The Beginning

It's kind of poetic that Will.i.am was one of the last people to record with Michael Jackson. Whether or not you like the Black Eyed Peas, their 11 million-selling 2009 album, The E.N.D., is the closest thing we've had in the past few years to Thriller — the ubiquitous pop album everybody lives with. The E.N.D. conquered Earth with a digital bum-rush built from hammering robo-beats, synth goo, elegiac Auto-Tune and overheated chant-rapping that makes Sisqó seem like a Rhodes scholar. In a moribund music biz, it's almost as if mystical belief in the power of crazy, cheesy bigness was its own kind of defiant idealism.

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Only a self-destructive maniac would mess with such alchemy, and The Beginning largely picks up where The E.N.D. left off: all in-the-red party jams and escapist whoosh. But with a notable exception: The E.N.D. came with a slathering of political sermonizing about hope, change and the power of the "now generation"; this time out, Will.i.am throws his support entirely behind the notion of people coming together on the dance floor. "I'll pledge my allegiance to rhythm and sound," he Auto-yelps on "Play It Loud." Call it a DJ Hero democracy.

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The Peas have always been stylistically flexible, and on The Beginning, they give themselves over more fully than ever to the groove palette of club culture, stirring up electro funk, Euro-trance and classic disco, micromanaging every beep within an inch of its life. "It's in fashion to be blasting them beats," Will sings over a Chic sample on "Fashion Beats," which features Fergie's spot-on Debbie Harry hommage.

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They're as surprised as anyone that they're the biggest hip-hop act on the planet, and the music exudes thankfulness. "The Time (Dirty Bit)" steals its chorus from the Dirty Dancing duet "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" and flips it into the kind of trashy thumper Snooki does cartwheels to. On the equally gracious "Someday," Apl.de.ap gets personal, singing about his blue-collar work ethic and Filipino-immigrant background as Edge-like guitar shimmer suggests boundless promise.

This much serotonin in four humans can only mean they'll get carried away all over the place, and Beginning bubbles with the kind of slobbering excess that drives Peas haters bonkers. Who else but Fergie and Will.i.am would think to take the "me love you long time" sample from 2 Live Crew's "Me So Horny" and sing it as the hook in a romantic duet? With the Peas, you gotta take the inane good with the inane bad. And when they hit the right note of airhead, air-punching majesty — just check out the gorgeous "I Gotta Feeling"-style glide of "Play It Loud" — the good can be kind of inescapable. If you do wish to escape it, please avoid bars, open windows, doctors' waiting rooms, sporting events, sitcom montages, preschool graduations and your grandma for the next year or so, because it's gonna drown 'em all in rhythm and sound.

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