying to bust a nut. Songs such as “I Just Had Sex” and “Diaper Money” found the trio utterly pleased, in a loud, bragging MC fashion, to have wads of cash to provide for their families and to have purchased grave plots off the highway at good prices. “Semicolon” showed particular glee in knowing the minute wonders of punctuation while making “Urkel” rhyme, logically, with Angela Merkel.
The easy comic charm and glee of three old pals getting goofy belies just how damned good they are at playing at the rap game — a claim you, like they, can make with a straight face.