Photo Credit: Sarah Silver
To be described as “on a spectrum” suggests qualities that are immeasurable to a specific point, or non-quantitative. Where on the spectrum exactly? Who’s to say, because that decision is another party’s responsibility entirely. Black Eyed Peas and their meandering catalog are “on a spectrum” – on one end are roots in West Coast hip hop, eighth-graders in the early 90s who jammed and performed together and scored a record deal from Eazy-E. At the other end of the spectrum is the infinite rabbit hole into will.i.am’s mind, winding all the way down past Taboo and apl.de.ap, past Fergie’s Black Eyed Peas tenure, “My Humps” and a few Nicole Scherzinger collaborations.
Somewhere in that mind is the chameleonic producer that helped craft TRANSLATION, Black Eyed Peas’ eighth studio LP that serves as a foray into the world of Latin pop. Will is a curious producer and a big fan of the reset button, flipping vibes and moods across records like pages in a picture book. He contorts his tracks to fit a vibe and often that vibe is messy, but it’s sometimes fun, too. Fun can lead to too much fun and blackouts, where long stretches of sledgehammer beats, autotuned vocals, and heavy buzz synths pass by turning minutes to hours you’ll never get back. When diving into this album, best prepare for a blackout.
The thing about blackouts is that they come to some more easily, and their effects are wide-ranging. Here, the symptoms include head-banging, hip-swinging, general dance-filled enjoyment, and lots of Spanglish. The biggest make-it-or-break-it factor for artists in pop music is the ability to stick the landing on a reinvention; changing tune is part of the canon now, so the sincerity with which an album flips the game on its head is paramount to the perceived success of that album. The reinvention cycle of the Black Eyed Peas went into overdrive when Fergie departed to focus on motherhood. The sound of the group opened up to the world and came off relaxed and easygoing for the first time in a decade.
The atmosphere on TRANSLATION is climate-controlled and comfortable, full of radio-friendly Latin pop that doesn’t take itself seriously – in fact, it hardly checks itself at all. Predictably goofy, will.i.am provides some of the album’s more cringe-worthy lines: “I’ma kill the booty, cartel (boom-boom),” and, “Baby got my love on grande (grande) // Baby won’t you give it to me? Dame (dame),” from “FEEL THE BEAT.” Lightning-quick, seemingly ad-libbed moments are consistent with his previous works; they’re sprinkled through his own solo work and BEP’s back catalog. All too often they amount to fleeting distractions, pulling the listener out of a chaotic moment and stripping everything away for the glum satisfaction of hearing a monotone ‘booty’-related exclamation. With the repeated distractions, it can be difficult to hone in on the moments that shine on this album, like the strong vocals by de facto Fergie replacement, J. Rey Soul, or the Rick James flip on “VIDA LOCA”, a song that could have been nabbed from will.i.am’s 2013 LP #willpower (the hashtag is his, not mine).
TRANSLATION runs with the tried-and-true method of packing all the singles upfront, leaving a listen that decreases in enjoyability at a steady pace until falling off a cliff in the final stretch. “I WOKE UP” cribs the hook from Beyoncé’s “***Flawless” and delivers a seriously disappointing chorus, then adds insult to injury with a shamelessly selfish Kobe reference. “GET LOOSE NOW” is less of a song in itself than a beat-driven interlude with questionable flourishes from an acoustic guitar and a Pulitzer-baiting hook that goes: “Boom, bam, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah // Get loose now.”
Closing out the party and turning all the lights on is “NEWS TODAY” – seemingly penned by a first-time news viewer who tried to make all the chyrons rhyme. Black Eyed Peas have released some clunkers through their long careers, but the cake is served and eaten with lines like: “They said ‘Stay in the house, don’t step out’ // If you step out, put the mask on the mouth // Six feet back, virus attack // Soap on the hands so your lungs don’t collapse.” It doesn’t take a jet-setting group to instill urgency in the public around a pandemic, and certainly, we can be confident that no one asked the Black Eyed Peas for their word-for-word recap of what’s going on. But for all the ridiculous extravagance, this group remains playful and curious, almost to a fault. Had they bestowed an EP instead of a 15-track slog, this effort might have even been victorious. Instead, the album is hopelessly lost in translation.