Saturday, October 27, 2018

album review: 'masters of the sun vol. 1' by the black eyed peas

I'll say it right now, this feels weird.

And to explain why, we need to go back to the early 2000s, back to an era where mainstream-accessible alternative hip-hop having received a brief second wind in the late 90s seemed to be fading out again and where a hip-hop trio called the Black Eyed Peas were getting a bit of traction. They weren't a great group - the lyrics were undercooked and often felt like they were reaching for insight they could never quite achieve, but nobody could deny the hooks stuck with you, and by the time they added a girl group survivor named Fergie to their team, they started having chart success... and it was about this time their content took a sharp nose dive in quality. And while it would take the listening public until the end of the decade to pick up on it - the hooks were too damn infectious for them to give up too easily on them, especially as they pitched more organic hip-hop out for electro-pop for some of their biggest ever hits - by 2011 we as a culture were done with the Black Eyed Peas, and the group went on indefinite hiatus. Many folks thought the group was done, especially as group mastermind will.i.am released a solo project of which I thoroughly dissected before YouTube...

But now they're back. Fergie was gone, as well as any other producers - it was just will.i.am behind the boards for this - and they had promised a radical shift in sound, leaving behind the club-era electro-pop for something more downbeat, reportedly drawing on soul and jazz, something which apparently pissed off their label Interscope to no end. And more than that, The Black Eyed Peas wanted to get political again... and look, if I wasn't skeptical before, I sure as hell was now. I've long been of the opinion that bad or misguided political art can be damaging if framed in the wrong context, and I've never been confident in the lyrical skills or insight of The Black Eyed Peas... but without Fergie and those big pop hooks, their reach might wind up limited, and this just might wind up being a blip on the radar, a long-overdue comeback for the fans but barely a blip on the radar for everyone else. So okay, what did we get from Masters Of The Sun Vol. 1?

So here's the weird thing: in terms of consistency and quality, I can easily make the argument that this is the best album The Black Eyed Peas have put out in fifteen years - it's pure, old-school hip-hop that doubles down on chill grooves, catchy hooks, and lightweight braggadociousness - and that's about it. And I won't deny it's an odd, kind of low-key, low-stakes listen: The Black Eyed Peas only needed to prove that they were still competent and will.i.am wouldn't indulge his worst instincts as a production, and - for the most part - that's what we got. That being said, this project also reminded me that in the annals of alternative hip-hop coming out of that era, The Black Eyed Peas sat at the kids table, and with this, it's really still true.

And to get into this, while it was very easy to bag on The Black Eyed Peas when they had Fergie and were making some of the recognizably bad hits of the 2000s, pointing out why the band at their best was never that great is trickier, and in my opinion an underdeveloped conversation. To be blunt, the biggest strength of the band has always been the hooks and when will.i.am can flip a good sample in an interesting way. Now as individual MCs, we encounter the first big problem: while you can differentiate their vocal tone and the flows and rhymes are on par, their writing style doesn't exactly have a lot of personality, which has always resulted in the branding of 'will.i.am and the rest'. And make no mistake, I blame will.i.am as much in this, because if you put their verses on paper you couldn't tell a will.i.am verse from a Taboo or apl.de.ap verse in terms of cadence or range of references - hell, even Migos can do this! Well, I take that back - will.i.am tends to be a step worse when it comes to bringing stupid rhyme ideas to the table like on 'DOPENESS' where I swear he's taking lyrical cues from 6ix9ine and tacking on Autotune, but it is a step better than his solo work. Now I will say the band certainly sounds better over old-school grooves than that trap flip they try on 'VIBRATIONS pt. 1 pt 2', but again, just doing a tone I like well won't get you all the way there. And as much as I thought it was cool when Nas shows up for 'BACK 2 HIPHOP' or when Posdnuos is opposite a verse from the late Phife Dawg on 'ALL AROUND THE WORLD' in the Native Tongues reunion I didn't know I wanted until I got it - easily the standout of the album - they highlight how The Black Eyed Peas might have good flows, but not a lot of individual style - hell, they got Slick Rick for two lines on 'CONSTANT pt. 1 pt. 2' and I found myself wishing I could get a full verse! And then you get 'WINGS', which is probably most distinctive for Nicole Scherzinger flipping an interpolation from 'Tom's Diner' than any of The Black Eyed Peas!

And here's where this becomes a problem: when the flows are good but not incredible and the rhyming is solid, that'll be enough to hook a lot of audiences... until you come to the sudden realization that The Black Eyed Peas aren't actually saying much in their rhymes and punchlines! A lot of it rapidly falls out as pretty straightforward, old-fashioned flexing - and I can't be the only one who finds this a huge missed opportunity to get more personal and introspective? The band has been on hiatus for eight years, and you all have so little to say that you're defaulting to the same sorts of bars you'd put out twenty years ago? And not only does this really hurt the individual personalities of each MC, but it really makes the attempts at political material feel undercooked and kind of questionable. 'YES or NO' seems like it's trying to make a hard statement to take a side, but when the verses devolve to you being one thing or another thing, it boils any actual issue down to the basest, most general dichotomy and that serves nobody! And keep in mind that we only get three somewhat conscious tracks here, and two come at the very end - and look, I won't deny that 'RING THE ALARM' goes pretty hard... but like The Black Eyed Peas' biggest political anthem 'Where Is The Love', it's a risky goddamn thing to juxtapose conspiracy theories about concealing the cures for AIDS and cancer with the provable targeting of Black Panther members - hell, I'd say apl.de.ap has the most direct verse especially when more of the song defaults to religious platitudes. And then there's 'BIG LOVE', and while I won't deny that it can feel anthemic with that hook, there's a lack of truly cutting bars and it just feels weird for The Black Eyed Peas of all groups to demonize technology! And look, I know nobody is going to The Black Eyed Peas for insight or a message, the band has always gone broad - but you had eight years and if you were so inspired by the political upheaval that this is what you deliver, it feels really underwhelming! 

So okay, maybe the production and hooks make up for it? Well, yes and no - will.i.am might have good instincts for hooks but adding any sort of grit or deeper texture was never going to be on the table, and unfortunately there are a fair few songs where his choices behind the boards only serve to hamper solid songs. Take the best song 'ALL AROUND THE WORLD' - why he felt the need to tack on some poorly mixed extra bass to drive home a point on a verse feels really clumsy and unnecessary when the beat already knocks. And then there's the beat switches - I've already talked about the trap flip on 'VIBRATIONS pt. 1 pt 2', but then you get the garish electro-dance flip on 'CONSTANT pt. 1 pt. 2', and then you realize that after the verses and hooks end will.i.am is just going to let that beat ride and really push all of these songs longer than they should be! Then there are the choices that just feel bizarre: I really dig the hook and distant symphonic vocals behind 'NEW WAVE' off that bassline, but nobody can convince anyone this sounds remotely new, it's weirdly dissonant - and then there's the autotune on 'DOPENESS' opposite a killer bassline, some great guitar, organ, and horn accents! And look, I don't think will.i.am will ever make a better hook than 'I Gotta Feeling', that's timeless - but on this album I wouldn't say many of the hooks are great, especially in comparison to the richer vibes that he seems to constantly want to shift. I thought the soulful groove of 'GET READY' was really good, it didn't need that flip to a much more restrained pickup for the final verse, and I'm left thinking that when the production is allowed to breathe the vibes are more potent: the west-coast knock of 'ALL AROUND THE WORLD', the low-key smooth jazz of '4EVER', the first half of 'VIBRATIONS', and on the flipside 'BACK TO HIPHOP' and the first third of 'RING THE ALARM' had enough gusto with the horns to really work. 

So at the end of the day... I think anybody looking for an album from The Black Eyed Peas in 2018 will like this - you're probably diehard fans, you can respect the return to their old sound, and again, it's probably the best they've sounded in well over a decade. But multiple listens also convinced me I was never the biggest fan of this group even when they were good: like all of their albums it runs long, will.i.am still gets in his own way as a producer, and the rapping doesn't stand out the way it should from three distinct personalities, especially as they had every opportunity to refine this to hit harder and feel more poignant to the times. For me, it's a solid 6/10, but about the best I could have expected, so I'm not complaining. If you're curious, it's worth a listen or two - I'm not sure it'll stick with many folks or draw huge returns, but you never know - check it out.

1 comment:

  1. Great review and vocalizes a lot of my own thoughts about BEP in a way that I wouldn't have thought of. Nicely done.

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