Black Eyed Peas’ debut album Behind the Front was an energetic hip-hop party thoroughly derivative of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, right down to mimicked vocal styles and lines slightly modified from classic songs by those legendary groups. It got by nearly entirely on spunky choruses, like that of the single “Joints and Jam,” and hip-hop fans’ nostalgia for the heyday of “positivity” in rap. It’s one of those albums that’s so unoriginal that you want to dislike it…yet once the beats and hooks move the attention away from your intellect and toward your feet, you can’t help but be overtaken.
For their follow-up album, Bridging the Gap, the Peas have tried hard to move away from the grips of their forbearers and find their own sound. This sound is one based more completely around soul grooves and a mix of organic and slightly electronic rhythms. In the musical realm, the Black Eyed Peas have succeeded. They combine funky beats with organ, bass and guitar sounds, plus the fine vocal stylings of guests like Macy Gray, Les Nubians and Esthero. The sound of this LP is more complex and satisfying than the relatively simple grooves of their debut. It fits right in with the always-growing batch of intelligent hip-hop music informed by modern soul music (including Common, the Roots, Guru’s Jazzmatazz series, etc.)
While musically they’ve added some fullness to their sound, lyrically the Black Eyed Peas have moved away from overt imitation, but head-on into blandness. The lyrics tread common terrain, mostly partying and having fun, without placing any memorable rhymes into listeners’ brains. Outside of their criticisms of the jiggy side of hip-hop on tracks like the relatively hot DJ Premier-produced lead-off track “BEP Empire,” they don’t have much to say, and none of the three MCs has a distinct enough rhyming style to leave much of an impression. This fact becomes especially apparent each time they bring out a talented guest star to help them out. Charli 2Na from Jurassic Five’s turn on “Get Original” (a title the Peas should take as instruction) and De La Soul’s appearance on “Cali to New York” truly demonstrate the difference between MCs with unique methods and perspectives and MCs who love hip-hop but aren’t too sure what to do with it.
As the title Bridging the Gap indicates, Black Eyed Peas’ mission is to cross barriers and bring hip-hop to the masses. Their sound is pleasurable enough and their message generic enough that they’ll probably succeed at that goal. More power to them…maybe on the road to stardom they’ll find voices of their own.