Comedian, Actor, Improviser, and Wordsmith Jamison Webb's unsolicited track-by-track review of The Weird Copcept Album.
On paper, Michael Malarkey and Daniel Shar’s Weird Copcept Album seems a daunting listen: the tale of two Chicago Police Department cops, inspired by the music of iconic parodist Weird Al Yankovic, who leave their jobs to pursue a career in rap, with the story told over beats sampled from the music of Yankovic. But in execution, it is a compellingly addictive listen, rich with themes and motifs, both narratively and musically. This is not the work of lazy men; it is deep and detailed.
The project wears its heart—and its samples—on its sleeve. Malarkey and Shar are clearly unabashed fans of Yankovic, and whereas many hip-hop acts chop up and bury their samples until they’re unrecognizable (no doubt to avoid legal actions—more on that later), Malarkey and Shar open most of the tracks on their album with a snippet of the Yankovic track being sampled.
Here, I delve into the album, track-by-track.
“So Hard” sets the tone, with Yankovic’s deep vocals from the 1993 single “Headline News” pitched down to a robotic crawl and then chopped into a pulsating vocal loop that brings to mind the martial trot of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks”. Worth noting: “Headline News” was Yankovic’s parody of the Crash Test Dummies’ out-of-left-field hit “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” which detailed the loneliness and emotional detachment of childhood. In the hands of Malarkey and Shar, the Yankovic version lays the foundation for an exploration of personal obligation (Clarke and Bridges, the sons of cops, feeling forced into the occupation themselves) and professional dissatisfaction (Clarke and Bridges wishing to break free from the force to pursue careers in rap music)—in short, they utilize a parody of a song about disappointment and isolation to craft a song about breaking free from disappointment and isolation.
Their guiding light in this quest for artistic immortality? The music of Weird Al Yankovic. “Let’s follow in the footsteps of Al himself/and make soul-healin’ music to improve our health,” says the song’s soaring bridge, and we, the listener, are confronted with the argument that, despite Yankovic’s music being traditionally categorized as “parody” or “comedy,” it in fact serves as cathartic a purpose as “original” or “serious” music, allowing the listener to escape from a bad day, a bad commute, or, yes, as in the case of our heroes, even a bad career choice.
And off we go.
The album’s ensuing track, “Sick,” finds Officers Clarke and Bridges (fun piece of trivia about the project: creators Malarkey and Shar developed the album while living in Chicago, home to “Clark” Street (changed to “Clarke” here) and several bridges) ducking out of duty by “calling in sick.” But the sickness is not mere malady; it is malaise, and a malaise that will require them to call in sick “today, and for the rest of our lives.” The shackles of conformity, the bondage of the ever-burgeoning police state—all cast aside, and cast aside to a sample of Yankovic’s 1996 original “Callin’ In Sick,” itself a pastiche of the Seattle grunge sound, which made its name on similarly anti-establishment, anti-conformity, and anti-authority sentiments. Conceptually, a theme begins to develop here: Malarkey and Shar taking the subversive spoofs of Yankovic and re-subverting them by elevating the material from mere cultural parodies to starker existential treatises.
Free from the rigors of police duty, Officers Clarke and Bridges embrace their obvious rap talents in the next entry, “A Pair of Mics,” which utilizes the framework of Yankovic’s 1996 smash hit “Amish Paradise” (note the irony that a song about rapping into pieces of electronic equipment takes its sonic cues from a song about a traditionalist subculture known for eschewing most forms of modern technology—the “re-subversion of subversion” theme continues!) to soundtrack their beat-backed braggadocio. A deeper theme coursing through the song, however, is the need for paternal approval: these second- and (in the case of Murph Bridges) third-generation policemen want to make their fathers proud, in spite of the fact that they are almost certainly invoking their daddies’ wrath by leaving the force (worth noting here: in the previous track, “the Chief,” almost certainly a father figure to these two boys in blue, gives them his support while acknowledging that their fellow officers will call them “losers”—the fellow officers no doubt including Bridges’ and Clarkes’ fathers).
When we catch up with Clarke and Bridges on the next track, they have shed their birth names and given themselves MC handles: Clarke is now ‘Corporal Paschen’ (you can take the man out of the cop, but not the cop out of the man, and so on and so forth) while Bridges raps under the name ‘McGuyva Saliva.’ This shedding of identity is of course not only consistent with the story’s themes of rebirth, but also with the long legacy of hip-hop (LL Cool J was told by his mama to “knock you out,” not James Todd Smith; and this scholar doubts very much that we’d absorb the music of a Cameron Jibril Thomaz as much as we have flocked to the sounds of Wiz Khalifa). The debut single of Corporal Paschen and McGuyva Saliva? A rollicking tribute to their muse: “Al’s My Homie,” built on a sample of Yankovic’s “Alimony,” from 1988’s Even Worse. Again, the ironic re-appropriation of Yankovic’s material is downright delicious: Shar and Malarkey (from hereon shortened as MaSharkey) take Yankovic’s song about the fallout from love gone wrong and warp it into a crowd-pleasing composition about idol-worshipping adulation.
All is right in the Weird Copcept world...or so it would seem. But the chickens come home to roost on the album’s fifth track (and emotional centerpiece) “Yeah But Daddy.” Bridges and Clarkes’ fathers do not support the lifestyle chosen by their sons (the notion that their fathers think their sons are mature enough to risk their lives as police officers but not mature enough to make their own career decisions is laughable in its baby-boomer hypocrisy but I hesitate to continue further lest this essay turn into the ‘baby boomers vs. millennials’ tripe that the blogosphere so continually spits out). MaSharkey (from hereon shortened to ‘MaShark’) further evolve the album’s conceptual theme: our heroes rap about their fathers’ ‘ancient’ outlooks on life over samples from Yankovic’s “Bedrock Anthem”, a tribute to the classic 1960s animated series The Flintstones, a show about—you guessed it—’ancient’ outlooks on life. An elegiac piano figure (played no doubt by Malarkey) reinforces not only the tragic implications of these families torn apart, but only the disheartening suggestion that, according to the Internet, Corporal Paschen and McGuyva Saliva’s song is bereft of artistic merit. Are our heroes, in fact, ‘zeroes’?
Track 7 sees (or hears, rather!) Bridges and Clarke fighting back, and fighting back the only way they know how: through the power of rap. “This Ain’t Some Kind of Game” sources its melodic foundation from Yankovic’s “Eat It,” a song about a parent telling their child to stop whining and accept the food that’s been served to him. In the hands of MaShark (from hereon shortened to ‘MaShar’), the point-of-view is flipped—Bridges and Clarke make the song an anthem about a child telling their parent to stop whining and accept the “food” (metaphorically speaking) that’s been served to him: the “food” being the reality that this is the career path that Bridges and Clarke have chosen, and no amount of father-induced guilt is going to sway them from that path. Forget the old adage: here, revenge is a dish best served rapped.
But life has one more curveball to throw the way of Bridges and Clarke. At their lowest moment, in their darkest hour, they receive a phone message from their hero, Weird Al Yankovic. Will this voicemail contain words of inspiration to lift our heroes’ spirits? Will it perhaps be an offer for Paschen and McGuyva to go on tour with Yankovic and perform their tracks during the frequent costume changes that mark a Yankovic live show? No. It is instead a notice of impending legal action: Yankovic is going to sue the two cops-turned-rappers for using his music without permission. “Voicemail” is a veritable irony cake for those wishing to dig deep into its layers: it samples “I’ll Sue Ya,” the Rage Against the Machine pastiche from Yankovic’s 2006 Straight Outta Lynwood, where Yankovic simultaneously mocks America’s lawsuit addiction and winks at his own near-brushes with artists and record companies threatening legal action over his parodies; this track making fun of the propensity to sue is then used by MaShar (from hereon shortened to ‘MaSha’) as the bed for a track about Yankovic showcasing a propensity to sue! Who subverts the subverters? MaSha do. The track is the album’s shortest, and for good reason: the bluntness of its message is not sustainable for any longer. Just as the rug is pulled out from under Bridges and Clarke, the ‘sonic rug’ is pulled out from us, the listener, as quickly. We, like our heroes, are left bewildered, saddened, addled, disconcerted, perplexed, flustered, diminished, rattled, chagrined, and, in a word, crushed.
At long last, we come to the album’s conclusion. “The Return” contains a double meaning in its title: obviously, it’s about Bridges and Clarke’s ‘return’ to law enforcement, but the musicologists among us will note that, musically, it’s a ‘return’ to the ‘Amish Paradise’-cribbing sound of the album’s third track, “A Pair of Mics.” The mea culpa comes with a twist that would leave M. Night Shyamlan M. Night Salivating: the Chief—that father figure from the album’s first act, that champion of the boys’ dreams when all others turned their backs—is none other than the original Weird Al champion, Dr. Demento. Demento tells our heroes that he, too, once chased a dream that was dashed by Yankovic’s actions. Once a hero, Yankovic emerges as the story’s villain. Weird Al, once Revered Al, is now Feared Al. We also begin to wonder the scale of the power that Yankovic wields. Has he made a career of parodying beloved pop songs...or were those pop songs written just to one day be parodied by Weird Al? Is all of humankind nothing more than a parody of some distant alien civilization, with the deity-like Yankovic controlling it like a polka-crazed puppetmaster? The implications are frightening.
But ‘MaSha’ (from hereon shortened to ‘a’) are too smart to let this album end on such a sour note. And it is here where the title ‘The Return’ takes on a third meaning, one that is wholly unexpected and yet inevitable. We learn that shortly after rejoining the CPD, Bridges and Clarke realized that, in chasing their dreams and finding enough exposure to ultimately attract the attention of Yankovic, they were successful. And they now have a new muse: The Lonely Island. “The Return”, and the album, conclude on a tribute to “Dick in a Box,” The Lonely Island’s viral sensation from 2009. Are Bridges and Clarke merely re-embarking on yet another downward spiral to litigation and loneliness? Perhaps. But we’re rooting for them all the way.
For more work by Jamison Webb visit: http://jamisonwebb.tumblr.com or see him tour with the Second City National Touring Company