Black Eyed Peas
Behind The Front (Interscope, 1998)
Bridging The Gap (Interscope, 2000)
Elephunk (Interscope, 2003)
Monkey Business (Interscope, 2005)
The E.N.D. (The Energy Never Dies) (Interscope, 2009)
The Dutchess (A&M, 2006)
Songs About Girls (Interscope, 2007)
Giddily chanting "Let's get it started!" at the ever-blurring crossroads of pop, R&B, hip-hop, club music and songs you'll forever hear at weddings, the Black Eyed Peas were a radio juggernaut throughout the 2000s. Ostensibly a rap group, but ultimately everything to everyone, the Peas were maybe the only completely unavoidable band in the internet era: They were featured in NBA Finals commercials and iconic iPod silouhette ads, they earned Grammy awards and platinum records in a time when no one has platinum records, and in 2009 they monopolized the Billboard top slot (with "Boom Boom Pow" and "I Gotta Feeling") for a record-breaking April-to-October run. And they're probably the first rap group your grandma likes.
To get there took more than one giant leap of faith. By the time they released their first album, group members will.i.am and apl.de.ap were already on their second chance, having stumbled on and off Ruthless Records in 1992 via their California-fried digable crew Atban Klann. With third member Taboo in tow, they released Behind The Front in 1998, a mix of A Tribe Called Quest-style boho rap, Wyclef-style live tracks and the earliest sketches of their funky party pop. Front was followed by the glossier, eclectic Bridging The Gap (starring the gorgeous Beck-meets-Roots shoulda-been-hit "Request Line" with Macy Gray). But it was't a hit among radio listeners or even hip-hop junkies, since the Peas ultimately proved softer than Dilated Peoples, less infectious than Jurassic 5, and downright flaccid compared to the next gen of indie rabble-rousers like Mos Def and Talib Kweli.
Accordingly, selling out was the smartest move, both creatively and commercially. Whoever at Interscope believed in them enough to let them make a third album is probably still basking in "I told you so"'s. Freeing themselves from the shackles of playing underground for cred, the Black Eyed Peas made the shiniest pop product imaginable; including a Justin Timberlake cameo (mega breakthrough "Where Is The Love"), a legitimate jock jam ("Let's Get Retarded"), concessions to the emerging chart success stories of dancehall and Latin music ("Hey Mama," "Latin Girls") and even an icky rap-rock misstep ("Anxiety" featuring Papa Roach). Most importantly they inducted Stacy "Fergie" Ferguson into the group, adding an extra level of melody, a nimble voice for those increasingly pop-heavy hooks and a visual focus for magazines and TV shows not especially amped to cover a bunch of merely OK-looking dudes.
The Peas flew a little too close to the sun with fourth album, Monkey Business. Sure, they got their two biggest hits at the time —"Don't Phunk With My Heart" and "My Humps"— but it was at the expense of making Lowest Common Denominator pop filled with goofy nonsense — the lyrics to "My Humps" with it's references to "lovely lady lumps" and "milky mily cocoa puffs" became so synonomous with bottom barrel brass-ring-grabbing, that it's been parodied by everyone from Alanis Morissette to The Office. And that's barely the worst song on Monkey Business, an album that begins with a lazy reinterpretation of Dick Dale's "Miserlou" and closes with a collaboration with Sting.
Naturally, the solo projects started flowing, to mixed results. Fergie's solo bid embodied the best and worst aspect of the Peas — for every a brilliant, irressistable piece of neck-snap ("London Bridge") or post-modern blip-and-sample ("Clumsy"), there was some half-assed Stefani or the akward posture of "Fergalicious." Will.i.am went down an electro wormhole on Songs About Girls, playing with some of the textures they would eventually unleash on The E.N.D., but with none of that album's enthusiastic abandon.
With The E.N.D., the Black Eyed Peas finally nailed the spirit of the times, arriving hella late into a three-year wave of electro-pop and AutoTune, but imbuing it with a feel all their own, as evidenced by the gut-tugging bass drops in "Boom Boom Pow," the future-shocked Swizz Beatz rip off of "Imma Be" and the Bow Wow Wow-meets-M.I.A. minimalist megablast of "Electric City" (a jam even though it features Fergie at her uncomfortable worst: "Bitches on my dick, oh no, they on my dildo"). Number One single "I Gotta Feeling" and followup "Meet Me Halfway" have the energy and playful hooks of Eighties New Wave, placing the Peas as pan-genre anthem makers.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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