Throughout his four seasons on Saturday Night Live, Jay Pharoah has been a fixture thanks to his dead-on impressions of Kanye West, Will Smith, and President Obama. But the 26-year-old’s skills go beyond imitating celebrities; he’s a stand-up comedian with a broader range than just imitations and a particular fondness for hip-hop songs. He spoofed Kanye’s “I Am a God” last year with the canine-centric “I Am a Dog,” and recently dropped a high-quality video for “Problems,” which details a rapper’s inability to hold up the facade of having money, women, and stable emotions. Vulture caught up with Pharoah while he was visiting family and friends in Virginia to talk about his upcoming stand-up special, his comedy-rap mixtapes, his future on SNL, and what the show would have done with the Kim Kardashian and Kanye West wedding had it gone down before the season finale.
What inspired “Problems”?
It’s a parody on the genre of money, drugs, and women. I don’t know if I want to say tearing people apart, but taking light jabs at people who really don’t do this thing they’re portraying, this crazy character that smokes weed and gets all these women and gets all this money, because it’s really just people that are broke and have problems. They don’t have none of those things, but they’re trying to get them. The idea came from observation, like, Obviously these guys aren’t real. Let’s make a song about it.
Not to get you in trouble, but were there any specific songs or artists who inspired it?
[Laughs] I know about 2,000 rappers [who] probably inspired that song, but none of them are probably on the main stage. A lot of them are on the come-up. I hang out with DJ Whoo Kid, and I’ve seen all this stuff that people do, cars that aren’t theirs, things like that. It’s crazy. I don’t have a blacklist of rappers, like, He’s fake, he’s fake, he’s fake. I’m not trying to get killed.
We wouldn’t want to do that to you.
Nah, you don’t want me to die. I have years. I got work to do. I don’t want to die yet.
Another takeaway from that song and video is that there are probably a lot of big-name guys who rap about that stuff but are probably pretty emotionally messed up.
Yeah, man. That track, it’s really cerebral. It’s not really upfront. For instance, “I Am a Dog,” that’s straight up, in your face. Most of my comedy is straight-up in your face, but that one makes you think. That’s what I like about it.
Are you trying to move more into that cerebral direction?
This year has been, even with some of the videos of I’ve done, they’ve had total turns and elements of surprise. I’m trying to fuse them, in-your-face and cerebral. I want you to think and I want it to be right there in your face. I like the surprise, like “What Does My Girl Say?” and “28 Reasons,” those are kind of heavy-hit, whereas you have “H&M,” where you’re talking about H&M and going H.A.M. on them. I don’t know if everybody gets that, like, Man, you’re trying rap? No. I mean, I can rap, I am working on a [rap] project, but this is not about me. I’m not talking about myself when I’m calling myself a hardcore rapper. I don’t claim to be hard. Hell, no. I’m from Greenbriar [Virginia]. I’m from the burbs. I’ve been in the hood, but I don’t live there. I have lived in the hood, but I don’t live there anymore. I lived in Harlem and that was crazy, even though Harlem is a lot nicer than it used to be. Any time you go outside and you see like 100 people standing around the playground and one guy is doing pull-ups, you in the hood, yo.
What is it like meeting rappers on the SNL set when you’ve done impersonations of them?
Sometimes it’s a little overwhelming. When I met Jay I was totally flabbergasted, and then somebody yelled, “Do the impression!” and I’m like, “Oh, no. Not now.” Then I did it, and he was impressed. He was like [Jay Z voice], “Snap. Yo, that was perfect timing. Ha-ha-ha.” And he gave me a hug, and I was like, Oh, this is great! I know it’s SNL “good nights” and everybody gets hugs, but, yo, he found me and said it was dope. I was like, Yaaay, he likes it! Then sometimes it’s weird. I met Kanye. I’m starstruck, man, but I stayed away from that guy. I didn’t want him to go on a rant, go off on me. He did it at his wedding. He went off on us at his wedding [laughs]. He was like [loud Kanye voice], “We are not an SNL skit! We are not that stupid. We not idiots!” I was like, “It’s your wedding, man. Shut up. Nobody cares.”
Like, “Drink your $1,000 Champagne and chill out.”
If that $1,000 Champagne invokes you to talk about SNL, well, goddaggit, you need to drink that all the time, because we love it. Talk about us! Yes, Kanye. Talk more, please.
It’s a shame the wedding happened after the season was over.
I believe they set it up like that. They knew we would’ve went H.A.M. on them if they hadn’t. That’s why they waited. Kim was like [does Kim voice], “Just make sure it’s after SNL,” and Kanye’s like, “That’s right, baby. They not gonna pound me. This is our day. This is our day, and it’s special, okay, baby?” “What!? Where’s the baby at? Where’s North West?” “Oh! I left her on the ceiling fan. I’ll get her tomorrow.” Neglectful parents [cracks up]. I’m pretty much writing my special right now, right here.
You’re working on a comedy mixtape. How far along is it, and what can you tell us about it?
I have a few tracks done for it. This basically is going to be like parody, just like “Problems.” It’s going to be funny songs, there’s R&B and rapping. I’m working with Eli Brueggemann, who does music for SNL, the beats and stuff. He did the “I Am a Dog” remix beat and he’s done a lot of production for the show.
Do you follow people who tweet about rap all the time? There’s a lot of them who argue like little kids.
I’ve seen it. You’re talking about things like, “Yo, Kendrick Lamar is the best rapper.” “No, he’s not! Two of his bars didn’t even make sense. He ain’t even in the top five.” I’m not going to be that idiot and publish it, but I’m gonna think it. Like, they’re calling this guy the greatest? Get the hell out of here. There’s no way Waka Flocka is in your top five. Your whole list of credits is just out the window. If you think Waka Flocka or Soulja Boy is the greatest, you just need to get the hell out. First of all, that little special class you’re in, I don’t know what time it lets out, but when it does let out, somebody needs to come over there and be like, “Yo, dog. For real. Your helmet? Adjust it, because there’s no way those two are the greatest rappers of all time.” I see it all the time. I’m not coming down on special folk. I’m just saying, you can’t make a comment like that and look at a person like he has normal sense. Waka makes some good music, but still, lyrically, it’s not there.
You’ve also done more serious rap things, like remixes of Drake and Nicki Minaj. Do you have plans to release those as a mixtape?
On the real mixtape, yes. I definitely like doing the freestyle covers to the songs. My plan is hopefully to keep on dropping those and maybe people will be like, “Yo, did you hear Jay’s verse on such-and-such?” and then the record label will hit me up and be like, “We want you on the remix,” and I’m like, “Yeah, I know you want me on the remix. That was my plan, because I planned that. Ha-ha!” So yeah, I plan to do that a lot more. A lot of those are hearing the track and being like, Yo, this is what I’m going through now and I want to talk about it. I guess I gotta get shot between now and August so I can make a whole Get Rich or Die Tryin’. I’m not telling anybody to come shoot me because listen, folks, I do have organs that are susceptible to pain and death. I don’t want that to happen, but if it does and I survive, wow, there we go then.
Have you thought about going the Donald Glover/Childish Gambino route?
As far as his transition towards music, I just got his album Because the Internet. I think it’s a good project. But I’m not going to stop doing my comedy. My whole thing is I’m an entertainer, and I’m not going to be like, “I’m just going to focus on my rap stuff.” Nah, man. I’ll continue to do it all, continue to give the fans what they love me for, but you’ll get an extra cherry and whipped cream if you’re on Team Pharoah. I feel like Gambino — I’m calling him Gambino — I feel like Donald Glover stopped doing comedy and just focused on his rap, which he has the right to do. But it’s like, you were a good writer and had good jokes, so why would you stop that gift? Making people laugh is the greatest gift you can give, so I’m never going to stop that.
Comedy allowed you to meet Obama, so that’s hard to give up.
[Laughs] Comedy did a lot of things for me. I mean, SNL? Not too bad. Not too shabby with this comedy thing. I have really worked on my comedy and really upped it some notches. I want people to look at my special and be like, “Remember when Jay Pharoah did that? That was the shit, man.”
You got away from impressions a bit more this season on SNL. Are you looking to do that more next season?
Yeah, definitely with characters. There are characters that haven’t got on that have killed. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to show people an even more in-depth picture of Jay Pharoah. I feel like people are starting to see it, and that’s good because I’m not just a person who does voices or impressions. This season has been great as far as people saying, “You’re coming into your own.”
You guys had seven new cast members this year. Do you think it’ll be good for the show next season that they’ll all be over their rookie years?
I’m very curious to see what’s going to happen. I feel like the people that have been there, we’re going to get pushed more. Maybe, maybe not. As far as comfort and everybody knowing the ropes, we’re going to be able to work even harder and put out more things that’ll hit, but I just don’t know how it’s going to shape up. You never know until you turn on that television and see a “Cowbell,” see a “Dick in the Box,” something like, Wow, this was great. Who came up with this? I’m working hard, doing what I have to do so when the season comes up, hopefully I’ll have an increasing fan base that’ll be watching the show. Because I love the show and the viewership is dope, but you can’t have too many friends.
You probably can’t impersonate too many rappers on SNL because a lot of the audience wouldn’t be familiar enough with their personalities to really get the jokes. If that didn’t matter and you could do anyone you wanted to, who would it be?
Waka Flocka. And I want to turn him into a character. I watch him on Love and Hip-Hop. If I could take that guy and put him in a situation, put him at like a KFC or something, that would be hilarious. Like, he’s at the front and he can’t speak and you can’t understand what he’s saying, so he’s like a foreigner but he’s not a foreigner, yo, that’s a good sketch. Matter fact, I’m going back to New York and I’m writing that sketch.