By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
There's a song toward the end of "The E.N.D." that neatly sums up everything wrong with the Black Eyed Peas. "Now Generation" is basically a pointless, shouted list of things involving the Internet ("MySpace and your space/Facebook is the new place"); it's dorky (would anyone who was actually in the Now Generation use that term to describe themselves?); it sounds like it was recorded next to a Slurpee machine; Fergie is on it.
The near-rocking "Now Generation" sounds like what would have happened if "We Didn't Start the Fire" appeared on the "Footloose" soundtrack. It bears little resemblance to the rest of "The E.N.D," which shows a new affinity for electro at the expense of the group's usual hip-hop-pop. It's a lateral move: There are fewer tracks that pinch from Lisa Lisa and more that suggest an overlong Pepsi ad from 2003 scored by the Basement Jaxx with somebody occasionally rapping over it.
On one level, "The E.N.D." is a meticulous, inexplicably charismatic offering that knows almost exactly how loony it is. On another, more accurate level, it's awful. It's filled with busy, interchangeably robotic party tracks ("Rock That Body," "Rockin to the Beat," et al.) interspersed with the occasional robotic ballad (the not-half-bad "Meet Me Halfway") and robotic odes to spiritual oneness ("One Tribe").
"The E.N.D." (which stands for "The Energy Never Dies"; has an acronym ever seemed so threatening?) is the Peas' third disc with midriff-y fembot Fergie. It's their first since she went rogue, releasing a multi-platinum solo disc and ushering in the "We're lucky she's showing up at all" phase of the Peas' career. It's impossible to imagine the group without Fergie. Who else would do the . . . things that she does? Like forgetting the words to the endearing, unintentionally literal "Out of My Head"? Who else would yell her way through her tracks, as if she were really mad at the hologram of Will.I.Am, and then seem to just sort of wander off when she was finished?
According to head Pea Will.I.Am, "The E.N.D." isn't an album but a series of unrelated tracks intended to have their own existence in remix form; they just happen to be packaged together for $13.98. The album is dead, Will.I.Am recently told an interviewer, which explains why "The E.N.D." sounds scattered and patchworked, as if it were cobbled together by a 14-year-old with ADD. It's a Now Generation thing, apparently.
No one seems to have told Mos Def about the death of the album. His new disc, "The Ecstatic," is the most cohesive, most albumlike thing he's ever done, though it pulls from seemingly every disparate musical interest he's had: jazz, poetry, blues, psychedelia, Eastern rhythms, Spanish-language quasi-pop. One of the all-time mightiest MCs, Mos has spent the past few years acting in movies and plays and releasing the occasional, forgettable disc. "The Ecstatic" is his best work since 1999's "Black on Both Sides."
It's a riotous mix of incendiary hip-hop (the opening "Supermagic"), gentle R&B ("Roses," a collaboration with singer Georgia Anne Muldrow) and out-of-the-crates soul ("History," which features an appearance by Mos's Black Star compatriot Talib Kweli and is produced, somehow, by the late J Dilla), with ersatz flamenco ("No Hay Nada Mas") thrown in for good measure.
"The Ecstatic" is as interested in the past (its best track, "Life in Marvelous Times," is an extended reminiscence of early '80s Bed-Stuy) as it is in the Age of Obama (who hardly comes up). But it's as ebullient and engaging as Mos's recent discs were dour and uninterested, more diverse than "The E.N.D." and a lot less frantic.
DOWNLOAD THESE: Black Eyed Peas: "Meet Me Halfway," "Imma Be"; Mos Def: "Life in Marvelous Times," "History," "Auditorium"