A few years ago, I saw the Black Eyed Peas open for Gang Starr at Towson University, right outside Baltimore. “Where is the Love?” was right in the middle of its radio run, and the Peas were in the process of ditching their vaguely indie-rap backgrounds and relaunching the type of rap group that somehow manages to sell millions without ever getting play on rap radio, something like what might happen if the Fugees were characters on Pokemon. At the time, it was one of the most mismatched bills I’d ever seen: short-attention-span cartoon-funk nonsense followed by rock-hard classicist NY rap. Weird things have happened to the rap landscape since then, though, and now Will.I.Am and DJ Premier are actually competing with each other. Rap isn’t selling much anymore, and onetime rap producers are reanimating their careers by pairing up with fluffy R&B divas in need of musical direction. Premier gave Christina Aguilera’s Back to Basics its dusty scritchity fake-jazz float and its nebulous sense of grown-up legitimacy. In his work on Fergie’s The Dutchess, Will.I.Am has gone in the opposite direction, throwing together the most shamelessly plastic mess of his career; I wouldn’t be surprised if that superfluous fucking T in the title is his doing. But Premier and Will are both pursuing their populist visions in the exact same corner of the marketplace. Seriously, pop music just gets weirder.
Will has already pulled off something of a miracle by turning Fergie into a viable candidate for teen-idolhood. For one thing, she’s totally busted by famous-people standards: 31 years old, former child actress and crystal meth addict, dresses like a 13-year-old mall-punk chick and apparently applies makeup via rocket launcher, skin a disturbing shade of orange. I’m not even sure she’s hot by normal-people standards; in pop music, these things matter. She was last seen in Poseidon, a really shitty movie, hugging Detective Frank Pembleton from Homicide while both of them drowned. But she still managed to hit number one with “London Bridge,” a way better song than it has any right to be, especially considering that she fucking raps on it. Will.I.Am can’t claim any credit for that song; it’s the work of Polow, who right now is totally incapable of making a track that doesn’t bang. But Will did produce most of The Dutchess, which pulls off the unlikely trick of being better than the new Kelis album and almost as good as the new Beyonce. “Fergalicious” samples JJ Fad’s “Supersonic” and would’ve fit in just fine on the last Fannypack album, which I really liked. “Here I Come” puts Baltimore club drums on my favorite Temptations song and bastardizes its chorus into a ballsy piece of uber-pop sacrilege. “Glamorous” layers gorgeous fluttering melancholy strings over slow-rotating guitars and then subjects its (great) Ludacris guest-verse to fucked-up studio filters, slowing it down and speeding it up and turning it into a hall of mirrors. The album’s more than an hour long, and at least half its tracks are borderline intolerable, so I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone spend actual money on it. Still, it’s not terrible, and that’s more than I could’ve ever expected. It’s not a rap album (thank God), but it’s still an endearing, big-budget throwback to a time when groups like Salt-N-Pepa and JJ Fad and L’Trimm could release albums full of gleefully amateurish rapping and twerked-up tracks without the faithful defenders of hip-hop lining up to protect the fortress.
Will.I.Am said a couple of months ago that he didn’t consider the Black Eyed Peas to be hip-hop, that hip-hop had become too angry and negative and he didn’t want to be associated with it anymore. After The Dutchess, it would be fine with me if he gave up on rap altogether. Recent Will tracks like Justin Timberlake’s “Damn Girl” and Too Short’s “Keep Bouncin'” have been a lot better than anything I would’ve expected from this guy last year. “Damn Girl” is almost a pastiche of Large Professor’s jazzy impressionism, with its tumbling breakbeat and sly organ blurts. “Keep Bouncin'” jacks one of the skits from Midnight Marauders and works a nice contrast between its floating vibraphones and its raygun synth. But both of these songs have Will.I.Am guest-raps that render them effectively unlistenable. Will is quite possibly the worst professional rapper working, and his guest-spots make Wyclef’s impenetrable verse on “Hips Don’t Lie” sound like a work of genius; his “boobies was bouncing on my head” riff from “Keep Bouncin'” makes me want to cut my ears off with rusty scissors. Still, this guy might yet do something worthwhile if anyone can wrestle the mic away from him for long enough.
Voice review: Jason King on the Black Eyed Peas’ Monkey Business
Voice review: Sterling Clover on the Black Eyed Peas’ Elephunk