I wonder if it’s even worth mentioning that the Black Eyed Peas used to be a reasonably enjoyable (if not especially groundbreaking) rap group. Hell, I wonder if most of the BEP’s current fans even remember the group’s transition from its early days as a hip-hop troupe in the Native Tongues mold into the biggest pop group in the universe. How did they manage that? Well, it’s quite simple: they sold out in the absolute biggest way possible. Group leader will.i.am (with help from industry bigwigs Ron Fair and Jimmy Iovine) started by enlisting Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson as token white chick/eye candy. The group then rode a Justin Timberlake cameo to stardom and haven’t looked back since. Seven years since their initial pop breakthrough, they’ve ingrained themselves into the mainstream consciousness with songs that have been increasingly repetitive and soulless, culminating in 2008’s The E.N.D. This multi-platinum, Grammy winning album found the Peas dropping just about all the ties they had to hip-hop and staking their claim as purveyors of shiny pop jingles, perfect for television advertisements and sports arenas. “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling,” the project’s two big hit singles, spent a combined six months atop the Billboard chart and were omnipresent on the radio and TV.
The group’s sixth album, entitled The Beginning (how fucking clever!), completes their transition into a Euro-flavored dance/pop outfit. If you’re looking for a hint of soul — whether via inspirational or personal lyrics or heartfelt singing — you’re not gonna find it here. What you will find is a collection of caffeinated uptempo jams that don’t work very well outside of the nightclub or the gym, as well as a sound even more anonymous than most of what passes for “Top 40” these days.
It’s complete formula at this point: will.i.am sings half the time/rhymes half the time, spouting lyrics so simplistic and downright laughable that they make a middleweight emcee like Kanye West look like the second coming of Rakim (sample lyric: “Everybody is a star/It doesn’t matter who you are”). Fergie growls or purrs through a handful of lines, while additional Peas apl.de.ap and Taboo join in with an occasional verse (which puts them in direct competition with Shay from N.E.R.D. for the Andrew Ridgeley “Luckiest Man Alive” award). The choruses are usually shouted or sung gang-style, making them easy to remember (even if they weren’t so repetitive) and perfect for fist-pumping at the local club. Of course, another plus (from a marketing perspective, anyway) to having songs as one-dimensional and repetitive as most of the Peas’ catalog is that their repertoire is immediately appealing to tots — although I think I’d enjoy an album of the BEP doing actual childrens’ tunes more than I like this drivel.
Production-wise, The Beginning could just as easily be a Haddaway album. There’s a decidedly European dance flavor, which is occasionally offset by a familiar sample or interpolation. Among the “classics” that find their way into songs on this album: Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes’ “I’ve Had the Time of My Life,” KC’s “Give it Up” and Chic’s “My Forbidden Lover.” The usage of the Chic sample is particularly egregious, squandered on the silly “Fashion Beats,” a song that has no use beyond serving as catwalk music at either a fashion show or a gay bar.
Even worse, just about every single note sung, rapped or chanted on The Beginning is filtered through Auto-Tune. This adds an additional layer of anonymity to the proceedings, and serves to obscure Fergie’s vocal dominance over the rest of the group members. Her presence on the album seems to be a bit muted even without the vocal trickery-perhaps leading credence to the rumors that the band was on the verge of a split a year or so ago. What really stinks is that she can sing her ass off (check out her guest appearance on the latest Slash album for proof). I hope that when she gets older, she’s comfortable with the fact that she basically whored away a boatload of talent. At what point does money and fame become more important than your art?
Look, I’m not some music snob critic who doesn’t dig modern pop music. My record collection has more than a few songs and artists that could easily be classified as substance-free guilty pleasures. Thing is, I get no pleasure at all out of this album or most of the Black Eyed Peas’ music in general. Even the flimsiest good pop music contains a well-written hook that lodges itself in your head. It’s hard to even call The Beginning music, as drony, repetitive and uninspired as it is. While I can certainly see people throwing their hands up to these slogan/jingle-like tunes at a disco or busting a sweat to them on the treadmill, I can’t see any of these songs having any lasting value once you leave either of those environments.
As The Peas say themselves on one of The Beginning’s tracks. “This shit is terrifying…Halloween!” I couldn’t have said it better myself. If only we could use that holiday as an excuse for the horrifying nature of this album …
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