By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
At a moment when one of the two biggest rappers in the world is parlaying a life spent selling drugs and getting shot into a multiplatinum, multiformat, multimillion-dollar career, and the other is doing the same with a background filled with mental abuse and evidently treacherous women, there isn't a lot of room in the mainstream hip-hop game for going halfway. How do the Black Eyed Peas, a quartet of braid-sporting, earth-tone-wearing, "real"-instrument-playing neo-bohemians from Los Angeles, deal with this situation on Elephunk, their third album? By not going halfway.
Elephunk might be the year's most proudly accessible hip-hop record, a painfully likable treatise on getting funky, putting your hands up, getting funky, getting retarded, getting funky, flying away, getting funky and shutting up. And Latin girls. And peace through getting funky. It's way corny--"You take me to ecstasy without taking Ecstasy/It's exactly like ecstasy when you laying right next to me," goes one line--but it's also incredibly canny, including gestures toward virtually every trend clogging the radio and MTV right now: fake dancehall ("Hey Mama"), synth-pop ("Where Is the Love"), the Latin groove ("Latin Girls"), bad Wyclef Jean ("The apl Song"), nü-metal ("Anxiety"), Dirty South bounce ("The Boogie That B"), even a little loose-limbed jam-band ebullience ("Smells Like Funk"). Papa Roach and Sergio Mendes guest, as does Justin Timberlake, the ultimate icon of proud accessibility. (Travis Barker of blink-182 was supposed to feature, too, but his track got cut from the album in the final rounds of sequencing. Unfortunately, Howlin' Pelle Almqvist of the Hives couldn't make it.)
And it's fun, the perfect lightweight party record to put on at that Fourth of July barbecue, or during that drive to your grandparents' place in Boca Raton, or as you're cleaning the house and just need a respite from 50 Cent's 21 questions and Eminem's singing for the moment. It's satisfyingly musical, occasionally funny and probably soulful, and the Peas--Will.i.am, Apl.de.ap, Taboo and new singer Fergie--evince the sincerity this kind of material demands, and the commitment it sure helps to have.
"We write songs," Will, the group's principal producer, says on the phone from his home in L.A., in town for a string of shows opening for Timberlake and Christina Aguilera at the Staples Center before the tour winds its long way eastward. "I can rap, I can freestyle; I know my capabilities. If you wanna talk shit, we can talk shit all night long: 'Them niggas ain't keeping it real.' A lot of people's interpretation of keeping it real is talking about real negative shit, you know what I mean? So what? Just because we ain't talking about negative shit, we ain't real? Just because we ain't using big-ass words that we don't use in our motherfucking normal-day vocabulary, we ain't real? We're real because we use words that we use everyday. I don't have to pick up a thesaurus to find out another word that means lyric. I'm real! I'm giving you real stuff that I think about, but I put it in a song form. I make it make sense, structure-wise, technically. A lot of cats these days, their interpretation of real is the four-bar loop, and a cool little punch line with today's current event. Current-event rap. It's just weird. Like, I didn't say anything about shock and awe. I didn't use shock and awe cleverly in how it represents to the hood. It's a much bigger world when it comes to music."
If he sounds a little sensitive, he did to me, too. It's not surprising, given the alternative-rap label the group's previous two CDs earned them, thanks to copious amounts of live percussion, Macy Gray and Fender-Rhodes electric piano. (Remember alternative rap? That pre-Def Jux designation Arrested Development and P.M. Dawn did so well with?) But where Behind the Front and Bridging the Gap seemed sort of OK with that label but also concerned with hanging onto some notion of true-head legitimacy, Elephunk opts for the pop in a totally unconflicted way. Will even allowed producer Ron Fair, a dude who's polished up records by Aguilera and Vanessa Carlton, into the BEP circle; Fair's string-chart sweetening expertly frosts the Peas' whole-foods grain with a radio-ready sheen. So if Will's touchiness is understandable, it's also pointless. Especially since he's on the road with the summer's biggest, least conflicted concession to pop, a circumstance Will's nonchalant about.
"It just happened because of 'Where Is the Love,' the track that we did with Justin," he literally yawns. "It just made sense. I don't know who thought of it, but it was a good idea. We've done a whole bunch of different-type tours before--No Doubt, Macy Gray, Everclear, different things, you know what I mean? Anything that's cool. It's different from playing in front of our audience, because your audience knows you, they know your songs. These people don't know our songs, but they still respond. Any crowd's a good crowd if you know how to rock, so we try hard to rock and make it good for us."
He's equally blasé about Timberlake's cameo on the album, where the pinup star adds extra we-are-the-world pizzazz to a goofy plea for peace that wouldn't be out of place on a Boomkat CD. "We met Justin at clubs," Will explains. "One night we were dancing in a circle, and he came in and joined our little circle. So we thought, 'Wow, he can bust, and he's pretty dope.' Rappers don't go in the circle, you know what I'm saying? Celebrities don't rock circles. I don't know why they don't, but we the only group that you'll see behind the mike and behind the video camera and offstage rocking it at a club in a circle. And out of all people, Justin Timberlake? What? So Taboo and him made friends and changed numbers, then Taboo played him the song, and he liked it. And it was pretty much finished, but he's like, 'I wrote a part to it.' So Taboo called me and said he wrote a part, we laid that part down a year and a half ago and it came out now."
You could say the same thing about this clear-eyed version of the Black Eyed Peas.