In the beginning it was William Adams (will.i.am) and Allan Pineda (apl.de.ap) who came together with a mutual love for De La Soul, sunshine rap and performance art. As a trio they recorded Grass Roots under the guise of Atban Klann for Eazy-E. Hampered by circumstance they changed their name to Black Eyed Pods and then Black Eyed Peas, adding Jaime Gomez (Taboo) and sometime vocalist Kim Hill and concentrating on a variant of gangsta rap, albeit with a distinctive style that was larger than life. On signing to Interscope, the cutting edge outlet for their unique approach, they adapted their Grass Roots material and introduced an eclectic array of samples into the tracks with nods at Jacob Miller, Jorge Ben, Blondie and an overall Latino beat structure built around synths, Fender Rhodes, Hammond organ and rocking backbeats. Macy Gray guested on “Love Won’t Wait” and their interpolation of ‘skits’ set them apart from the norm, just as their refusal to deal with misogyny or homophobia made them a far more commercial proposition than many who brought political braggadocio into the room.
Party anthems and songs for plain people were their calling card and so Bridging the Gap helped make inroads. Check out “Request + Line”, “BEP Empire”, “Weekends”: and “Get Original” and you’ll hear the sound of 2000. As you’d expect there’s always going to be bonus material with these prolific folks and the Collector’s edition puts flesh on the funky bones. Great reviews aside Bridging the Gap was also a statement of intent: an early manifesto and a blueprint for the amazing outbreak of The Black Eyed Peas in full effect.
The huge Elephunk (2003) was like a masterpiece in development until Fergie’s arrival. Then it became the largest animal in the jungle. Stacey Ann ‘Fergie’ Ferguson, from Hacienda Heights, California fitted right in with these Los Angeles hombres. A former member of the all-female group Wild Orchid and a stalwart of the US TV show Kids Incorporated, Fergie’s natural exuberance and her vibrant personality kick started a sonic revolution on an album that is so packed with hooks, hip hop grooves and memorable tunes that the nine million people who already own a copy of the original still believe this is the sharpest, most sparkling disc of that year. Stuffed with hits – “Where is the Love?” “Shut Up”, “Hey Mama” and “Let’s Get It Started” – Elephunk is where it all goes right. Salsa, nu-metal, rap and groove are given the customary will.i.am spin and the Bonus tracks edition just makes the gift that keeps on giving ever more generous. Guests here include Justin Timberlake on “Where is the Love?” John Legend on “The Boogie That Be” and Sergio Mendes, who adds delicious piano fills to the Brazilian flavoured “Sexy”. It’s an irresistible disc and ought to be required discovery.
Now in-demand as a live act, a phenomenon, the Peas record Monkey Business (2005) in inspired spurts and produce a pop classic with deep R&B foundations. A multi-million seller and winner of Best Rap Performance by a Group for “Don’t Phunk With My Heart” this is user-friendly music writ large. The mega hits pour out: “Don’t Lie”, “Pump It” and the sexually charged “My Humps” are humorous and knowing and nod at Kelis, Neneh Cherry and Ciara as they gallop past at breakneck speed – bamboozling straitlaced critics while delighting the fans. No surprise there, then.
For those with calmer ears, dig the sampling of everyone from Sting and James Brown to Tone Loc and Astrud Gilberto, proving that mainstream doesn’t mean dumb. Best cut of all may well be “Ba Bump” where Cameo’s “Candy” lingers in the folds of the tune. But on the other hand “Gone Going” sneaks in some Jack Johnson and “Pump It” adds a dash of Dick Dale surf via “Misirlou”. That early De La Soul reference falls into place.
In 2006 the iTunes EP Renegotiations: The Remixes takes the Black Eyed Peas back to their club roots – they’ve already conquered the arena world – and after a hiatus we reach The E.N.D. (2009). Whatever the motives, some say they were attempting to win over the next generation of listeners, this album succeeded. It has sold so many copies that we should point out it also put the band at the number one slot for 26 consecutive weeks thanks to “Boom Boom Pow”, “I Gotta Feeling” and “Imma Be”. An inspirational set whose title refers to ‘Energy Never Dies’, the Peas’ fifth studio album defied those who claimed the group were shamelessly pursuing commercial success as the in-house team and David Guetta pump up a cavalcade of riotous music. Try the Deluxe edition of course, you get ten extra whacked tracks and a fuller taste of why this disc is so essential. Certainly the UK loves it, making this a 5xPlatinum monster.
How better to follow that than with The Beginning? - released in 2010 as a prequel of sorts. Grand beats, mighty rhymes and a large cast of devotees ensure that this album sits easily next to great soul and R&B offerings from Chic, KC and the Sunshine Band and Slick Rick. If the penny hasn’t dropped when you hear international hits “The Time (Dirty Bit)” or “Don’t Stop The Party” then snaffling a copy of the Deluxe and Super Deluxe editions is essential discovery.
Expert production, Fergie’s force of nature presence and the relentlessly challenging grooves all make The Beginning a good place to start, if you want to work backwards. A crazy and arcane mix of bizarre sonics, stomping funk, club and party anthems, it’s a damn near perfect modern pop-stroke-R&B disc.
In their transition from hopefuls to megastars – and it’s going to take a good memory to recall when they weren’t part of the furniture – Black Eyed Peas have always specialised in the pursuit of pleasure: always delivering just that. We can’t get enough of them.
Words: Max Bell
Although nominally a rap group, Black Eyed Peas call upon so many forms of songwriting and production that slotting them into hip-hop is like slotting Prince into R&B -- technically true, but very limiting. Elephunk, the group's third LP (and the first to feature Fergie), doesn't have top-notch rapping, but as driven by frontman Will.I.Am, it does possess some of the most boundary-pushing productions in contemporary, (mostly) uncommercial hip-hop, right up at the level occupied by Common and OutKast. The smart, brassy opening club thump "Hands Up" hits another level with a sly bridge flaunting some heavy metallic slide guitar, while the highly pressurized love jam "Shut Up" features great interplay between Taboo and new member Fergie. Space doesn't allow for description of each track, but suffice to say any Will.I.Am track is going to feature loads of ideas and fresh sounds, not to mention plenty of stylistic change-ups -- from the digital-step ragga of "Hey Mama" (featuring Tippa Irie) to the Latinized, loved-up "Latin Girls." Like a latter-day Digital Underground, Black Eyed Peas know how to get a party track moving, and add a crazy stupid rhyme or two ("bop your head like epilepsy" from the suitably titled "Let's Get Retarded").
Words: John Bush
Hip-hop artists with commercial aspirations need never appear pandering to their audience, since a tough, defiant stance -- aka keeping it real -- is exactly what will draw in most crossover listeners anyway. Nevertheless, the Black Eyed Peas quickly embraced the pop world after the surprising success of third album Elephunk, and only continued their repositioning as a mainstream act with 2005's Monkey Business. That focus is immediately clear on the opener, "Pump It Up," where they gladly welcome listeners on a track whose sample -- Dick Dale's "Misirlou," already ubiquitous before it appeared in Pulp Fiction -- has to replace "Walk This Way" or "I'll Be Missing You" (more on Sting later) as the most conspicuous case of an unmissable rock riff being used on a rap track. With the Wal-Mart audience safely in tow, the group moves on to motivate its hip-hop base by reaching for every trick in the grab bag of contemporary urban music. These attempts are either serviceable or wildly unsuccessful. "Disco Club" is one of the few serviceable tracks, an apt re-creation of Cassidy's "Hotel." Wildly unsuccessful is the group's utilization of its newest member, Fergie, to function as an imitator of the hyper-sexual Kelis/Ciara archetype on "My Humps," which makes for one of the most embarrassing rap performances of the new millennium (sample lyric: "My hump (9x)/My lovely little lumps"). Unlike Elephunk, the Justin Timberlake feature here ("My Style") is placed early in the program, and it's bolstered by a Timbaland production, which eases the strain of an otherwise featherweight jam. Most of the songs on Monkey Business are the same type of party rap singalong that Black Eyed Peas made their name with on Elephunk. But other than "Disco Club," the only one that works as anything but background party music is "Feel It," a rare production by the group's apl.de.ap (will.i.am handles most of the rest). At the very tail end of the disc, there's one brief glance at Black Eyed Peas' history as a socially conscious group -- "Union," featuring Sting and Branford Marsalis, which floats the usual bromides about peace and equality (and swipes the sound and speak of Bob Marley in the process). Monkey Business could easily sell just as well, or better, than Elephunk, but what the group made sound effortless in the past sounds strained and canned here.
Words: John Bush
The Black Eyed Peas make effective pop/crossover music, but with all the limitations of the form -- vapid lyrics, clumsy delivery, vocals smoothed over by Auto-Tune, and songwriting that constantly strains for (and reaches) the lowest common denominator. Worse yet, they aren't content to be disposable pop stars; they also want to write anthemic, vital songs that speak for a new generation. And so comes The E.N.D. (Energy Never Dies). For every hyper-sexualized, by-the-numbers track like the hit single "Boom Boom Pow," there are message songs like "Now Generation," which begins, in cheerleader fashion, with the lines: "We are the now generation! We are the generation now!/This is the now generation! This is the generation now!" Led by will.i.am's production, which is continually the best thing about the album, The Black Eyed Peas move even farther away from hip-hop into the type of blandly inspirational dance-pop that has become ripe for advertising and marketing opportunities, including "I Gotta Feeling" ("I gotta feeling that tonight's gonna be a good night") and "Party All Night" ("If we could party all night and sleep all day, and throw all of our problems away, my life would be ea-say"). There's also a call for unity titled "One Tribe," which gradually descends into confusion -- and nearly self-parody -- with a line about the dangers of making enemies, rapped this way: "If I had an enemy, then my enemy's gonna try to come kill me 'cuz I'm his enemy -- one tribe y'all." Between tracks, there are also occasional cameos from a narrator, who sounds strangely like Star Trek's Worf, intoning nuggets like these: "There is no longer a physical record store, but we will continue to let the beat rock!" and "The most powerful force on the planet is the energy of the youth/But when this powerful youth becomes activated and stimulated and collectively decides not to buy things, what will happen to the economy?" Granted, there's nothing here as embarrassing as "My Humps," and the production is a shade better than previous material from the group or Fergie solo (although still not as good as will.i.am solo ventures), but The E.N.D. (Energy Never Dies) is a mess of pop/dance/rap crossover. It certainly won't change the minds of everyone who thinks that the group's pandering approach and clumsy execution make it the worst thing about pop music in the 2000s.
Words: John Bush
Described by the band alternately as "a fresh new perspective" and "the beginning of a new era of Pea world domination" and "what is actually happening in the world right now," The Beginning inevitably follows The E.N.D. (Energy Never Dies), which boasted the number one single in America -- either "Boom Boom Pow" or "I Gotta Feeling" -- during fully half of 2009, including every single summer day (and then some). Although the lead single here prominently samples an '80s touchstone, and on the cover the Peas are displayed as pixelated preteens, Nintendo fashion, The Beginning isn’t a nostalgia trip. Barring a Slick Rick or Chic sample here and a Mr. Roboto reference there (plus buckets of hi-res synth driving the productions), nothing else directly evokes the '80s. As on their last two LPs, it's heavily reliant on nightclub sloganeering and will.i.am’s purposefully (?) lame throwback rapping, alongside Auto-Tune harmonies and waves of synth. David Guetta appears on only one track, but his production job for 2009's "I Gotta Feeling" casts a long shadow on this record of don’t-stop-the-party jams and half-baked club-life anthems. It leads off with a pumping first single, "The Time (Dirty Bit)," oddly built off "(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life," the inescapably treacly duet by Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes from 1987's Dirty Dancing. The album was announced in July 2010 and released four months later, but it still sounds as though it was rush-recorded and rush-released, the results of a string of late-nighters by will.i.am and co-producer DJ Ammo. (Perhaps their latest date with destiny, aka the halftime show of Super Bowl XLV, had something to do with it.) There are plentiful will.i.am vocals and comparatively few features for Fergie and the others, and the songs don't burrow into your head, earworm-style, like "My Humps" or "Boom Boom Pow." Still, there are scattered moments of respectability, including that lone David Guetta production, "The Best One Yet (The Boy)," and "Don't Stop the Party."
Words: John Bush
Black Eyed Peas bring some positivity and fun back into hip-hop. Musically there is almost no realm this group does not touch -- right from the jump, the stylistic innocence of "Fallen Up," complete with striking guitar licks, sums up what BEP is all about. They attack the so-called hardcore MCs playing the role of dress-up: "I see you try to dis our function by stating that we can't rap/Is it cuz we don't wear Tommy Hilfiger or baseball caps?/We don't use dollars to represent/We just use our innocence and talent." The wonderfully crafted, old-school-influenced first single, "Joints and Jam," is perfect for the summertime frame of mind. With "Karma" they explore the notion of reaping what you sow. "Love Won't Wait" is a simultaneous infusion of R&B and hip-hop, as the group deals with a deteriorating romance. But the undisputed champ of this recording is "Positivity" -- you can't help but reminisce about yesteryear's MCs kicking conscious lyrics to educate the hip-hop masses. "Nowadays it's hard to make a living/But easy to make a killing/Cuz people walk around with just one inch of feeling/I feeling nauseated from your evil drug dealing/Blood spilling, the definition of top billing." In all honesty, the MCs who make up BEP -- Taboo, Will, and A8 -- are not going to be confused as being super-lyrical by any means. But their chemistry and insightful, original topic matter is used with enough efficiency to mask that slight blemish.
Words: Matt Conaway
Is this the real thing or a substitute? In 1998, Black Eyed Peas released their debut, Behind the Front, and by most accounts, it snugly filled a hole left behind by the absent, optimistic talents of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. So in the same year that Jurassic 5 complete their first proper release and De La Soul finally return, is there any room for a group like BEP anymore? Well, maybe. While the album fails in its titular intention of bringing together the two exclusionary worlds of rap and rock, it still diligently follows in the footsteps of its predecessor's highs. Maybe one might have to look toward Kim Hill -- the group's backing vocalist -- who seems to have a larger impact this time. Hill hovers over terrific sun-streaked ditties like "Tell Your Mama Come" and the irrepressible "Hot" without a hitch. The other collaborations follow her lead too. From Macy Gray to Les Nubians to Mos Def to, yes, even Jurassic 5 and De La Soul, none of these guest artists feel out of place or contrived. Undoubtedly, this second release finally proves that BEP get to mark their own territory in the history of old-school, soulful -- and playful -- hip-hop. Because Bridging the Gaps is a terrific follow-up full of warmth. Unlike what the advertisements might say, this is a multi-ethnic, multi-faceted substitute that should be accepted immediately.
Words: Dean Carlson
It's doubtful that hip-hop fans were expecting anything good from a Black Eyed Peas remix EP circa 2006, especially coming after the deflated sellout that was 2005's Monkey Business. They'd better do themselves a favor, however, and check it out, since it includes not only two of the best hip-hop tracks from the album but also, for the remixes, what has to be called one of the best rap production casts ever assembled. The seven-track disc opens with the album track "Like That," a Tribe Called Quest tribute featuring Q-Tip, Talib Kweli, Cee-Lo, and John Legend. The other album version is "Audio Delite," but it's lost among the five remixes, which feature Erick Sermon, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and Large Professor. (At least the Black Eyed Peas were spending money on something other than clothes and choreographers.) Premier's breezing remix of "My Style" and Rock's funky "They Don't Want Music" (featuring James Brown) are the highlights, but the others aren't far behind. If these tracks had appeared on Monkey Business, the album would have been (setting aside "My Humps" and "Don't Phunk with My Heart") one of the best rap records of the year. Perhaps it's better this way, with the pop productions sequestered on Monkey Business and this tight EP the perfect choice for hip-hop fans.
Words: John Bush