Since they made the Faustian bargain that brought them Fergie and pop superstardom, there has been a war a-brewing in the Black Eyed Peas’ camp over the creative direction of the group. Would the Peas, who started as a possible replacement of A Tribe Called Quest in backpackers hearts’, abandon their long-form verse-heavy past and throw their lot irreversibly in with Fergie? Or would will.i.am try to reassert his former position as the most recognizable Pea by making an album heavy on his own singing and beats? And would Apl.De.Ap and Taboo ever again be more than the tin cans and stage props they’ve been since 2003?
Let’s get to that last question first: No. The first one: “My Humps” proved that the original Peas had no qualms about surrendering themselves to essentially jingle for Fergie’s lady bits. These aren’t the same Peas that looked like faux-hippies on the cover of Bridging the Gap. They’re making cash money, B.
As for the second: The band’s fifth album, the awkwardly and unfortunately titled The E.N.D., is will.i.am’s bid to exert control of the group he started back in 1996. While 2006’ s Monkey Business proved just how low Will would go for a hit record, The E.N.D. is his chance to throw the spotlight back on himself via song focusing on his sing-rapping; a needed move considering Fergie’s solo success (she’s easily the most recognizable Pea) and his own recent solo album, Songs About Girls, being one of the worst hip-hop albums of 2007.
Will.i.am claims that The E.N.D. (which allegedly stands for “The Energy Never Really Dies,” but probably doesn’t even mean anything at all) is an album made in response to the fact that no one buys albums any more, so he made an album that is just a loose collection of singles that hopefully will elicit explicit iTunes sales. If that seems like a conclusion most sane artists came to back in say, 2005, and incredibly outdated, wait till you hear some of the music on The E.N.D.
It’s been four years since the last Peas album, and they’ve got a lot of rap clichés to cash in on. There’s Auto-Tune out the wazoo (the ubiquitous and unequivocally terrible “Boom Boom Bow,” “Missing You,” “Alive,” “Imma Be” and “I Gotta Feeling”). There’s a song constructed around a couple easily identifiable samples a la Flo Rida (“Rock That Body”). A song that rips off M.I.A. so blatantly, I actually had to spin Arular to make sure it wasn’t a direct cover (“Electric City”). There’s a terribly misguided attempt at generation-repping that is a total nightmare reminiscent of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (“Now Generation,” which actually has nothing to do with any rap cliché). And there’s a song that attempts to race to the bottom faster than anything ever recorded by Hurricane Chris or Mike Jones (“Ring-A-Ling,” a song about booty calls that has the three male Peas talking about ding-a-linging women. Seriously). The Black Eyed Peas never met a minor trend in rap they couldn't try to wring a few bucks out of.
That said, not all of The E.N.D. is a total waste. Despite will’s constant showboating (he injects himself into nearly every verse, chorus, and breakdown), Fergie still runs off with the better moments on the album, namely the new-wave-y ballad “Meet Me Halfway,” which is notable mostly for being better than a new -wave-y ballad by the Black Eyed Peas has any right to be. She’s almost the best part of “I Gotta Feeling” (the best is will.i.am saying “La haim” in Auto-Tune like he’s a robotic Sammy Davis Jr.), which is probably going to be this album’s biggest hit thanks to its resolutely vacant vocals and sing-along potential (“I gotta feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good night” goes the chorus).
But even as I hem and haw past the 600-word point, The E.N.D. is an almost critic-proof album. It doesn’t challenge listeners or give them anything unexpected or even asked for, really (who's waiting around with bated breath for "Ring-A-Ling?"), but it’s already a certifiable hit; lead single “Boom Boom Pow” has been in the Top 10 for close to three months. It’s hardly going to matter that this is an album bankrupt of good songs, or that it was clearly focus-grouped (and well) to appeal to the widest base of R&B, pop, and rap fans possible (aka the people who still buy CDs). All that matters is that this thing sells a few copies, ends up in an iPod or Miller Lite campaign and gets a few spins on the radio. And in those endeavors, The E.N.D. will probably be a resounding success.
Ironically the E.N.D. in The E.N.D. stands for "energy never dies," which is surprisingly meta for a band whose breakout single was called "Let's Get Retarded." But the album is just the prelude to a project that even gets more involved; will.i.am explains, "It's a diary ... of music that at any given time, depending on the inspiration, you can add to it." Uhh, okay. That's less meta, and a little more vague and confusing, but it's good to see that will.i.am is putting that highly conceptual name to good use.