14 years after their formation, the pop behemoths’ GRAMMY-winning fifth album found will.i.am, Fergie & co. at peak body-rockin’ power.
Listen—do you really think will.i.am thinks he’s Kendrick Lamar? The first step to appreciating the Black Eyed Peas is recognizing that rap fans unfavorably comparing them to Nas or something would be like comparing KC and the Sunshine Band to Bob Dylan. Actually, let’s run with that KC thing for a moment, because that’s almost certainly the analogy. Those guys had “That’s the Way (I Like It),” “Get Down Tonight,” and the ever-so-meaningful “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty.” These guys (and gal) had “Boom Boom Pow,” “Don’t Phunk With My Heart,” and a very special self-love serenade entitled “My Humps.” In fact, we should give will.i.am credit for realizing he is very much not Kendrick Lamar (or Posdnous or Black Thought) no matter how perfectly pleasant his group’s earlier, backpacker-targeting efforts were (“Joints & Jam” remains both a joint and a jam, especially the “Instant Flava Remix”). What exactly did they have to sell out, the chance to tour with Jurassic 5 forever?
If this is all a bit defensive, well, have you read any defenses of the Black Eyed Peas lately? 15 years on and the world still isn’t quite ready for Fergie‘s “lovely lady lumps.” But that doesn’t explain who was buying all the copies of their fifth studio album, The E.N.D., in 2009, which was this Gap Band meets Bar Mitzvah band’s saturation point: for 26 weeks of the year they held the number-one spot on the Hot 100 with some inescapable song or another. So let’s rip the scab off the Chicago White Sox’s shameful Disco Demolition Night and go one further by calling The E.N.D. a front-to-back damn good album. If that requires people to have a decade of distance from these songs being blasted in their faces everywhere they go, then so be it. But for once the silly acronym really did mean that the Energy Never Dies.
It’s easy to call will.i.am cheap because he throws everything at the wall to see what sticks. But this method doesn’t get enough credit for its madness. Blink and you’ll miss that his first true hit, “Where Is the Love?” was a sappy unity plea with Justin Timberlake that at one point names the CIA as terrorists. Then there’s the majestically tasteless “Let’s Get Retarded,” which managed to be ableist twice (“bob your head like epilepsy,” holy moly). None of that wildness found its way onto The E.N.D., which is probably best for its all-ages dance party, though “Ring-a-Ling” does manage to slip in another “retarded” at the end, courtesy of Roxanne Shanté, who at least had the excuse of being 16.
But the understated Fergie classic “Meet Me Halfway” did sample the Yeah Yeah Yeahs like that’s a totally normal thing for an electro-pop-hip-hop outfit to do. There’s plenty of trippy sound effects, like when will.i.am echoes infinitely beneath Fergie’s pre-chorus build on “Boom Boom Pow,” or the Nintendo synth squelches that punctuate the title recitations of “Party All The Time,” which may as well be the theme song for these Andrew W.K.’s of rap: “If I could party all night / And sleep all day / And throw all of my problems away / Life would be easy.” Like Avicii or Skrillex but sliding in just before EDM boomed, the Peas had a winning willingness to do anything to make you dance, whether it’s challenging Grandmaster Flash on “Rockin’ to the Beat” or leading a turnt-up electric guitar through the all-purpose pregame anthem “I Gotta Feeling,” or even giving Will and his trusty Auto-Tune an awfully pretty disco ballad to warble on “Alive.”
Almost everything on The E.N.D. is better than you remember, starting with “Meet Me Halfway” (if you only give one BEP song another shot, make it this one) but also the futuristic, molten synth drips and Chipmunked hypeman of “Rock Your Body” and the multipart Zapp goody bag “Imma Be,” which was the album’s third and final chart-topping smash. After their last two albums made the Peas the only act in the history of the world to work with both Stingand Papa Roach, their fifth album had a streamlined purity of purpose. Somehow there were no guests, or even super-familiar sampled hooks (which means Dick Dale’s Pulp Fictiontheme didn’t return for a sequel to “Pump It”). For reasons known only to these goofballs, they wanted to do it on their own. This may have resulted in Fergie’s questionable patois on the otherwise Diplo-worthy “Electric City,” but it also made these unlikely geeks the biggest pop stars on the planet for one long summer. If you’ve ever found yourself unconsciously humming along with “I Gotta Feeling,” you owe it yourself to find out if the energy really never dies. I won’t spoil it. But you’re so two-thousand-and-late.