If you haven't seen Saturday Night Live's Chronicles of Narnia rap, then you don't have any friends. Or at least any friends with Internet access. The two-minute video, which debuted on SNL last Saturday before resurfacing as a much-forwarded "digital short," has accomplished what seemed impossible a week ago—making Saturday Night Live a cultural touchstone for the first time since Christopher Walken pleaded for "more cowbell." The popularity of the Narnia rap might augur a reawakening at SNL—in fact, there are already T-shirts that parrot the song's catchphrases. It's more significant, though, for what it says about the state of rap.
The video, officially titled "Lazy Sunday," depicts a day in the life of a pair of dorky New Yorkers. Andy Samberg (aka Samberg) calls up Chris Parnell (aka Parns) "just to see how he's doin'." Soon enough, they "mack on some cupcakes" from the West Village's Magnolia Bakery and debate which online map service will reveal the "dopest route" to an Upper West Side screening of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Then the chorus kicks in: "We love that Chronic—what?—cles of Narnia / Pass that Chronic—what?—cles of Narnia."
Some of the humor here derives from the fact that these whitebread guys—Samberg is wearing a John Muir T-shirt; Parnell looks like a 12-year-old accountant—are moonlighting in what's traditionally been a black medium. Sure, white rappers aren't a novelty anymore. But guys this white, rhyming about getting "taken to a dreamworld of magic"? It's the nerdy, white-boy version of Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day."
This racial switcheroo is the schtick behind Parnell's "Weekend Update" rap routines, in which he pines for hotties like Kirsten Dunst and Britney Spears while bragging about gangsta gunplay. But these earlier bits are funny only because of the racial juxtaposition therein. (Sample lyric: "Yo it's a West-side hit, I got my Mack-10 lit / Britney get down, you don't wanna see this ****.") The Narnia rap doesn't use the MCs' extraordinary whiteness as a comedy crutch. Rather than invite easy laughs by reciting a tired checklist of ghetto stereotypes, Samberg and Parnell ditch the bling and Cristal to riff enthusiastically about the stuff they like—Magnolia Bakery's "bomb frostings." Instead of clichéd images of cars and yachts, there's a pop-up graphic of the phrase "Double True" in the iconic Google font. The most conspicuous consumption is that of Mr. Pibb. (The one rap convention that does get mocked, to no great effect, is gunplay. When they answer a movie trivia question "so fast it was scary," there's machine-gunfire in the background.)
Rather than lampoon today's artists, Samberg and Parnell evoke old-school rap. The whole presentation—the lyrics, the flow, and the aesthetic—owes more to New York rappers from the '80s than to anything that's getting made today. The way they trade rhymes and enunciate the end of each line—"You can call us Aaron Burr / From the way we're droppin' HAM-IL-TONS"—recalls the delivery of 1980s artists like Run-DMC. The production values, New York street scenes, and silly similes call to mind early Beastie Boys tracks. Really, is "I've got mad hits like I was Rod Carew" any less ridiculous than "I love those cupcakes like McAdams loves Gosling"?
Of course, part of what Samberg and Parnell are sending up is nerdy white nostalgia for the Beasties' heyday. Still, it's notable that these moments of goofiness and whimsy are what make "Lazy Sunday" work as a rap song, not just a comedy sketch. It's hard to think of a Top 40 hip-hop track that's similarly playful. Eminem's subgenre of silly songs ("The Real Slim Shady," "Ass Like That") all feel calculated—the references to MTV ensure that his videos get a ton of airplay on MTV. Sure, Ludacris co-starred in a video with Mini-Me. But for the most part, whimsy gets buried. The highlight of 50 Cent's oeuvre, for instance, is a sidelong lyric from "21 Questions": "I love you like a fat kid loves cake."
People aren't forwarding this video because it's a parody of what's bad about rap; they're sending it around because it's an ode to what can be great about it. Instead of auguring a new day for SNL, maybe it points up what's missing in mainstream rap—an awareness that it's OK to be goofy. Who needs Biz Markie and Tone-Loc? We've got Samberg and Parns.