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Album review: Black Eyed Peas' 'The E.N.D.'

June 2, 2009 |  3:59 pm

The Los Angeles-based quartet Black Eyed Peas is possibly the greatest bubble gum group of the Extreme Ice Fruit Explosion era. Following in the path forged by the Monkees, the Archies and the Spice Girls, the Peas present themselves as a cast of zany characters whose music is, on one level, like a child's game, and on another, as calculatedly smart and seductive as test-marketed pop gets.

The titles of the Peas' biggest hits tell the story: the giggle-inducing pun of "Don't Phunk With My Heart," the cheerily crude anatomical gesture of "My Humps" and now the Imax-ready sound effects burst of the chart-topping "Boom Boom Pow." Crass, good-hearted, funny, unfailingly loud scavengers of every shiny thing lying on pop's cross-cultural dance floor, the Peas present themselves as juvenile, but there's a lot going on behind the mugging.

"The E.N.D.," the group's fifth studio album and the third since the singer Stacy Ferguson (better known as Fergie) joined and took it from the earnest hip-hop underground to the glamorous, necessarily compromised pop mainstream, is more accomplished and more confounding than any of the foursome's previous efforts. It's likely to dominate radio and the Internet this summer, its sharp flavors simultaneously driving listeners nuts and drawing them back.

Will.i.am., the Peas' lead rapper and main idea man, has said that he doesn't envision "The E.N.D." (the acronym is for "The Energy Never Dies," a nod to quantum physics that's further explained by a robotically voiced introduction to the opening track) as a regular album. Instead, it's a template, designed to be constantly reworked through remixes, both in the recording studio and by DJs on the dance floor. Indeed, this collection has none of the attributes that make listeners love albums: no narrative arc, no ebb and flow, no break from the in-your-face beats and high-fructose hooks.

As a plunge into the users' manual of post-disco dance pop, "The E.N.D." is quite charming, if predictably goofy. Working with club-savvy collaborators including MSTRKRFT, David Guetta and Keith Harris, Will takes on electro, deep house, dancehall and dance-punk, to name just a few trends.

Ever true to their defining characteristic, the Peas have no shame. Fergie puts on ill-fitting dreadlocks for the faux-Jamaican "Electric City" and goes hilariously punk in "Now Generation," a rant about social media that sounds something like Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" rewritten on a Sidekick. "Ring-a-Ling" is a strangely innocent celebration of drunken booty-calling; "One Tribe" follows a bouncing-ball beat as Will suggests that world peace might come from an amnesia epidemic.

As always, Fergie's performances provide the most interest throughout the album. More than the rappers Taboo and Apl.de.ap, whose spotlight turns are always competent but downplayed, or Will, who clings to an Everyman persona that belies his role as the group's Wizard of Oz, Fergie embraces the essential cartoonishness of being a Pea.

Whether she's being weepy in "Meet Me Halfway" or superbad in "Imma Be," she takes her part to its logical end. Her obviousness once seemed to reflect a lack of skill, but by now it's clear that it's a strategy. As a means of grabbing attention from a hopelessly distracted audience, it works.

Most of "The E.N.D." doesn't ask too much from those fans. Its more substantive musical and thematic statements are interrupted by many others showing the Peas' deep, deep commitment to a good party. There's "Rock That Body," "Party All the Time," "Rockin' to the Beat" and "Out of My Head," and those are just the ones with telegraphic titles.

This filler, still waiting to be magically morphed by remixes, doesn't add a lot to the experience of listening to "The E.N.D." all the way through. Yet a strange kind of bliss does arise after being pummeled by nearly 70 minutes' worth of booms, baps and pows.

And sometimes in the midst of it, the Peas do let in some human sweetness and light. Consider "I Gotta Feeling," whose recently leaked video features brazen images of leggy women kissing, partygoers guzzling booze and Fergie in a thong and a bra.

And yet the song itself works on a less blatant level. Produced by French house music veteran Guetta with Frederic Riesterer, it's reminiscent of the Five Stairsteps' soul classic "Ooh Child," emulating that song's use of a repetitive, warm vocal line to signify a good mood coming on. That sunlight-colored hook is interrupted by silly raps; by the time Will and his mates are shouting "Mazel Tov!" it's impossible to begrudge the high.

Yes, the song says, this is a sloppy party. But it's one where you're welcome. So come on in.

--Ann Powers

Black Eyed Peas
"The E.N.D."
Two and a half stars

Albums are rated on a scale of one to four stars. "The E.N.D." will be released on June 9.

Photo: The Black Eyed Peas perform in Japan. Credit: Getty Images.