Can comedic rap ever escape the asterisk beside its name?
All funny rap is not created equal. There’s rap that happens to be funny and then there’s rap that is designed to make you laugh. This latter category is comedic rap. Of course, there is some overlap, but what differentiates the two entities is the fact that comedic rap can never achieve the acclaim of its counterpart. No matter how lyrically gifted and musically attuned a comedic rapper is, there are inherent reasons comedy rap can only be praised with an asterisk beside the laudations. Unspoken or not, great comedic rap is recognized as being ‘great’ with the caveat that it is comedic rap.
It’s a strange paradox that rap values humor but devalues comedic rap. Comedy is built into the structure of rap, which depends on wordplay, pun, double entendre, and a sense of humor to express more than the literal meaning of its lyrics. Some of the best songs are hysterical: “The Real Slim Shady”, “Paul Revere”, “Thrift Shop”, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, “It’s Tricky.” These songs are clever, catchy, and memorable, but it’s unlikely you’d find them enshrined at the top of a list of best songs. Heavy subject matter does not necessarily make for a more artful creation, but if two songs are equal in craftsmanship and artistry, the serious one will outmatch the comedic one in popular opinion.
Comedic rap is not necessarily novelty rap (ie Vanilla Ice or Lonely Island). It exists in a no man’s land somewhere between novelty rap and rap proper. This nebulous zone is inhabited by an undeniable talent: Lil Dicky. David Andrew Burd is verbally dexterous, witty, and intelligent. “$ave Dat Money” has 153M streams and “Freaky Friday” has 324M. Lil Dicky’s delivery is deft and his lyrics are thoughtful. But when considering the best contemporary rappers, it’s unlikely his name would come up in conversation. Comedic rap is necessarily considered less than and here’s why.
Comedic rap is hamstrung by its design. The fact that it has an objective beyond simply being ‘great music’ obviates the possibility that it can be considered masterpiece-esque. Think of it as a zero sum game: if the goal is to engender laughter, majority of the resources have to be allotted to crafting jokes rather than funneling all of the resources into making a "great song."
The label comedic artist can undermine a rapper’s body of work because it hints at a one trick pony issue. There are limited ways to make an arrangement humorous and comedy is manifest most heavily in lyrics. So even if the rest of the track is well-conceived, the lyrics are what people examine first and foremost. As with a diss track, the lyrics are so over-proportionally important in a comedic song that they eclipse every other element. Comedic songs are judged less harshly for non-lyrical elements, but that ‘advantage’ is a double edged sword because it also speaks to the difficulty comedic rap faces in getting recognition as great, full stop. Privileging lyrics so far above the other elements can make for extremely funny content, but often at the expense of the song as a whole.
Let’s take Lil Dicky’s “Lemme Freak” as a case study. Not taking into account the lyrics, the song is good and the hook is strong. But the funniest part, which makes the song exceptional, is the second verse, which describes Lil Dicky trying to help his girlfriend navigate office politics over email. This verse is more talking than rapping, however. So if we’re judging the merits of “Lemme Freak,” we’re forced to parse out the strengths of the song. The best verse lyrically and comically is the weakest verse in every other regard, which is why comedic rap tends to get short shrift. It is both thought of-- and often ends up being-- comedy set to rap rather than music meant to be appreciated in a holistic fashion. Humor is allowed to act as a stopgap for musical failings.
A counterexample is a track off of Paul’s Boutique. Paul’s Boutique is funny, but escapes classification as comedic rap because humor is a secondary trait. Its first goal is to be sound music. “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” is lyrically average, but superb in all other factors. It’s a masterclass in cadence and flow and while the lyrics are probably the weakest part of the song, the charcuterie board of styles showcased compensates for its lyrical shortcomings. The fact that a great song can exist without great lyrics underscores the inherent weakness of a subgenre that relies on a factor that can be largely disregarded if need be.
Comedic rap is also structurally hobbled by the nature of parody and satire, which require referents to mock. By virtue of having a referent, the song is at least partially unoriginal because it is subverting and inverting tropes that already exist. Comedy (the art form) also suffers from this. Truly ‘original’ comedy that does not use the framework of satire is experimental and strange (think Andy Kaufman).
The architecture of comedic rap means that it will always be judged on a separate scale. Like comedies in film, there is still respect for the comedy branch of the medium, but the specificity of its purpose (to get laughs) belies its legitimacy. The fact that Snoop Dogg, Fetty Wap, and others performed with Lil Dicky proves that there is credibility in comedic rap--but it comes with strings attached. Comedic rap is an entertaining subgenre, but the best its creators can hope for is acceptance and recognition of their lyrical prowess.