Black Eyed Peas enter new era of hip hop – forget party bangers, it’s all about music with a purpose
Taboo, will.i.am and apl.de.ap have released their first single for seven years. The hip hop tune Street Livin’ is a dark commentary on gun control, prison reform and American racism
In a backstage trailer behind the politically charged Into Action gallery show in Los Angeles last Friday, three members of the Black Eyed Peas prepared to walk onstage with new music for the first time in seven years.
The gallery was packed with young left-leaning activists, radical-chic paintings and mixed-media installations, and speakers like the former Obama environmental adviser Van Jones.
For fans who only got to know the Peas as one of the biggest-selling pop acts of the 2000s, with multi-platinum, hits such as I Gotta Feeling, My Humps and Boom Boom Pow, it may have seemed a bit odd.
But when will.i.am, Taboo and apl.de.ap (long-time singer Fergie wasn’t there because she is on leave from the group pursuing solo material) walked onto the stage to introduce Street Livin’, a dark yet poignant new musing on gun control, prison reform and American racism, it felt like a return to the act’s beginnings as streetwise LA rappers.
“It’s not like ‘Oh, the Black Eyed Peas are back and now they’re militant’,” will.i.am says. “Our first big hit was Where Is the Love? where we were talking about real stuff. From the brutality of the education system to prison reform, we’ve been out in the community. This is the work we’ve been doing.”
In 2018, it’s another era for the Black Eyed Peas, one that looks a lot like where they started. But in a time of so much challenging, inventive hip hop – and terrible divisions in American society – where do the Peas fit in? The top of the pop charts, the front lines of activism, or somewhere in between?
They have penned some of the stickiest pop-radio staples of the decade, but the Black Eyed Peas’ time away proved formative for how its members wanted to reset the band – and how they wanted to respond to the changes in America. “Athletes have been standing up more than musicians,” will.i.am says. “We have to start standing up too.”
Seven years is an eternity in pop music, but the Peas were far from idle. After performing at the 2011 Super Bowl half-time show, will.i.am released a solo record, Taboo overcame cancer and protested the construction of an oil pipeline on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the US, and apl.de.ap opened schools in his native Philippines.
“From me beating cancer and going to Standing Rock, to Ap’s work in the Philippines, all of this has been a preparation for a bigger fight,” says Taboo.
Street Livin’ is indeed a hard-left turn from the act’s glossy, raved-up pop tunes. Built around a mournful jazz sample, it’s a forthright indictment of institutional racism in America that feels like an honest shot at matching the poetry and vitality of Kendrick Lamar.
When the group prepped for its Friday appearance, US President Donald Trump’s “s***hole” comment regarding immigrants from countries in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean had just begun circulating, and the message of Street Livin’ seemed sadly well-timed.
After all, as will.i.am said onstage when presenting the video for the Street Livin’ single, “Whenever you see those commercials about sponsoring a kid for a dollar a day, remember that Ap was one of those kids.”
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The song is tied to the group’s new Marvel comic book project, Masters of the Sun: The Zombie Chronicles, which hits some of the same notes as the much-anticipated Marvel film Black Panther. That is, the work takes a multicultural spin on genre fiction and sci-fi noir, with a side of augmented reality and voice acting from Jamie Foxx, Queen Latifah and Stan Lee.
It’s not quite an album but more of a multimedia project of the sort that will.i.am has been pushing for years as a designer and tech investor.
While it may not match the sheer ubiquity of the group’s pop smashes, the band are fine with that. All the cultural urgency – and big streaming numbers – these days is coming from gritty, intense hip hop with no illusions about the state of American life.
The Peas helped pave the way, even if the group’s youngest fans may not have been alive when they were releasing those early tracks.
The Black Eyed Peas may not be as edgy as the face-tattooed SoundCloud generation or as critically lionised as the Top Dawg Entertainment stable, but the group has experience and a proven history, and in tumultuous times that has to count for something.
“Right now, I look at hip hop like punk rock – the Clash, Suicidal Tendencies,” will.i.am says. “Hip hop is going through its own punk phase, and we’re going to have a new Clash come out of it.”