By Chris Polley | Music | July 1, 2009 |
By Chris Polley | Music | July 1, 2009 |
Before writing this review, I had only a bare-bones working knowledge of the Black Eyed Peas: they have been insipid pop stars for a while, but back in the day may have been a legitimate and respectable hip hop group, and their leading man appeared “via hologram” with Wolf Blitzer during the 2008 presidential election coverage. However, as they have now officially released their third album featuring radio singles that numb the mind and corrode the soul, that whole legitimate/respectable past thing has seemed like a hologram, or illusion, in and of itself. As a preliminary measure, I needed to verify the inkling in my memory that the outfit used to A) make hip hop music (as they surely don’t anymore), and B) that said hip hop was intelligible, substantive, and/or not terrible. I turned to AllMusic.com to get a basic rundown on the group’s discography, and as I pressed “Search” after typing in “Black Eyed Peas”, I was greeted with a screen that read, “No Results Found.”
For a solid thirty seconds I seriously pondered the possibility that indeed the Black Eyed Peas did not only not exist in the AllMusic database, but they did not exist. Period. That my mind had been conjuring them up for the past eight or so years that they have infiltrated my being, Fight Club style, was not completely unreasonable to me for a brief time. And for a flash that was so short yet so immensely pleasurable, before I regained my sanity and simply refreshed the page, I felt free. No longer would I have to pretend I live in a world where songs like “Let’s Get It Started” (originally recorded as “Let’s Get Retarded”) or “My Humps” conquer the airwaves. If it wasn’t just a common Internet glitch, the sudden disappearance of Black Eyed Peas from my consciousness could have meant that there was not only hope for the music industry or for the children that said industry controls, but it would have meant there was still hope for this cold and sterile planet of eternal sadness called Earth. My life would have suddenly switched to slow motion, the sun would have grown brighter than it ever had before, flowers would have bloomed out of every concrete crevice, and an orchestra of happiness would have flooded through my veins, causing me to smile for the first time in years.
I should have never pressed refresh. Because now here I am, struggling to make it through track 15 of 17 on the LA foursome’s fourth album, The E.N.D., in order to live up to the common courtesy of listening to an artist’s entire record before relating the group’s existence to a state of never ending apocalypse. And this is sad, because as I took a break midway through enduring their latest to revisit the first two Peas albums, 1998’s Behind The Front and 2000’s Bridging The Gap, it turns out that indeed they (minus Fergie, who didn’t join up until 2003’s historically idiotically titled Elephunk) used to make hip hop music that was not terrible. The adjective “good” is up for debate, but not terrible surely it was. In fact, a lyric that is all too indicative of the pop music industry as a whole sticks out like a sore thumb from the debut disc: “We don’t use dollars to represent / We just use our innocence and talent.” The sell-out aspect is a little played out, obvious, and downright unsolvable, so we’ll just leave that to speak for itself, but the key word here I think is “innocence.” Because that’s exactly what these two albums sound like. The trio didn’t exactly craft groundbreaking rhymes or beats, but they had a very clear, idealistic, and honorable mission: to use the creation of music as a way of questioning, celebrating, and teaching decent ways of living.
Positive-leaning rap acts both of previous decades (De La Soul) and of today (Lupe Fiasco) have recently seen a resurgence in admiration after being ostracized for too long for lacking the bravado or machismo the genre had become accustomed to (everyone from Sean Combs to Curtis Jackson is guilty as charged), which is what honestly frustrates me most about Black Eyed Peas’ continued path into meaningless party anthems. Proportionally, I’m infinitely appreciative they went this direction instead of the alternative (and honestly I just wouldn’t buy Will.i.am using the word “straps” seriously, and neither would the rest of the world), but it pissed me off because it’s safe. It’s the celebrating part without the thinking part. A celebration should occur after work has been done, after fights have been fought. Parties where the most intelligent thing said during the course of a DJ’s set is “we are the now generation” do not go on and on forever while the quality of life deteriorates for so many all around the world. Hip hop and even music as a whole may not be able to change the world, but they said themselves: they were innocent, and it’s the innocent people that make us think. It’s the innocents whose idealism influences us to do something rather than just sit and watch a Target commercial where idiots in sunglasses dance around singing about how tonight’s going to be a good night.
But going back to that original lyric, it wasn’t just innocence they claimed that made them what they were instead of cash and fancy clothes. It was talent. And while the beats of Peas albums from the past were as muddled and unassuming as they were playful and joyful, I can’t help but think that as their minds remain stagnantly unused in their lyrics, some songs on The E.N.D. (and it kind of pains me to admit this) have some of the most infectious melodies on Top 40 radio today. I want to stress the word “some” here because like mentioned earlier, this is a bear of an album to get through. And it might be nice to get your money’s worth by getting over 70 minutes of music for one CD, but it’s definitely not worth it when aside from the lyrical inanity, only about thirty-five of those minutes have strong hooks. Especially when it’s a pop act for crying out loud. That said, the high points are admittedly enjoyable a purely aesthetic level. The Peas have jumped on the Autotune bandwagon, but they manage to utilize it with a kind of smooth excess on “Rock That Body” and a sparingly effective amount on the slow-burning “Alive”. Fergie even gets a little MJ-esque yelping going on in “Missing You” that is as aurally rewarding as it is morally problematic to enjoy something that has emanated from the woman’s mouth.
All this surely does not make up for tracks like “Ring-a-ling”, which contains the lyrical gem “You don’t wanna have sex with me? / Then why you keep textin’ me?” on top of a ADD-swirling synth bed, or “Now Generation”, which does not only have an odious harmonica spurting through the speakers, but articulates “Facebook is that new place / dip diving socializing I’ll be out in cyberspace”. These two songs are the most blatant offenders, as others on the record not mentioned thus far merely sit there limping along innocuously, but not nearly as much as the band’s insistence on blanket statements of ignorance and partying. The album’s acronymic title stands for “Energy Never Dies” and that’s probably true, because no matter how many valueless sounds they pump out into the pop culture ether, they seem to always be enthusiastic about their product.
Chris Polley teaches high school English, often with his hair disheveled and a glint of crazy in his eye, in the Midwest’s greatest city, Minneapolis. He rambles on and conducts discourse with friends and strangers about the horrific beast that is pop culture over at The Blogulator.