|Will.I.Am as mercurial opportunist
A consistent theme in one particular brand of hip hop is money; the earning of such, the keeping, the spending, the look, the feel, the smell, and, particularly, all the benefits and problems associated with the earning, keeping and spending of this money. This isn't a surprise. Money plays a significant role in nearly every aspect of life in the contemporary Western world, and as a lyrical theme, it is notable for its capacity for both breadth and depth, whether discussing its abundance or scarcity, or the transition from one state to the other.
Many rappers, particularly those who like to concentrate on the less legitimate, more desperate ways of earning funds, often discuss the mercenary nature of their approach. It's simple: C.R.E.A.M. get the money, from Mobb Deep's bleak "Shook Ones" to Lil' Wayne's "Money On My Mind," in which he spells out the relentlessness with which he and his contemporaries supposedly pursue their fortune: "Money is more important than the person."
These rappers don't want you to notice how seriously they take their craft. They slip hints, of course. Weezy sneers "cross-over, whatever, mainstream, no" and declares himself the best rapper alive, just like noted hustler-not-artist Jay-Z did before him. Young Jeezy says he does not even like rappers, then boasts of his own superiority as a rapper. As thuggish as they try to paint themselves, as economically single-mindedly as they claim to be, your average rapper ends us having a fairly extensive list of things they consider more important than money. Will.I.Am is an exception.
Black Eyed Peas ft. Esthero - Weekends
Will.I.Am has spent his extensive career reinventing himself in the pursuit of success, and his versatility and malleability has produced the kind of results he could not get from his rapping. Not to spend too much time kicking someone with absolutely no credibility anyway, but let's be clear: Will.I.Am is a horrible rapper, both in terms of lyrics and performance. His wordplay is near non-existent, he can't sustain a thought for more than half a bar and his rhymes are generic, repetitive and frequently cringe-worthy. The most memorable verse on Bridging the Gap, the group's second album, is almost certainly the large chunk of Afrika Bambaata's "Planet Rock" that they bite for "Go Go." If anything, Will gets worse the farther his career progresses; these early Black Eyed Peas raps were hardly inspiring, but they never quite plumbed the depths of his recent work, or, worse, his guest appearances.
Thematically, these releases concentrated on G-rated partying (a lot of which comes very close to being explicitly straight-edge) and lecturing other rappers for being too violent, too materialistic and for being lyrically vacuous. There are also a lot of hilarious accusations thrown about against those they believe are not being true to real hip hop. It'd be tempting, in light of the act's recent career moves, to accuse them of hypocrisy, but that assumes that they once genuinely believed the values they espoused in their lyrics. It is pretty hilarious hearing tracks like "Positivity" or "BEP Empire," of which the pious, Jurassic 5 style lecturing sounds like it was aimed at the rap group they would become (though, to be fair, the Peas are just as non-violent now as they have always been), but rather than viewing their 180 as the product of a cynical cash grab on behalf of the band, I am more inclined to believe that their original stance was just as cynical a cash grab.
The Black Eyed Peas' debut, Behind the Front, came out in 1998, and this period from the late '90s through to the early years of the '00s (when Bridging the Gap was released), was pretty much the creative zenith of the backpacker OkayPlayer positivity movement, and back then, it may even have seemed like this subgenre could be the commercial future of rap music. Biggie and Tupac had both died, and the West Coast was fading; gangsta could well have been on the way out, and I would not have blamed anyone for considering the possibility rap music would switch its focus to the Mos Defs, the Black Stars, and the Roots that were coming to prominence at this time. Perhaps Will.I.Am also saw this, and, sensing an opportunity, gathered together a couple of rappers who were even less talented than he was to create nouveau-hippie pop music. They even played their live shows with a real band, so they wouldn't scare off people who thought rap was bad because it wasn't made by people playing real instruments. Will was an able, though hardly gifted, producer, and he probably knew that for a good chunk of his audience, it was more important for rap to be moral than interesting.
Sonically, he did his best to make the music a success, filling the group's first two records with soulful limp funk, that fake Native Tongues bullshit that backpackers turn to when they get lazy. And it all had a gleaming pop sheen — not too much, mind you — just enough that you would never think a Black Eyed Peas track was abrasive or intimidating. "Weekends" is one of the better tracks from this era, and though its production is forgettable, it is still decent, and would be even moreso if it had a better rapper on it.
Full disclosure: back in high school, I quite liked the Black Eyed PEas, and I even have a signed copy of Bridging the Gap as proof. Apl.De.Ap and Taboo signed it, but at the show I saw, Will.I.Am had his lowly bandmates out meeting and greeting the general public while he hid backstage.
The whole caper nearly worked, too. It's pretty damn embarassing how hard the underground was riding B.E.P. dick back before they were Fergie-fied. Bridging the Gap managed to attract guest spots from backpacker heroes De La Soul, Mos Def, Chali2na and Wyclef, as well as a DJ Premier beat for the title track - and this was before Premo was tight with Christina Aguilera. The Peas even got Macy Gray on the single "Request Line," a surefire hint that they were looking to get paid off this positivity jawn; the song was even more glossy than the rest of their work, and people actually cared about Macy Gray at the time.
Fergie - London Bridge
Of course, that wasn't the end of the Black Eyed Peas' story. They genuinely bridged the gap between conscious rap and pop rap with 2003's "Where is the Love?" which hijacked anti-war sentiment to smuggle a now Fergie enhanced BEP into the mainstream, and once they were there, they promptly forgot that they ever had anything to do with the now stagnant undie rap scene. Will found success as part of a pop group whose singles were as successful as they were forgettable, and that should have been the end of it.
Except, if this history has shown nothing else, Will.I.Am is not one to settle. He seemed perfectly content to continue grinding out an even more anemic version of the production aesthetic he pioneered for the Black Eyed Peas, but when Fergie came along, whether he expected it or not, he had a genuine pop star on his hands.
Apl.De.Ap and Taboo have always seemed to exist solely to make up the numbers, to provide variety to songs Will's rapping can't carry alone. It's no surprise that they should continue to be shoved into the background, and it looks like Stacy Ferguson has given Will.I.Am the opportunity to rid himself of them completely. Originally, Fergie seems to have been conceived as the chirpy, little sister of the BEP guys. If you watch the videos in which she first appeared with the group, she seems like she was drafted to have no greater role than sing the hooks and smile at the guys while they did their rapping thing. Even on "Shut Up," the Elephunk single she contributed most to, the video made it quite clear that she was only playing the part of the jilted, bitchy girlfriend. It was only when "Don't Phunk With My Heart" and "My Humps" came out, that she established her current persona, and she was able to do that in good part due to external events, like that photo of her pissing herself on stage and the vast amounts of hatred she attracted from, well, nearly everyone listening to pop music (I'm even willing to believe that her fans hate her). Add in that meth-addiction, and — bam — a dumbfuck trailer trash pop star was born. You think it's an accident that "t" was left in the title of The Dutchess? Even Jim Jones could afford to spellcheck the title of Hustler's P.O.M.E.
Justin Timberlake ft. Will.I.Am - Damn Girl
So with a genuine pop star on his hands, Will.I.Am started making genuine pop star music. The beat was the best thing about "My Humps," which really isn't saying a lot, but Will continued his second rate Neptunes act by conjuring up some really quite OK production for Fergie's record. It shows his greatest strength as a producer is not the brilliance of his ideas — as interesting as his blippy pop-hop is, it is clearly influenced by, and overshadowed by, the avant-garde of Timbaland and the Neptunes. Rather, Will is an admirably versatile producer, able to come up with a passable approximation of nearly any style of pop he requires. With a good performer, this results in music that is really quite enjoyable; Justin's "Damn Girl," for instance doesn't pop and fizz the way "Señorita" did on Justified, but it nevertheless does a good job playing second string for the absent Neptunes. Even if Will.I.Am did insist on weighing it down with an absolutely horrific guest rap. The words "feminine gelatine" should not be a part of pop music, especially when rhymed with "cinnamon."
With a less able performer, however, the results are less pleasing. The Dutchess sounds a good deal like a Black Eyed Peas record in many places (as Kelefa Sanneh said, "two [rappers] down, two to go"), and that's not a good thing. "London Bridge" and "Fergalicious," the singles, are two of the best tracks on the record, and I can't say I ever feel the urge to listen to those. Still, they work because Will keeps the production interesting enough that, similarly to Gwen Stefani's Wind It Up, while the track is never actually good, it avoids being boring simply because it is constantly doing something different. The rest of the album can't even live up to that standard, because, even with Will.I.Am pulling out skittering-electro-rap-future-pop, Fergie is a deeply unpleasant person to spend any amount of time with. Her dumbfuck white girl image may give her personality, but it doesn't make for enjoyable music, and listening to this record, I struggled to make it far into each track once Fergie had started singing (another Sanneh quote: "The worst thing about hearing the word “Fergalicious” for the first time? The dreadful certainty that you’ll hear it again"). There are some truly terrible lyrics, like, "I miss you like a child misses their blanket" from "Big Girls Don't Cry," and that track and the follow-up "Mary Jane Shoes" have a bizarre infantilization thing going on (the latter is a truly horrible one-joke reggae track about marijuana). Fergie doesn't have the ability to emotionally inhabit her tracks; when she sings "You're probably on your flight back to your home town," it sounds like she doesn't name that town because the you in question is not real enough to have a history. As such, these Fergie-as-a-little-girl moments don't make her sound vulnerable, they just make her sound like she's borderline mentally retarded.
Too Short ft. Snoop Dogg, Will.I.Am & Fergie - Keep Bouncin'
The Game - Compton
And just to prove Will.I.Am can do anything, he's recently begun producing... wait... yes... hip hop. For the first time, he's making rap music that people into rap music listen to. I'm still a bit confused as to how this happened. Will.I.Am should be completely worthless as a guest rapper or producer, having zero credibility and zero crossover appeal (the Black Eyed Peas' kiddie-pop audience is not likely to want to buy Hip Hop is Dead just because a Black Eyed Pea is on it). It seems quite incredible that "serious" rappers would want anything to do with him. As Ian Cohen correctly said:
"[W]e all knew they were wack as fuck from the get-go, but at this point, it barely merits a mention. Making fun of them is almost redundant, but you figure they have no trouble paying their bills. There's supposedly a breakout star ( . . .Fergie) in here, but I seriously have my doubts if the public really cares. Absolutely no one would shed a tear if they disappeared completely."
The only explanation then, is that Will managed to get some rappers to liston to his production, and that these rappers, quite properly, chose quality over credibility. Just as Will is passable at doing club pop and second generation Native Tongues impersonations, so too is he quite passable at street rap instrumentals. More than passable, actually, considering his work with Too $hort, The Game and Nas. I still can't work out why they let him rap, though; "If we have a President's Day and a Veteran's Day, let's have a Titty Holiday" is unacceptably idiotic, even for a Too $hort song, as is "Them boobies was bouncing on my head."
And still, even with all this, it's hard to ascertain exactly what Will.I.Am is about as a producer. Any stylistic traits he has are just as likely to be missing as they are present. He likes live drums, except when he puts cold, hard drum machines on tracks for Fergie or the Black Eyed Peas. He does have a weakness for novelty (the "makes me wanna bounce" loop on "Keep Bouncin'", the inanity of "My Humps," the senseless pitchshifting of Ludacris' guest verse on Fergie's "Glamorous"), except he's also capable of turning in a bone simple banger like Game's "Compton." He likes samples, particularly when he can leave them practically unadulterated ("Hip Hop is Dead," "Pump It,") except he also likes creating frenetic synth patchworks, as on Fergie's hits. In fact, there is only one clear, consistent line running through Will.I.Am's production work, and that is its mercenary nature. If it sells, he does it. As a less capitalistic rapper said, "Money on my mind, so money is all I think of."
Cross-posted with Screw Rock 'n' Roll
Buy the Black Eyed Peas' Bridging the Gap from Amazon or Insound.
Buy Fergie's The Dutchess from Amazon.
Buy Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds from Amazon or Insound.
Buy The Game's Doctor's Advocate from Amazon or Insound.
Buy Too $hort's Blow The Whistle from Amazon.