Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s new album, “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made,” opens with “Light Tunnels.” The song gives a play-by-play of Macklemore’s first Grammy appearance and victory, painting a vivid picture of a man feeling out of place in a new world.
The next song, lead single “Downtown,” is about Macklemore buying a moped. The song after that, “Brad Pitt’s Cousin,” references drunk women settling for sex with him.
This dichotomy characterizes “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made.” It’s a roughly 1:2 ratio of heavy-handed comedy rap and heartfelt gems focusing on Macklemore’s political ideology and transition to stardom.
There’s still plenty to enjoy about “This Unruly Mess,” but having 5 mildly unfunny songs is concerning. The Heist only really had “Thrift Shop,” which ended up one of the biggest songs of the year.
Comedy rap in general is an unexplored, unrefined and underdeveloped subgenre. Very few artists make comedy rap the focus of their careers. When artists do choose to focus on comedy rap, success ranges from the mostly-hit favorability of The Lonely Island to the collective “meh” heard when listening to most Lil’ Dicky songs.
With such a small sample of artists, it can be rather difficult to figure out what works and why it works. However, two types of comedy rap tend to be generally successful.
Some musicians will release the occasional comedy rap song filled with puns and pop culture references. Songs like Bo Burnham’s “WORDS, WORDS, WORDS” and Childish Gambino’s “Bonfire” are funny at a relatively universal base level, relying on clever wordplay and not requiring much knowledge of rap culture.
The second type is the song that takes a satirical stance on rap culture. This is where songs like “Thrift Shop” and “$ave Dat Money” shine. They actively make fun of the genre’s focus on expensive items as status symbols.
Another example is “Jack Sparrow” by The Lonely Island. Frequent rap listeners can probably think of a feature verse that doesn’t seem to fit or is an active detriment to a song. “Jack Sparrow” takes that to the comedic extreme by having Michael Bolton perform hooks that are completely unrelated to the verses.
Unfortunately, legitimate satire of the genre is rare, and even positively regarded comedy rap artists don’t have a meaning behind each song.
Part of this may be that comedy rap is primarily performed by white men that pride themselves on their position as outsiders. Many rappers already make jokes in their songs, but don’t define their career by their jokes or go out of their way to poke fun at rap culture.
Comedy rap has potential. The occasional gem in the genre shows that comedy rap can be a commercial success and effectively satirize the genre it stems from.
However, apart from viral hits, the small market for comedy rap leaves little incentive to enter the genre. This, combined with the lack of people doing it now, means that the genre probably isn’t getting bigger anytime soon.