will.i.am has a rather large problem, and the worst part is that he has yet to realize it: he is not a leading man.
This past week brought the release of “Scream & Shout”, a new single from his perpetually delayed solo album #willpower, featuring none other than Britney Spears. Its club intentions are extremely clear, its video is amazingly expensive, and it proves to have the main characteristic that has marked the noted rapper/producer’s work in the past few years: it’s pretty terrible. Unfortunately, this isn’t a one-off or an exception to the rule by any means. This is a problem that will.i.am has been running into for years, and the fix is so easy that will.i.am doesn’t want to hear it: he’ll have to step out of the spotlight.
For a lot of people, it’s extremely easy to forget that the Black Eyed Peas used to be a fun and edgy underground hip-hop group. Their first official single, 1998’s “Joints & Jams”, was a funky slice of backpacker heaven, breezy and cool in a way that few rappers were at the time, soon establishing the Peas with their own identity. Even the more commercial intentions of their 2000 sophomore album Bridging the Gap were still rooted in more traditional hip-hop, featuring collaborations with the like of Mos Def, De La Soul, and Esthero (the latter on the pretty great jam “Weekends”). The group’s trajectory was assuredly upwards, and the group’s old school-leaning style had lead them to become somewhat revered in certain indie-oriented circles.
With the release of 2003’s Elephunk, however, the group (which also features Taboo and apl.de.ap, in case anyone was wondering) made a very careful and deliberate move to make music that was commercial no matter what the cost, adding in sexy new female vocalist Fergie and collaborating with none other than Justin Timberlake. The hits started racking up (“Where is the Love?”, “Shut Up”, “Let’s Get It Started”, etc.), and with the release of each subsequent album, will.i.am’s raps started becoming less inventive, more generic, and as broadly appealing as possible. “My Humps” showed them at their creative nadir, and although the group has said the song is actually satirical of our oversexed society at large, they have done little to back up that claim with the work that has followed: increasingly stale, frustratingly broad pap like “I Gotta Feeling” and “Rock That Body”, songs meant to appeal to everyone by being as unspecific as possible. Gone were the witty asides, the group’s unique soul sound, and any sense that they were still a functioning, collaborative unit; will.i.am had become producer, frontman, and clubbing pioneer.
Before long, he began producing hits for other people, his tracks always featuring very basic chords and melodies, getting to the chorus right away and awarding very little time for any sort of melodic deviation whatsoever. Other artists have proven to be great interpreters of his style: Estelle’s “American Boy” (featuring Kanye West and based off the instrumental track of a cut off will.i.am’s third solo album, 2007’s Songs About Girls) was a wonderful thrill (and PopMatters’ single of the year when it came out), while Usher’s “OMG” was a lucrative, radio-ready track that proved to be a huge hit, which will.i.am said he had a hard time giving away (also, it should be noted that this song had such noted likes as “shorty’s got them boobies like wow-oh-wow”).
Yet what Usher and Kanye have are genuine personalities that can help drive the point home—heck, even Fergie has enough star power to sell something that’s relatively stilted to begin with. will.i.am, however, does not have that charisma. His first single from #willpower, released around this time year, was the tepid club track “T.H.E. (The Hardest Ever)”, which showed him constantly claiming that “this beat is so hard” and that he’s “harder than a motherfuckin’ boner”, all while bringing in Jennifer Lopez to sing the hook and that one guy all the kids like to close things out: Mick Jagger. It was an outright embarrassment, and as “Scream & Shout” proves, he hasn’t learned much from his experience, as Britney Spears again proves to be the girl who helps sell all the lines about wanting to scream and shout (and letting it all out, at least until Tears of Fears hears about this). will.i.am talks about “letting go” and “losing control” and a host of other base sentiments that prove to be wholly unmemorable, especially against “Scream & Shout’s” positively atonal beat. “You’re gonna turn this shit up”, Spears claims, completely unaware that lot of people will actually be turning this shit off.
While the chart success of “Scream & Shout” remains to be seen, the truth of the matter is that in order to continue on his career as a would-be solo wonder, will.i.am will either have to considerably up his game as a headlining personality or simply get out of the way of his own productions and let real singers make them their own. At the end of the day, however, this debate doesn’t matter much for will.i.am, ‘cause no matter which route he takes, he’ll probably still be making an obscene amount of money, at least until his umpteenth attempt at a successful solo career comes around . . .