Critical Voices: The Black Eyed Peas, Masters of the Sun Vol. 1

November 14, 2018

The Black Eyed Peas have changed quite a bit in the 20 years between their debut in 1998 and their latest release, Masters of the Sun Vol. 1. Initially defined by an alternative hip-hop sound in the 90s, the group shifted towards electronic pop in 2001, welcoming singer Stacy Ann Ferguson, better known as Fergie, into their ranks to help them climb the charts. Their plan worked; in fact, thanks to their new pop sound and Fergie’s vocals, the Peas spent a record 26 consecutive weeks atop the Hot 100 in 2009. Now, in 2018, The Black Eyed Peas have released the verbosely titled Masters of the Sun Vol. 1, their first album since 2010 and since the departure of Fergie from the group last year. One would think that with the absence of Fergie from the collective, the odds would be against the group. However, the result is surprising. Masters of the Sun is a refreshing return to form for the group, embracing old-school and afrofuturist ideas alike as well as incorporating jazz-rap in a remarkably mature way.

If the Peas are trying to evoke a more vintage hip-hop sound on this album, they’re certainly setting the right tone with the opener, “BACK 2 HIPHOP.” With its boom bap drums and gritty bassline, this song is quintessential 90’s rap. It even features Nas, a rapper whose debut album, Illmatic (1994), was arguably one of the best 90’s hip-hop and jazz-rap albums of all time.

However, Masters of the Sun is a nuanced throwback, and the Peas pay homage to genres deeper than just 90s hip-hop. A Tribe Called Quest’s jazz-influenced style permeates Master of the Sun. The track “4EVER,” which features a sample of “Funky Drummer” by James Brown sounds like it would fit right in with the rest of Tribe’s discography, and “ALL AROUND THE WORLD” is a collaboration with two members of the 90’s collective: Ali Shaheed Muhammad and the late Phife Dawg. Tribe’s presence lives and breathes in the production of Masters of the Sun, so much so that listeners will begin to forget that this is the same group who made the mindless song “My Humps.”

Masters of the Sun is based on The Black Eyed Peas’ 2017 graphic novel of the same name, and as a result, it tends to center around the otherworldly aspects of the Peas’ success. Looking at the comic book, which explores hip-hop culture, the crack epidemic, and egyptology, the afrofuturist influence on the album is ultra-clear. Their obsession with space and the future manifests itself in the track “DOPENESS” which opens with the words, “We live and direct / From that inner space, outer space,” going on to emphasize how “dope” the Peas are. Likewise, on “NEW WAVE,” will.i.am references Luke Skywalker and his lightsaber, as well as a tiger whose eyes are made out of lasers. One can’t help but draw the connection between Masters of the Sun’s futuristic elements—it’s album title, lyrical content, and avant-garde cover art—and legendary jazz artist Sun Ra, a self-proclaimed Saturn native who was known for his experimental jazz music and cosmic philosophy. The Peas are exploring an angle of the rap genre that has hardly been explored before, and as a result, this album is remarkably refreshing.

The lack of Fergie’s iconic voice is perhaps one of the only disappointments of the album. After nearly a decade of of the Billboard Top 40 being filled with her hooks, it’s hard to separate her from the The Black Eyed Peas. However, the remaining Peas are aware of this, and utilise their musical guests effectively. Both Nicole Scherzinger and Korean pop star CL lend a refreshing voice to what can be a sometimes overwhelmingly masculine album. Generally speaking, though, the group doesn’t suffer too much from Fergie’s absence. Will.i.am has long been quietly regarded as one of hip-hop’s more thoughtful and creative producers, and with production credits on every song, his talent shines through at the heart of this album.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, will.i.am dubbed the Black Eyed Peas a “media company” rather than a band. This rebranding, coupled with the futuristic angle of this album, seems to suggest that The Black Eyed Peas are aiming for something larger than hip-hop or even music in general. The album ends with “BIG LOVE,” a spiritual predecessor to their 2003 hit “Where is the Love.” The song is paired down lyrically and sonically, but the message is still clear. The last thing listeners hear—Will chanting “All that we’re made of / Is big, big love”—is an empowering note to end on. The Black Eyed Peas’ vision for the future is passionate, convincing, and full of love, and Masters of The Sun is just innovative enough to make this vision compelling.  


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