“Weird Al” Yankovic was one of the more underrated and underappreciated artists of the ‘80s and early ‘90s (1992’s Off The Deep End is damn-near a five-star album), and even though the quality of his work has gradually declined over the past decade, he displays occasional flashes of genius on Straight Outta Lynwood, his 12th studio album. In recent years, Yankovic’s best songs have been raps, and the trend continues here with “White & Nerdy,” a parody of Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’” in which Al wants to “roll with the gangstas” but realizes he isn’t cool enough. He amusingly lists of all his shortcomings, noting some traits that are obviously geeky (“I know pi to a thousand places,” “I edit Wikipedia”) and others that show why he’ll never be a gangsta (“My rims never spin,” “Ain’t got no grills but I still wear braces”). His flow is much improved, for whatever that’s worth (probably not much), and the track proves to be one of the highlights of the album.
Yankovic’s most surefire success on Lynwood should have been “Trapped In The Drive-Thru”; just mentioning R. Kelly’s “Trapped In The Closet” is usually enough to elicit laughter, so a parody of it should have been an easy homerun. It’s not quite that good, but Yankovic’s 11-minute tale about an uneventful fast food trip does earn points for mimicking the excruciating detail of Kelly’s epic: “Then I open the car doors/And we get in those car doors/Put my key in the ignition/And then I turn it sideways/Then we fasten our seat belts/As we pull out the driveway.” The sheer scope of the song and the manner in which Yankovic weaves a fascinating story out of nothing are impressive. Still, it’s not as hysterical as you’d expect, and South Park‘s skewering of R. Kelly on the infamous “Tom Cruise in the Closet” episode was just as funny.
For his Green Day send-up, Yankovic takes the obvious route and turns “American Idiot” into “Canadian Idiot,” with predictable jokes about hockey, curling, and Celine Dion, and a jab at “their stupid Monopoly money.” Again, South Park did it better already (“Blame Canada”). The Usher and Taylor Hicks parodies are throwaways, especially the latter, “Do I Creep You Out.” Parodies only work when the listener is familiar with the original, and the Hicks song wasn’t a big radio hit, so those of us who make a concerted effort to avoid the train wreck that is American Idol are going to be lost on this one. At least Yankovic has an excuse for this shoddy track: it was a late replacement for a James Blunt parody that had to be shelved after Blunt’s label objected (Yankovic gets revenge in the “White & Nerdy” video by adding the text “YOU SUCK” to the Atlantic Records Wikipedia page.)
For once, Yankovic’s originals are better than his parodies. “I’ll Sue Ya,” done in the style of Rage Against The Machine, tackles the subject of frivolous lawsuits: “I sued Delta Airlines cause they sold me a ticket to New Jersey/I went there, and it sucked.” “Pancreas” is an exquisitely crafted homage to Brian Wilson featuring the layered harmonies and fun instrumentation (toy piano, sleigh bells, ukulele, vibraphone) characteristic of the Beach Boys. The purposefully absurd lyrics prove that Wilson’s classic sound would be great even if he were singing about nonsense. Yankovic saves his best for last: “Don’t Download This Song,” a beautifully bombastic ballad about the RIAA’s crackdown on illegal file sharing. Over fake strings and a choir, he earnestly belts out bitingly sarcastic lines like, “It doesn’t matter if you’re a grandma or a seven-year-old girl/They’ll treat you like the evil, hard-bitten criminal scum you are.” The song, and Yankovic’s clever decision to make it available on his website as a free download, serve as a pleasant reminder that Weird Al is still capable of brilliance every now and then.