So which incarnation of the indefatigable Black Eyed Peas truly is more vexing? On the one hand, you have the pre-Fergie band, which delighted the college rock intelligentsia with its bite-sized, pre-chewed imitation of legitimate alternative hip-hop a la A Tribe Called Quest and the Roots. On the other hand, you have the post-Fergie clown troupe, which has traded any and all available credibility in pursuit of becoming (successfully) the most flagrantly commercial pop supergroup since Destiny's Child. Typically, when it comes to pop, I'm the type that prefers music that acts just a touch more idiotic than it really is to music that, by dint of self-seriousness, assumes it's smarter than its own influences. But "The boys they say I'm sexy, the boys they want to sex me" stretched the definition of "a touch more idiotic" past my presumed outer limits, even as I was forced to admire will.i.am and company's preternatural knack for beating the lowest common denominator to the punch.
When it comes down to it, the success of the new Peas is more potentially ruinous than the unmerited, under-the-radar respect engendered by the old Peas. Hypocritical, too, when the menacing narrator on the band's new album, The E.N.D. (short for either The Energy Never Dies or The Enchilady Needs Dick), laments the fact that "there is no longer a physical record store" and doesn't factor in the fact that "My Humps" owed its breakthrough success to iTunes. And there's no better proof of that than an uneven and cluttered career summation of sorts that pits both BEPs—the smugsters and the retards—against each other, sometimes even within the same song.
"Imma Be," for instance, begins like a half-speed "My Humps Redux" with Fergie assuring, "Imma be shakin' my hips/You gon' be lickin' your lips…Imma be lookin' all fly n' shit/Imma be the flyest chick," over a metronomically stilted beat. But halfway through, the pulse gets an upgrade, the tempo hustles up to a strut, the rudimentary synth hits explode into a chunky-funky rush, and before you know it, will.i.am has transformed a deliberately lazy self-parody into a heated club-floor burner…precisely one minute and 30 seconds before the track ends. No attempt is made to synthesize the two halves; they just emerge as fragments of a presumed collective short attention span.
The dialectic without conversation within "Imma Be" is replayed ad nauseam throughout the album's entire bloated running time. On one track you get the same group who once whined, "Where Is the Love?" now howling their unity-minded good vibes on the insipid UNICEF-monotone of "One Tribe"—with Fergie belting out her commitment to the cause like 1 Non Blonde. On another track you get the calculatedly crass pop-cultural-cum-garbage disposal word-slinging of "Now Generation," an admittedly tongue-in-cheek but still unremittingly vapid name-check on MySpace, Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, Macs, and PCs.
Buried within the breakdowns of a few tracks like "Party All the Time" and the Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock-sampling "Rock That Body" are some sparkling bits of production wizardry from will.i.am, who, when freed from the self-sabotaging stupidity of his crew, proves himself an adequate dance-pop beatsmith. But there is only so much he can do to buoy a group that, lyrically, does an end-zone dance for successfully counting back from 10 and operates musically on an even playing field with this guy.