Love them or hate them, the Black Eyed Peas have their act together.
Over the years, the Los Angeles quartet has metamorphosed from rootsy dreadlock-sporting hip-hop troupe to futurist pop-aliens with a wardrobe lifted from the pages of an X-Men comic book. After multiple Grammys, a slew of charting singles, iPod advertisements and a Super Bowl halftime show, they have transformed into Auto-Tuned mensch-machines that would make Kraftwerk envious.
And as machines, they run just fine on autopilot. The group’s Saturday night performance at Merriweather Post Pavilion was a spectacle of precision and planning: carefully choreographed but predictable.
The quartet — ringleader Will.i.am, fishnet-clad frontwoman Fergie and the other guys, rappers Apl.de.ap and Taboo — channel-surfed through songs from their most recent record, “The Beginning,” alongside now-ubiquitous radio fare such as “Imma Be.” Diminutive dancers wore boombox costumes and vogued at the lip of the stage. There were fewer visible marketing tie-ins than in years past (previous tours were sponsored by BlackBerry) but more fog machines.
This month, Will.i.am tweeted that the Peas will go on extended hiatus once the tour wraps up. It’s a good time for a break, not only because sales are down but because they have also hit the end of their rappers-to-robots narrative arc.
In a surprising mid-set glance backward, Taboo, Apl.de.ap and Will.i.am dropped into “Joints & Jam,” one of the group’s best-loved songs from its original, pre-Fergie incarnation. Obviously the members have changed their look since then, from bowling sweaters to chrome wigs. But the difference in sound was more striking. The funky Rhodes piano hook on “Joints & Jam” very much belongs to the late ’90s, when it was written. It’s now impossible to tell which era the Black Eyed Peas belong to.
Whether the Peas have strayed from their original intent or evolved beyond it is a matter of opinion. But the present-day Peas are, without a doubt, more interesting. Pre-Fergie, the group was on a path toward becoming hip-hop’s answer to Hootie and the Blowfish. Instead, it chose outer space.
And, hey, maybe the Peas are more human than they let on. The show’s single spontaneous moment came when Will.i.am watched his DJ station rise up from the floor, only to realize that a key component, his laptop, had fallen out of its housing and was on the floor beneath the stage. To buy time, he began a seamless freestyle rap, improvising lines that implored the roadies to retrieve his MacBook, which they did. At the close of the DJ set, Will.i.am acknowledged that he had been caught off guard.
“I was really freaked out,” he told the audience, spinning the ordeal into an inspirational moment: “Don’t give up when you don’t have your computer.”