They say a well-rounded education is the key to success, and if that truly is the case, the my schooling is woefully incomplete when it comes to the subject of pop. That’s why we bring you “Popology,” the guide to modern radio-friendly stars as seen through the eyes of a guy who grew up on punk and metal. In case you missed previous installments, catch up with Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Eminem and others here
This week, Black Eyed Peas take it to another level.
When the Black Eyed Peas first introduced themselves to the music world with 1998’s Behind the Front, they presented a funky, organic-sounding brand of hip-hop that took a handful of cues from the Fugees’ The Score (which had been a massive hit only two years earlier). With R&B-kissed tracks and a positive take on lyricism (most of their rhymes were about life back in the day and spreading love and such), they were a welcome if not entirely compelling addition to a hip-hop scene that was dominated by the pop-friendliness of Diddy and the rise of ultra-violent crossovers like DMX.
They churned out an excellent follow-up in 2000’s Bridging the Gap, but unfortunately that album underperformed once it hit store shelves (released at the height of the Napster era, they blamed the weak sales on illegal downloads). So the group re-tooled a bit and added a woman named Stacy Ferguson (the singer the world would come to know and love as Fergie). They resurfaced in 2003 with Elephunk, and everything got turned on its ear.
Traces of the old Black Eyed Peas sound remained, but the sound had evolved into a far more radio-friendly stew of traditional R&B and party funk. The good vibes were still they, but the message was way more about putting your hands up than about giving back to your community. In fact, the first track on the album is called “Hands Up,” which takes a slinky funk beat and encourages you to put your elbows above your head. It actually sets the tone for just about every big hit the group would have post-2003 (including their gigantic singles from 2009’s The E.N.D.): A non-stop barrage of choruses mixed in with a handful of catch phrases in a party-friendly atmosphere.
The biggest singles from Elephunk got so massive that it became weird to think about them as songs any more. This is especially true of “Let’s Get Retarded” (and not “Let’s Get It Started,” no matter what the NBA wants you to think), an finger-popping anthem that has scored so many movie trailers, commercials and sports bumpers that it seems strange listening to it on a pair of headphones as part of an album. “Let’s Get Retarded” became ultra-ubiquitous almost immediately after it was released. It’s almost unfair to think of it as music by the Black Eyed Peas. It’s way bigger than that.
The Peas also scored big with “Hey Mama,” one of the earliest songs to be used in an iPod commercial. Back at the dawn of the iPod, inclusion in one of those commercials meant instant success and stardom (now there are so many the brand has been a bit diluted). Much like it’s hard to think about “I Gotta Feeling” without picturing the Target logo, “Hey Mama” became ubiquitous with the first wave of Apple’s (the company, not the BEP member) game-changing music player.
And of course there’s “Where is the Love,” an absolutely gigantic feel-good jam that still retains most of its original majesty and grandeur. Justin Timberlake lent a guest vocal, but he’s sort of an afterthought because even a star of his stature is bowled over by the slick production and the catchy-like-the-measles hook. Like “Let’s Get Retarded,” “Where is the Love” was everywhere, and it almost evolved beyond music itself.
That’s the thing about these latter day Black Eyed Peas tunes: Their individual elements are so jacked up to 11 that they eventually stop looking and sounding like songs. They swirl and bounce and dart all over the place, hitting the same sugary snatches of melody and appropriately funky breakdowns, with all the members’ voices darting in and out of the mix. Most of the time, they’ve thrown traditional Beatles-esque song structures entirely out the window. Does the chorus go there? Sure, put it wherever you want. Shouldn’t we add a verse? No way. Unnecessary.
But the modern pop music scene is littered with those kinds of constructions. Miley Cyrus’ new album plays around with the idea, and Lady Gaga flirts with it as well. It’s Ke$ha’s entire oeuvre. It’s everywhere, and the Black Eyed Peas’ Elephunk probably got it started.
There are other songs on Elephunk that weren’t singles, but just about any of these songs could have gotten huge radio play. “Labor (It’s a Holiday)” probably should become the standard Labor Day anthem (as it’s probably the only one ever written), while “Latin Girls” is all about partying with women south of the border (and no, that’s somehow not a euphemism). “Shut Up” probably should have also been a juggernaut, though it’s the one single from Elephunk that didn’t totally transcend pop music itself. (Though it topped the charts in a number of different countries, it peaked at number 30 in the States.)
It’s amazing that the seeds of the modern pop music landscape were first planted seven years ago, but Elephunk does just that. The Black Eyed Peas continued to evolve into the current version of themselves (the version that will apparently never break up), and it seems like 75 percent of the pop universe owes Elephunk a debt of gratitude. Who knew Will.I.Am was both a poet and a prophet?