Oh boy, what a time for hip hop fans. The Black Eyed Peas have taken strides forwards, by taking a step back.
Alternative rappers Will.i.am, Taboo and Apl.de.ap are The Black Eyed Peas and began their careers on a solid note in 1998 with Behind the Front. The Rolling Stone reviewed the album and praised their “ambitious effort“. The magazine followed the group’s rise to fame, reviewing each album and single they produced.
The praise wasn’t a fluke either; Bridging the Gap (2000) followed and served as a “representation of their considerable skills and vision” but nosedived with Elephunk (2003) as it was saturated with “cliched observations, preachy lyrics and MTV-ready posturing“. The album featured the new, female member of their group – Fergie.
Considering their fall from grace, it seemed like that would be the end but instead they made a gloriously terrible recovery. Ignoring rock bottom and digging deep, they were no longer at the bottom of hip hop’s list, emerging as reborn desirable pop artists.
The Black Eyed Peas became “hip hop’s brightest popsters” through the release of Monkey Business (2005) and continued their success, making “a kind of spiritual practice of recording dumb songs” with The E.N.D (2009). The Beginning (2010) served as an example of their belief in “the power of crazy, cheesy bigness“.
Hip hop fans once enjoyed the original trio’s ability to weave a message into their raps yet still providing a song to dance to with funky beats and samplings. Now they are shunned by the hip hop culture for their embrace of pop music. Previously against materialism, they now own a genre geared towards making music that would surely make money. The group that had once been held to the standards of hip hop greats, with their tracks reflective of it, they now revel in their comparisons against “popsters”.
But wait, what’s that in the distance? Is that… is it an angel? Are they the burning bodies of the Seraphim here to sing God’s praise to the world? No, it’s much more beautiful; The Black Eyed Peas are back, they’ve dropped Fergie and they’re bouncing back to hip hop. On the 20th anniversary of the trio’s debut, they released a new single called Yesterday.
With an opening line of “we’re going back to the front”, a reference to their debut album, the trio are taking a stand against their old pop ways and singing their own little revolution. The song is packed to the brim with old school hip hop references that influenced not only The Black Eyed Peas, but most up-and-coming artists of the time, like Live at the Barbecue, Black Sheep, Run D.M.C and Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
References aside, Yesterday makes excellent use of sampling to increase the retro vibe. Some transitions between beats seem jarred at first, but they’re all accompanied by changes in lyrical styles. On the whole, in the full scope on the song, the transitioning actually feels right.
Some of the sampling used includes: Rebirth of Slick which has a lyrical reference to go with it; Night of the Living Baseheads by Public Enemy; The Champ by The Mohawks, a sample that sticks out from the plethora of hip hop samples from the late 80s to 90s, for its funk origins in the late 60s.
This serves as another reference to the old The Black Eyed Peas. They were alternative hip hop and weren’t above using fusions of other genres in their samplings and original beat. This gave their music a distinct funk and soul vibe when hip hop was shrinking into basic gangster rap. It’s the reason they received so much acclaim.
However all these callbacks asks another question, have we just been nostalgia baited? Have The Black Eyed Peas simply recognised that there’s no longer money in mass-produced pop music? Have they put up a facade of changing just to cash in on people’s desire to hear old school hip hop? It’s a valid concern and it happens in every industry.
I did not grow up with hip hop. The late 90s, in which I was born, was where the genre went to die only to be reborn as pop. I lived mostly with the classic rock my parents’ enjoyed, and after a lifetime of rock, metal, and heavy metal, hip hop has only recently become a love of mine. So how can I feel that same nostalgia?
Whether The Black Eyed Peas have simply sold out in a different way or not is a question left to the future. They do allude to their next album Origins, so there is that to look forward to. If the album is just a slew of references, then it’s safe to assume they haven’t made the forward march we originally thought, but until then, I will enjoy Yesterday‘s composition along with my other favourites from the trio’s early years. – Christopher Pirina
Top photo album cover of Behind the Front by The Black Eyed Peas.