A lot of hip-hop stars, as much as I love them, aren’t really cheapened by their involvement with commercial interests. Some of my favorite pop rap is little more than a tacky advertisement for heartless upward mobility. This is partly why the Black Eyed Peas‘ ad for a soft drink was so disappointing to me. In some ways, it’s none of my damn business, they should be able to pay their bills anyway they can. But when the music is actually something meaningful, one can’t help but look at the artist sideways when they shill for multi-national shit machines in their spare time. Tom Waits wrote somewhere once (and I badly paraphrase) that businesses want to use music because they know the power of association and memory that it harnesses, tying sentiments to moments in time by siphoning the spirituality of creativity. For people like Britney Spears, this should be a no-brainer, her music is already corporate Satanism, pure fabricated demographic gruel, and she should sell as many products as she can before we collectively vomit her up like too much Easter candy. But for the Black Eyed Peas, I hate to see their vibe tied anything other than their essence: relentlessly funky upliftment.
Now that I’ve left the pulpit, let me tell you why this is one of the essential hip-hop records of the year. In a world where talent was the only currency recognized, Black Eyed Peas would be dominating every chart, airwave and house party on earth. Elephunk drops non-stop hook and hump, an album with almost no missteps and more than its share of undeniable, thumping joy.
Black Eyed Peas might not be the most complex lyricists in hip-hop, but their flow has an electrifying tactility to it, like someone tapping out the track with their hands on your body. The undergirding backgrounds themselves are marvels of complexity, lush with beats built on a variety of musical slants and instruments. Both the speaker slamming intro “Hands Up” and “Labor” have incredibly tight trumpet parts providing the primary cadence. “Smells Like Funk” comes off slightly silly because it revolves around the conceit of their metaphysical funkeration pervading the air like a fart. But the rhythm, the background noises, the snippets of “Putting on the Ritz”, the drunk New Orleans horns, all of it creates a song where the groove is flawlessly terraced. Most of the tracks are chasmic in their roominess; it takes several listens just to walk around the perimeter before the lyrics begin to soak in. That’s assuming that you can get over the basslines that barrel through the songs like feral commandments for ass shaking.
Elephunk successfully incorporates sounds from across the hip-hop spectrum. The well-populated backdrops aren’t just a spare beat phoned in from a turntable. At times, their rhythm section sounds like a jook joint orchestra. “Hands Up”, “Sexy” and “Latin Girls” import beautiful Latin piano, percussion, horns and whispered female harmonies. “Hey Mama” takes on dancehall, putting Sean Paul to shame with bass that drops into the song like a B-52 payload. Leaving no innovation unsampled, they bring sitar, flute, and an Indian vocalist in to serve it up Bhangra style on “The Elephunk Theme”. To accuse them of opportunistic skimming is to ignore the history of a band that has always seen hip-hop as open-ended party without arbitrary categorical bounds. If anything, they seem to be showing up other artists (cough, Jay-Z) who stitch in new sounds like bad skin grafts.
“Shut Up” with Fergie’s slick twist of a voice, reprises the boy-girl argument song, with a hilarious back and forth built on top of a bassline that sounds wildly lobbed across the track. In fact BEP newcomer, Fergie, sways in out of several songs, most stunningly adding her deep-piped growl to the slinky grooves of the bewitched, bothered and bewildered “Sexy”. Black Eyed Peas prove many times over that you can celebrate women (“Hey Mama”, Latin Girls” and “Sexy”) without smacking them in the head and making them squat over while you drink Henny in a lawn chair. It’s especially refreshing because they so clearly illustrate what a weak-ass cop out sexism is. I think misogyny and homophobia are basically just violent forms of repression doled out by chickenshit oppression suck-ups; consequently I always interpret Eminem’s “Without Me” video to be unconsciously homoerotic (c’mon, Batman and Robin?).
After 12 solid, hands-in-the-air classics, I suppose it’s only fair that they be excused for sputtering out at the finish line. “Anxiety” is just ill conceived. No offense, but Papa Roach are not ideal collaborators, for anyone good at what they do. The metal-rap hybrid isn’t as bad as it could be, but still manages to insert that Creed-esque quality of limp, melodramatic power chords blanched by over production. Although I appreciate the heartfelt sentiment of “Where is the Love?”, it sounds totally hokey, just this shy of “We Are the World”-level platitudes. I know I’m a jaded shitheel, but painting pamphlets of the perfect world isn’t always the best way to change this one. Justin Timberlake doing his best prison shower falsetto on the chorus doesn’t help either. Unlike virtually every other track on this record, “Where is the Love?” has no driving force beneath it; instead it lurches aimlessly in a swampish mid-tempo drift.
The organizing principle of this band seems to be that you have a good time and that no one gets hurt in the process. If Elephunk doesn’t move you, if you don’t end up with a massive grin slapped across your face, if you don’t heed the built-in dance demands, then check your pockets; there should be a receipt for your soul in there somewhere.