The record that made The Black Eyed Peas into trendsetters, however briefly, turns 10.
Track 9 on The Black Eyed Peas’ 2005 album Monkey Business is called “Gone Going.” In it, the group’s leader, will.i.am, weaves a tale about a wide-eyed boy named Johnny who sets out to become a famous and successful music star. He starts off “singing the blues,” but as soon as he gets a taste of money and riches his music takes a turn for the vain, “singing songs about material things and platinum watches and diamonds that go bling.” Johnny remains successful for a time, but he’s no longer singing from the heart and his downfall is rapidly incoming.
“Sooner or later, he’s just gonna fall apart
‘Cos his fans can’t relate to his newfound art
He ain’t doin’ what he did from the start
And that’s putting in some feeling and thought
He decided to live his life shallow
Cash in his love for material
And it’s gone.”
Four tracks previous on that very same album is “My Humps,” in which will.i.am and Fergie sing-rap an obnoxiously empty ass anthem over a barely-finished beat with verses that combine pre-school level couplets – “I met a girl down at the disco, she said ‘hey, hey, hey, let’s go’” – with endless brand-dropping. It became The Black Eyed Peas’ biggest hit of their career to that point and won them a Grammy.
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be yet another Black Eyed Peas-related essay which goes on forever about “credibility.” Whenever anyone who situates themselves in music-geek circles is prepping their BEP hit-pieces, it’s a near-certainty that the charges of “sell-out” will be fired off sometime in the argument, usually whenever the person in question has gotten to the point where former member Kim Hill is replaced by Stacey “Fergie” Ferguson and the following album, 2003’s Elephunk, starts near-enough muzzling the two other rappers in the group, apl.de.ap and Taboo. Whilst I’m not quite willing to decommission that particular missile in everyone’s respective arsenals, I honestly just find that conversation really boring because it mischaracterises what the Peas have always been even right back on their acclaimed first two records: trend-chasing pop stars.
Said first two records, 1998’s Behind the Front and 2000’s Bridging the Gap, are solid enough stabs at conscious hip hop in opposition to the materialistic gangsta rap that consumed the American pop scene throughout the mid-90s which The Roots were also cultivating around that same time, right down to making a big display of having a live band. It’s all listenable enough, and Bridging the Gap actually comes closest out of the Peas’ entire discography to being a legitimately great work, but in addition to being extremely derivative – Behind the Front even pilfers the ‘fake game show as commentary on current hip hop’s emptiness’ skit structure from De La Soul’s seminal 3 Feet High and Rising – they’re records held back by the members’ often-corny or just-plain dumbass lyricism and simplistic flows. “Clap Your Hands,” the second track off of Front and their first shot after explicitly pitching themselves in opposition to vapid mainstream rap, features will.i.am rapping “Honeys wanna get up on me like suki-suki, they call me on my telly talking bout mushi-mushi, they pullin’ on my body feelin’ my tushi-tushi.” Charli 2na of Jurassic 5 shows up at the end of “Get Original,” a lecture about flow-biters and lame imitators (the irony of a J5 member showing up here is not lost on me), and proceeds to blow will.i.am and apl.de.ap off the track with such severity it’s like a gale-force tornado raced through.
So the shift in Elephunk to a more smoothed-out pop-friendly sound, with a rolodex of tracks which hit every conceivable trend in music at that moment in time – dancehall stompers with “Hey Mama,” salsa-fusion with “Latin Girls,” high-concept pop duets with “Shut Up,” instantly-regrettable nu-metal dabbles with “Anxiety” (a goddamn Papa Roach collaboration) – to me reads less as selling out and more as group leader will.i.am acknowledging where their strengths best lie: dumbass Jock Jams that are fun in spite of themselves. The Peas’ initial desire to carry the torch for conscious hip hop in an era where Eminem was one of the biggest stars on the planet was admirable, truly, but noble desires can’t cover for middling talent and, more importantly, they also don’t pay the bills. Prior to “Where is the Love?” an insufferably schmaltzy Hallmark take on the music which built their cult following, the group had no hits and were prepared to hang it up until Jive Records’ Ron Fair talked them into ditching reservations about losing credibility and aiming for the pop crowd. That bandwagon-chasing worked. “Where is the Love?” with the aid of a little uncredited Justin Timberlake ‘magic,’ became the Peas’ first appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 and was the biggest selling single of 2003 in the UK where it went to #1 for six straight weeks.
By the time of follow-up Monkey Business, with its shameless late-to-the-party chasing of the Latin and South Asian soundscapes that seemingly all successful rap crossovers of the mid-2000s were sporting, it’s safe to say those reservations about credibility were long gone and make a song like “Gone Going” kind of whiney, to be frank. These are some dumb-ass songs, folks, but they’re not wholly unenjoyable. Part of swinging for the fences in dumb pop music is the risk that you’re going to shoot past ‘dumb fun’ and land right in ‘obnoxiously awful’ if you’re not careful and the Peas’ ratio, whilst still better than their most ardent detractors are willing to admit, was rather lopsided. That said, the highs could also be just high enough to offset their lowest lows. “My Humps” is one of the worst songs of the century, even the group despised it by the end, but “Pump It” is exactly the kind of hype party jam which fulfils its intended purpose with gusto. “Hey Mama” is lyrically insipid but the melody is infectious and Fergie’s bridge honestly makes the song. “Shut Up” is pop genius so undeniable that it’s able to just about amend for the existence of a song called “Let’s Get Retarded” – the latter was unsurprisingly re-recorded as “Let’s Get It Started” for the single release, although the change means its melody and pre-chorus lyrics now make zero sense.
Couple those with Fergie’s 2006 solo debut, the similarly-inconsistent and similarly-banger-laden The Dutchess, and the Black Eyed Peas start to make more sense. They’re not a serious authentic hip hop group. They never were. It also makes what they did next, when viewed in the context of their career arcs, more understandable if not any more palatable. What happens when the habitual trend-chasers whose career trajectory has been going ever more skyward the dumber their music gets somehow manage to luck themselves into being trendsetters? You get album #5, The E.N.D., which turns 10 today.
OK, perhaps calling them “trendsetters” is overstating things just a tad. The E.N.D.’s EDM club pop was not wholly uncharted territory at the time – the UK charts especially had been no stranger to booming crossover club hits for coming on two decades, whilst Rihanna in particular had been sporadically mining that field across her pop R&B career to then with tracks like “SOS” and “Don’t Stop the Music” – and the very obvious influences of Daft Punk’s landmark Alive 2007 tour, mid-80s electro-hop by acts like Soulsonic Force, and T-Pain’s then-ubiquitous Auto-Tune bleat are impossible to miss. For his part, will.i.am credits the time he spent in Australia shooting his role in X-Men Origins: Wolverine for inspiration, most specifically witnessing The Presets play their nasty electroclash dance-punk protest anthem “My People” live.
“The energy on [their] small little stage was crazy energy. Their audience, it was like the new generation. The fans born with the internet, born with a phone in their hand. These kids were on some 3008 shit; that’s what we meant by that line [in “Boom Boom Pow”]. That’s why this record sounds like the way it does, my trip in Australia. Those three months changed my life.”
You may not be surprised to discover that nothing on The E.N.D., least of all “Boom Boom Pow,” sounds remotely like Presets’ “My People.” That checked influence bodies speakers in both musical force, listen to that thing and realise how full and rich it sounds compared to “Boom Boom Pow,” and lyrical content, being a vicious condemnation against Australia’s inhumane migrant detention centres (an issue whose urgency has only increased in the decade since the song’s release). Meanwhile, will.i.am has the gall to yell “I BE ROCKIN THEM BEATS!” on a track with a hysterically anaemic beat and lyrics that rival “My Humps” for inanity. Bizarre Inc’s “I’m Gonna Get You” would later be cited as an influence for Fergie’s delivery on the bridge where she demands will.i.am drop the beat, and every single one of these named influences are only making the recorded music sound even worse.
The issue, when evaluating The E.N.D. on a critical music level, is that its understanding of dance music is extremely shallow and borderline contemptuous. There’s a fundamental misunderstanding that the power of great dance music comes from repetitive simplicity, where the million-dollar catchy hook is driven forcefully into the ground non-stop, where the lyrics absolutely and unequivocally do not matter beyond how they sound when paired with the melody, and where the songs establish themselves within the opening seconds and proceed to go absolutely nowhere for their remaining runtime. All of these are crimes which “Boom Boom Pow” is guilty of committing, it borderline sounds like an unfinished demo and its only defining characteristic besides the titular hook is the immediately-mocked “I’m so 3008, you’re so 2000-and-late” line. And it only gets worse elsewhere on the album: the truly intolerable “Ring-A-Ling” pairs its abominable hook – it rhymes “ring-a-ling” with “ding-a-ling” near-hundreds of times in 2009 – with unlistenable hammerfist production; the even worse “Imma Be,” even with a slightly cool beat switch halfway through, repeats its title 106 times across an endless 4:16; and almost every single song on the album is at least a full minute longer than it has any right to be – on the 15 track Standard Edition, there are only two songs which come in under the 4 minute mark.
As an album, a serious complete body of work to be consumed in one sitting as an artistic statement, The E.N.D. is an exhausting mind-numbing listen where the highs are largely fleeting and neutered by their extended lengths, and the lows are unconscionably dumb. It is frontloaded to hell, the back-half being notably crammed with even more half-baked filler (the atrocious “Party All the Time” which at least meant that Eddie Murphy no longer holds the honour of having the worst song named “Party All the Time”) and a last-minute switch into a concept suite about the materialistic short-attention span riddled current generation (“Now Generation”) and how we all need to come together to overcome hate and discrimination (“One Tribe” picking up where “Where is the Love?” unfortunately left off) before anticlimactically closing on their own “Something 2 Dance 2” (the embarrassing shuffle of “Rockin’ to the Beat”).
But, then again, The E.N.D. was never intended to be experienced as an album. Months prior to the record’s release, will.i.am spoke to Billboard about his desire to “break away from the concept of an album. What is an album when you put 12 songs on iTunes and people can pick at it like scabs? That’s not an album. There is no album anymore.” His plan to make The E.N.D. a constantly updating living record where “when it comes out, there’ll be 12 songs on it, but the next day there could be 100 songs, 50 sketches” didn’t come to fruition – we’d have to wait another seven years for Kanye West to demonstrate how stupid of an idea a never-finished constantly-updating album would be – but that sentiment of the album itself being the least important part of the album cycle permeates proceedings. Listening through The E.N.D. in one continuous experience in its listed order is actually the worst way to do so even with it largely mixed like one continuous set. It means the largely-enjoyable Uffie-goes-Daft-Funk of Fergie solo number “Out of My Head” has its pleasures diluted thanks to following the modulated farts of “Party All the Time.” It means that the album’s late stretch turns into barely distinguishable mush.
And, most importantly, it means you’re experiencing those singles in the worst possible formats. Nothing could possibly save “Imma Be” or “Boom Boom Pow” but they are made immeasurably more tolerable when chopped down into abbreviated Radio Edits – “Boom Boom Pow” goes from an indefensible 5:08 on record to a leaner 3:38 on the Radio Edit. Meanwhile, having the fat trimmed and their contexts switched to a more varied radio landscape allows the few killer singles to operate within the ‘dumb fun’ parameters the Peas could sporadically excel in. “Rock That Body,” whilst hobbled with an awful pitch-shifted vocal and incongruous Rob Base sample, is a solid Justice take-off. “I Gotta Feeling” has almost a minute shorn from it in single form and in doing so rides that sugary David Guetta production – one of only two songs on the album without will.i.am on the boards in some capacity, which only serves to highlight how basic and tinny his efforts at this sort of production are – and empty Jock Jam lyricism to the borderline of teeth-rotting rather than sailing past it. And then there’s “Meet Me Halfway,” a legitimately outstanding throwback 80s mall-pop ballad which benefits from being uncharacteristically restrained, Fergie’s best vocal performance ever, and an unexpected injection of soul and heart in contrast to the mindless simplicity of basically everything else.
Despite topping the charts in the US, going multiplatinum worldwide (2x in America and 5x in the UK despite never topping the charts in the latter region), selling 11 million copies by late 2010, and winning a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album, I’m willing to bet most people who have experienced The E.N.D. have not actually done so by listening to the album itself. Instead, they’ll have done so vicariously through the omnipresence of those singles throughout 2009 and early 2010. Three of those singles topped the charts in the UK and US – “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling,” whilst the US sent “Imma Be” to the top and the UK instead chose “Meet Me Halfway” – and they did so for a long-ass time. “I Gotta Feeling” is still the most downloaded song in iTunes’ history. These songs were absolutely fucking everywhere, on every radio station, blaring out of every car speaker, backing every single good times montage on a reality TV show; truly inescapable.
And in doing so they heralded the next great shift in the pop music landscape. Just prior to “Boom Boom Pow,” Lady Gaga’s The Fame had finally penetrated the mainstream with Gaga and main production partner RedOne working from many of the same club pop influences and sounds as the Peas, albeit with a subversive undercurrent which has ensured its longevity far better than almost anything on The E.N.D. (whose non-“Halfway” moments have aged atrociously). More importantly was what came after. E.N.D. heralded an entire Summer of similar EDM-inflected pop records – Calvin Harris would release Ready for the Weekend in mid-August which provided the blueprint for the next half-decade of his music, David Guetta’s One Love quickly followed, and late September saw then-respected Grime megastar Dizzee Rascal sell out to the nth degree with the mindless and cartoony Tongue n’ Cheek – that saw EDM crossover to the mainstream and subsequently dominate and dumb down pop music for the next several years.
Ever the opportunists, the Peas would attempt to capitalise on their momentum by rush-releasinga sonically-similar follow-up 18 months later, 2010’s The Beginning. It bombed. As much as an album with a #1 single, the truly turgid “The Time (Dirty Bit)” which is five precision-honed minutes of everything dance and pop cynics profess those genres to be unfortunately writ large, can flop, anyway. The E.N.D. scored three inescapable #1 singles and sold 11 million copies worldwide within a year; The Beginning managed just the one #1 single (and even then only in the UK) and sold just 3 million copies worldwide within a year. More than easily being the worst album in the group’s entire discography, lacking a single redeeming moment throughout its 12 tracks and near-hour runtime, and more than mere overexposure, I chalk this up to the Peas having been squeezed out of their own newfound niche by both the artists they came up with and coat-riding youngsters who did their schtick far better and/or dumber.
As beatmakers, the tinny and simplistic club beats that will.i.am made his stock in trade couldn’t hold a candle to the weapons-grade door-blasters which slayed festival fields the globe over provided by artists like deadmau5 and the emerging Swedish House Mafia, whilst Harris and Guetta only went from strength to strength. Lady Gaga and a fast-pivoting Katy Perry would further the club/dance-pop put forward by the Peas into irresistible, melodically gorgeous, emotionally stimulating and somewhat adventurous follow-ups The Fame Monster (and soon after Born This Way) and Teenage Dream respectively, nabbing the Poptimist acclaim that the Peas’ pivot failed to, and Rihanna also rode that similar wave with better tunes and infinitely better vocal performances. And as for dumbass pop-rap which the Peas once supposedly stood in opposition to but was now their defining sound? Turns out they opened the floodgates for a lot of even stupider, even more obnoxious musicians which rendered themselves effectively redundant. Jason Derulo, their opener on the E.N.D. tour. Mr. Worldwide himself, Pitbull, on his fifth reinvention. N-Dubz in the UK for an unfortunate time. And then there was LMFAO whom will.i.am actually introduced to Interscope’s Neil Jacobson, having been friends with Redfoo since childhood, only for them to become similarly inescapable short-lived millionaire megastars by dumbing down The E.N.D.’s sound to its most noxious unlistenable yet radio-adoring levels.
And so, just like Johnny in “Gone Going,” the Peas found everything falling apart, having cashed in their love for material, with it almost gone nearly as fast as it had arrived. When they announced their indefinite hiatus in mid-2011, it was met with almost universal cheers. will.i.am’s solo career, although reasonably successful in the UK, flopped hard in the US. He’s spent much of the past decade coaching on the UK version of The Voice, Britain’s fourth biggest TV talent show. apl.de.ap similarly took on a role on his native The Voice Philippines as well as focussing on charity work for the country and co-hosting their version of Top Gear. Fergie left the group shortly after they reactivated to focus on a second solo record, which also flopped. You probably didn’t even know they reconvened at all, let alone that they put out a back-to-basics conscious hip hop concept record called Masters of the Sun, vol. 1 last year now that such music is somewhat back in vogue.
It was… fine. Because, as rappers, The Black Eyed Peas were only ever just fine at best. As pop stars, they were obnoxious stupid dumbasses who nonetheless could be enjoyable in spite of themselves and, extremely rarely, stumble onto genuine pop brilliance. In either form, though, they are shameless trend-chasers who, for a brief time, got real lucky and became trendsetters. They were and will always be “2000-and-late.”
Callum Petch can’t go any further than this.