Wed, Feb 11, 2009 - Page 14 News List

[CD REVIEWS]

VIEW THIS PAGE With apologies to Debbie Harry, Tairrie B, Invincible and Amanda Blank, the most significant white female rapper of all time is Natalie Portman. (To Northern State and Uffie, no apology is necessary.) Based on Eazy-E’s No More ?’s, Natalie’s Rap, which originated in 2006 as a Saturday Night Live sketch written by Lonely Island — and appears on this comedy team’s first musical album, Incredibad — is savagely funny, a reputation changer for a young actress and, most surprisingly, an utterly convincing revisiting of late-1980s Los Angeles gangster rap. It isn’t parody; it’s a love letter.

Over the last few years the members of Lonely Island — Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone — have been responsible for writing many of the comic high points on SNL. That US television’s grandest comedy institution was rejuvenated by three white hip-hop kids from Berkeley, California, says a great deal not only about Lonely Island’s deftness but also the penetration and evolution of rap culture.

The first Lonely Island album, in parts, gets hip-hop to laugh along. T-Pain is the guest on “I’m on a Boat,” a sendup of triumphant materialism. And on Santana DVX, a celebration of a Carlos Santana-branded sparkling wine (“The sham-pan-yuh/from the man with the bandana,” Samberg raps) produced by the indie rap satirist J-Zone, E-40 raps amusingly as Santana, though it’s not as funny as E-40’s 1994 ode to cheap wine, Carlos Rossi.

There has been shockingly little well-meaning rap satire over the years, which makes these affectionate songs all the more potent; here verisimilitude is the joke. Ras Trent, a savage takedown of trustafarians (privileged, culture-slumming white kids), is produced by the reggae legends Sly & Robbie. And the hilarious Like a Boss, based on the Slim Thug song of the same name, uses rap to comment on the deadening effects of corporate life: Hip-hop can be a comic mode, too, Lonely Island knows. (Most of the songs are produced by Taccone, who has a keen ear for the nuances of different rap styles.)

About half of this album is a greatest-hits collection. The accompanying DVD includes the group’s essential SNL digital shorts, including the 2007 Emmy-winning one, with an unprintable name, which features Justin Timberlake in a lewd spoof of early 1990s R ’n’ B, and the more recent megaclub trance-influenced song, also with an unprintable name.

The only place this collection falls flat is in its inclusion of some pre-SNL Lonely Island material. It’s funny,

but no-fi and awkward. Back then Lonely Island clearly wasn’t yet comfortable enough truly to poke fun, or maybe wasn’t totally sure that it was allowed to.

Love is both bliss and panacea, while politics is a test of fortitude, on India.Arie’s fourth studio album, Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics. One of the most determinedly virtuous songwriters in R ’n’ B or pop, India.Arie strives to make faith, goodness and positive thinking seductive, and on this album, working as her own co-producer (with Dru Castro), she’s endearing even when she’s preachy.

Testimony: Vol. 1: Love & Relationship, released in 2006, delved into the pain of a breakup, and in Psalms 23 she hints at more strife: “I’ve been through a couple of litigations/through character assassination.” But on most of Vol. 2 her equanimity has been restored. Her lover in the lilting Chocolate High (as portrayed by her duet partner and co-writer Musiq Soulchild) is an addictive treat. Elsewhere her man is an ever-understanding listener in the celebratory Therapy and the ballad He Heals Me.

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