You’re forgiven if the cosmic ubiquity of the Black Eyed Peas made you forget they were once part of the same multiculti Los Angeles underground that spawned homespun groups like Ozomatli and the Visionaries. By now, the Peas have bestowed eccentric hipster cred on corporations from Apple to Best Buy to the NBA. But their aesthetic captures other aspects uniquely L.A.—its colorful plasticity and teeming, almost ungraspable sprawl.
The Behind the Music apologue will begin with the tale of how diminishing returns from 1998 boho debut Behind the Front and 2000 Bridging the Gap sent members will.i.am, Taboo, and apl.de.ap into drug-addicted depression. Assisted by wily a&r vet Ron Fair, 2003’s Elephunk skitched onto the pop bandwagon by inducting melanin-challenged siren Fergie as a permanent member, enlisting cameos from similarly melanin-challenged celebs like Justin Timberlake, and serving up an all-you-can-eat stylistic buffet: a safe-for-Wal-Mart alternative to gangsta theatrics. At the same time, ersatz mosh anthem “Let’s Get Retarded” and the saccharine but anti-war “Where Is the Love” painted them as benevolent punksters, giving their pop more zing than noblesse oblige hip-popper Will Smith.
Monkey Business appears to be cloned from Elephunk‘s DNA: Timberlake resurfaces on the Timbaland-produced “My Style”; Fergie and Will’s sassy gender duel “Don’t Phunk With My Heart” retreads “Shut Up”; “Dum Diddly” is the dancehall equivalent of “Hey Mama”; yada yada. With my iTunes shuffle function engaged, I couldn’t tell the albums apart—but that’s the point. Sprawling across ’80s boogie, Latin rock, electro bounce, Native Tongues soul, vintage hop, and who’s counting what else, the Peas specialize in regurgitated, rootless music for a generation suffering from attention surplus disorder.
Producer will.i.am brings madcap glee to his high-octane, multi-part funk workouts (listen to the horse whinny in “Don’t Phunk”). No group since Deee-Lite has better mobilized campy humor to ironize—and make accessible—the transgressive threat of culture surfing. Cresting on a highly appropriate sample of Dick Dale’s “Miserlou,” “Pump It Up” is a deliriously bombastic montage of quantized hand claps, loopy non sequiturs, and democratic vocalizing—the closest we’ve come to a post-civil rights “Dance to the Music.”
Like pre-Riot Sly, the retro-integrationist Peas have been accused of selling out. White chick Fergie is usually the scapegoat, but with her mellifluous riffs, she’s no hack. Besides, her residency transformed the Peas into the only multi-gender, multi-racial, multi-ethnic rap act in mainstream America. For my money, the Peas crossed over because they finally translated the kinetic exuberance of their live act on record, a trick that eluded them on their plodding first two albums. Case in point: “They Don’t Want Music,” featuring septuagenarian James Brown, is a sweaty horn-driven jam that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings set. Maybe because they’re break-dancers, the Peas excel at the sort of visceral, spirited funk that continues to escape the Neptunes and their poseur cool.
If only they could write rhymes worth a damn. The asinine chorus to the Fergie showcase “My Humps” (“My humps/My lovely little baby humps”) conjures up none of the erotic discomfiture that gave “Milkshake” and “Cameltoe” their bite. Album closer “Union” revisits the solidarity sentiment of “Where Is the Love,” this time with Sting guesting on a sampled interpolation of his 1985 “Englishman in New York.” While “Englishman” was a Jarmuschian take on how it feels to be out of sync when culture crossing, the Peas’ extrospective “Let’s start a union, calling every human” is a synthetic, lamebrain “Love Train.”
Too relentlessly upbeat to consider that untranslatability throws a monkey wrench into intercultural exchange, the Peas have yet to produce a classic on the level of Neneh Cherry‘s abstract Raw Like Sushi. Monkey Business is true to its titular promise: It’s zany, antiseptic kitsch, like the soundtrack to the ultimate Old Navy commercial.
That may be the Peas’ next endorsement contract.