Mixed Emotions: The Pop Conundrum of the Black Eyed Peas
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 27, 2010
Over the last year or so, two questions have been pressing on me, and inspired by this week’s new #1 on the Hot 100, it seems as good a time as any to ask them out loud:
1. How much better would the Black Eyed Peas be if they were only Fergie and Will.i.am, cutting out the two useless rabble-rousers?
2. How much better would the Black Eyed Peas seem if they had never been considered to be a rap group?
The merits behind question #1 should be obvious, as I don’t think the BEPs have had one single in their second incarnation that couldn’t have been immensely improved by eliminating the (admittedly limited) vocal contributions of apl.de.ap and Taboo. Not that Will.i.am has proven himself much of a rapper these days either, but on his own (and mostly in support of Fergie), his contributions can be tolerable without their problems being compounded by the even-lesser efforts other two. I especially think of this when considering the recent “Meet Me Halfway,” a potential classic (yes, classic–more on that in a minute) thoughtlessly hamstrung by giving all four members their touches on the song, when at most there was room for one other voice besides Fergie’s. If they jettisoned the losers and if Will.i.am moved to more of a backup/producer role (think his “T-A-S-T-E-Y” part on “Fergalicious”), it seems like the ceiling for these songs would go through the roof. (Whoops, awkward mixed metaphor). The only downside I can see is that the sense of Party Over-Enthusiastically With Your Idiot Friends fun that has a fair amount to do with the BEPs appeal would be obviously lesser if it was just Will and Fergie, but I guess you could just keep the scrubs around as back-up dancers or live hypemen or something. It works OK for the Pussycat Dolls.
About question #2, it might not mean as much as I think, since doubtless it’s been a long time since anyone really considered the Peas a rap group, and I imagine you hear them about as much on R&B radio these days as you hear Avenged Sevenfold. But I do wonder how perceptions about them would have differed if they hadn’t started out sounding like The Roots and Jurassic 5–would the all-around hate for them be as severe? After all, much of the initial distaste for their pop work stemmed from hip-hop heads’ (the stoner ones, anyway) sense of betrayal over one of underground rap’s leading lights so unapologetically jumping ship, in favor of writing purposefully stupid songs that proved infinitely more crowd-pleasing than the band ever was in their jammier, headier days. Of course, a lot of the distaste also stemmed from the fact that songs like “Where is the Love?” and “My Humps” were excruciatingly bad, so I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself here, but I do wonder if we would have been more willing to concentrate on the positives with the BEPs if we had never viewed them as legitimate rappers.
I feel these are worth asking, because it’s becoming clear to me that as pop artists, the Peas really do have the potential to be damn good. I haven’t seen an artist’s total sell-out in sound and image turn out to be such an inspired career choice since Sugar Ray transformed from a mediocre alt-metal band to one of the best pop groups of the late-90s. From a production and hooks standpoint–arguably the two most important aspects of a pop single–the Peas are practically peerless these days. All four of the singles off The E.N.D. (“Boom Boom Pow,” “I Gotta Feeling,” “Meet Me Halfway” and new #1 “Imma Be”) are absolutely fantastic in those categories, and each in impressively different ways, with the group proving equally adept these days at making electro throwbacks, pop/rock rave-ups and synth-pop torch ballads. Meanwhile, things like the eerie humming sound in the background of “Boom Boom Pow” and the unexpected tempo shift halfway through “Imma Be” show just how much Will.i.am has improved over the years as a producer, able to provide the punctuation marks that have the tendency to turn good pop songs into great ones.
As previously alluded to, “Meet Me Halfway” is the one I find the most impressive of the Peas’ new batch. Fergie said that when recording her vocal for the song, she tried to imagine herself as a 10-year-old Madonna fan back in 1985, and it totally makes sense–Fergie’s hook has the kind of naivete and desperation of a song like “Live to Tell,” with a mysterious and almost fearful quality that you just don’t really hear in pop music anymore. It’s probably the greatest thing she’s ever done, and it shows that if anyone had ever stopped her from shooting herself in the foot by bragging about being real enough to eat at Taco Bell or being all up in the gym working on her fitness, she could’ve had a career of at least Lisa Lisa-level pop credibility. With Will’s gorgeous bed of synths and “Maps”-like guitar picking underneath her, “Haflway” could’ve been as good as just about any 80s-retro number released in the 2000s, but the blatherings of the other three, insipid and totally irrelevant to Fergie’s chorus, damn the song to “what if?” status. It’s heartbreaking, really.
I have hope it won’t always be like this, though. The group of singles off this album are the first bunch the group has released where the good is good enough that the bad doesn’t make the songs unlistenable, and that leads me to believe that the Peas are at least heading in the right direction, and possibly realize how long they still have to go to earn their status as the world’s biggest pop group (which, if you go by the charts anyway, is a status they certainly currently possess). And in any event, despite the sins of their past and the flaws of their present, I am currently willing to acknowledge their current impact on pop music as being mostly a good thing. Not to keep hating on Ke$ha and Lady Gaga, who do both still have a good deal to recommend them, but there’s a certain cynicism and feeling of superiority surrounding them that I don’t generally like from my pop artists, and which makes the Peas’ endless supply of dorky enthusiasm tolerable even at its most grating. In a pop world of huge characters and grand statements, the Black Eyed Peas simply gon’ be. I can get down with that.