How the Black Eyed Peas went from quirky underground hip-hop outfit to hamfisted, self-congratulating pop masturbators seems like one of the great tragedies of modern pop music. There are those all too willing to blame Fergie, considering the group's clumsy, mass-market anthems appeared with greater frequency after her arrival, most of the group's post-millennial obsession with mindless, nonsensical sing-alongs can be traced back to co-founder and mastermind will.i.am. It was he, after all, who was responsible for the sterile, stupid dance-pop on the Peas' 2001 breakthrough, Elephunk, and once the group hit paydirt there was no abandoning the formula.
That same formula persists on will.i.am's fourth solo effort, #willpower, which, if it's not obvious from the hashtagged title, finds him continuing his appropriation of every slightly tired zeitgeisty signifier he can get his hands on. The album is a looping diorama of celebrity fetishism and over-programmed music, languishing in the glow of its larger-than-life guest stars (Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, Lil Wayne, and Miley Cyrus all make an appearance) while regulating its instrumentation to the same over-polished synth presets and drumpad patterns that will.i.am's been dialing up for over a decade. Literally every track can be boiled down to a handful of catchphrases, a fuzzed-up club beat, and some sort of glitchy, mid-song breakdown. Hence the weakly pounding "Reach for the Stars," where a succession of feeble calls to arms climax in a perfunctory vocal choir that serves as a cheap method of grandiosity.
Elsewhere, #willpower awkwardly chases what its numerous producers (15, by my count) no doubt think are impending pop trends. The results are almost offensively insipid, such as the clumsy attempt at melding hip-hop with K-pop on "Gettin' Dumb." Splitting vocal duties between Black Eyed Peas alum apl.de.ap and South Korean mega-group 2NE1, the song can't even live up to the gloriously bizarre mishmash of parts it boasts, offering only a blend of Auto-Tuned pap and ridiculous lyrical sloganeering—which, with horribly inane lines like "Watch out for the dumb dumb," seems to push boundaries Fergie hasn't even crossed. By the time listeners are subjected to the Chris Brown-guesting "Let's Go" and the paint-by-numbers "Geekin'," the latter of which truly deserves an award in half-assery, the album has become a slog of pop clichés and self-absorbed preening. Undoubtedly crafted to be an easy listen, the overstuffed, lumbering, and joyless #willpower is quite the opposite.