He dreamt up one of the world’s biggest groups (Black Eyed Peas), penned and produced songs for some of the top albums of the last year (from Justin Timberlake, the Pussycat Dolls, John Legend and Fergie). And this week he released his first true solo CD, tagged with the populist title “Songs About Girls” and festooned with the shiny-sounding hit “You Know What It Is.”
So why does the juggernaut that is Will.i.am sound so irked?
Give him a second and he’ll explain - heatedly.
“Here we are, one of the biggest groups in the world,” fumes Will. “(The Peas) go to Moscow and play for 50,000 people. We go to China and play for 30,000 people. We go to Brazil and play for a million people on the beach. We’re this huge group, produced by a black dude and started by a black dude. So why don’t the black community want to own that? It’s a touchy thing with me.”
In fact, Will says, the notion that black radio stations and video channels have never wanted to eat his Peas is the reason he set out to produce other acts to begin with. Starting in `06, Will began taking on projects by artists unquestionably accepted by the black media, from Mary J. Blige to The Game.
At first, that only led to more frustration. When the song he wrote with Legend (“Ordinary People”) won an award from BET for its performer (Legend) but not for himself, Will saw red. “It really messed with me,” he says.
It’s hardly the first time African-American media have ignored a black performer perceived as too pop for their formats. But eventually, Will says, his frustration freed him. “It allowed me with this new solo album to just make the record I wanted to make,” he says. “(I didn’t) worry about formats and who’s going to play it.”
Not that he’s likely to have trouble getting plenty to do just that. “Songs About Girls” fits right into Will’s esthetic of pert, dance-driven, hip-hop R&B. The twist this time is that he stresses a retro brand of frothy `80s synth-pop. One song even pairs him with ELO’s Jeff Lynne. Will says he emphasized synthesizers because keyboards are the only instrument he knows how to play. Also, he wanted a cohesive sound, rather than the Peas’ scattershot approach.
Toward that end, he allowed almost no guest stars on the CD, the better to push this as an authentic solo work. (A pair of previous “solo” albums released under Will’s name were more like mixed tapes and involved lots of cameos by other artists.)
The new album finds further focus in its lyrics, many of which address an eight-year relationship Will ended four years ago. He says he’s written about this busted love before (in songs like “Ordinary People”). Many of the new songs express guilt because, as Will admits, the collapse of the love was “all my fault. It just had to do with me being immature.”
Despite the time elapsed since the relationship died, Will says of the woman, “I don’t think she’s fond of me right now.” Neither does he expect her to listen to the CD. He adds that his new girlfriend has no problem with the album’s lyrical content. “She’s superduper cool with it,” he says.
It may help that the relentless zip of the music completely contradicts any angst in the lyrics. Will seems incapable of sounding too down. “I don’t like to moan and mope,” he says. “I like to feel good about situations.”
That upbeat style has both endeared him to mallrats and turned off those who expect something more serious or “cool” from music. The Peas have never gotten much respect from hip hop’s elite. Will has a theory for that. “Most famous people in hip hop came from someone else,” he says. “Kanye came from Jay-Z. Snoop Dogg came from Dr. Dre, who came from NWA. 50 Cent came from Eminem. We didn’t come from anybody.”
Actually, they did originally come from benefactor Eazy-E. But he died before the group debuted. Back then, the Peas presented themselves as a semi-political, positive rap group (in contrast to the more menacing gangsta MCs who at the time defined their home, L.A.). But once they linked with the likes of Fergie, whatever street cred they had waned, while their pop fan base soared.
Now, with Will established as a producing/writing powerhouse, he’s earning a different kind of respect. He’s one of the most in-demand record men in the industry. In the last year, he has worked with everyone from Nas to Ciara to Sergio Mendes. Right now, he’s cutting tracks with Michael Jackson and working on the film score to “Madagascar 2” with Hans Zimmer. His success as a producer, he says, comes from not having a one-size-fits-all style.
“It’s not like you go to the Gap and get my T-shirt and jacket. Instead, I take your size, pick out your material and make you a suit. It’s all tailor-made.”
Will hopes to one day use that broad approach to produce everyone from Herbie Hancock to Gilberto Gil. At the same time, he’s working on creating his own social networking portal to rival MySpace.
Perhaps the sheer ambition of the man will give him the last laugh on his critics. According to Will, it all just comes as an outgrowth of his basic mind-set. As he explains, “I don’t ever want to say, `If only ...’”
// Notes from the Road
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