“Tutti Frutti.” “Da Doo Ron Ron.” “Wannabe.” “Macarena.” “Who Let the Dogs Out.” There is a hallowed place in music history for dumb songs — a shrine in the high church of pop, ringed with Roman candles, exploding cigars and blinking hot-pink neon lights. We’re talking aggressively, festively, infectiously dumb — the kind of dumb that offers something like the reward you get from great art: the pleasure of reveling in the ridiculous, because, after all, life is ridiculous.
Occasionally an actual musical genius will record a dumb song (Little Richard); more often, they are the work of one-hit wonders (Baha Men). Black Eyed Peas occupy a unique place in this tradition. Beginning in 2003, when three Los Angeles MCs (African-American Will.i.am, Filipino-American Apl.de.ap and Mexican/Native American Taboo) hired a blond bombshell named Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson and gave up their pursuit of backpack-rapper cred, they have made a kind of spiritual practice of recording dumb songs — a total aesthetic commitment that extends from their garish wardrobes to their United Colors of Benetton worldview. “Let’s Get Retarded,” proclaimed a 2004 single. And so they have.
Now comes The E.N.D., the Peas’ fifth studio album and their first since Monkey Business, the 2005 release that won them superstardom and put the phrase “lovely lady lumps” in the cultural lexicon. The new record begins with Will.i.am’s computerized basso profundo voice intoning beatitudes: “This version of myself is not permanent/Tomorrow, I will be different.” Whereupon the record segues into the Number One hit “Boom Boom Pow,” and all hell breaks loose. There are Auto-Tune vocal trills, eerie synth chords, screechy disco-diva wailing, 808 thuds, raps about 808 thuds and a dizzying barrage of doggerel: “I got that . . . digital spit/Next-level visual shit.” It is an assault on the senses, and on good taste. And it’s the best thing Black Eyed Peas have ever recorded.
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No other song quite reaches that level of delicious excess, but they come damn close. (The album title is an acronym for “Energy Never Dies.” It’s aptly named.) “Rock That Body” tosses up everything from huge kick drums to synth figures that sound like crow caws to a famous Rob Base sample; “Ring-A-Ling” blends jittery keyboard figures and the phrase “b-b-booty call” into a rococo swirl; in “Now Generation,” the gang bellows over power-pop guitar chords. The action doesn’t even flag much with songs like “One Tribe,” one of those patented BEP pleas for, um, world peace.
The rest of the tracks have titles like “Party All the Time” and are electro party songs about electro party songs. They’re excuses for Will.i.am to go nuts with beats and blips, and to maneuver his bandmates — who often just seem like human sonic effects — around his crammed canvases. It’s easy to make fun of Will.i.am, an L.A. operator who has become a ubiquitous pop-culture presence, turning up on red carpets and appearing on CNN in hologram form. On The E.N.D., he does the musical equivalent of the CNN shtick: doing silly, gratuitous, cool things with technology just because, you know, it can be done. As often as not the results are dumb. And that’s an awfully good thing.