The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice: The Black Eyed Peas finally have a No. 1 pop hit. For five weeks straight, the L.A. hip-hop foursome’s “Boom Boom Pow” has topped the Billboard“Hot 100.” It’s been a long time coming. The Peas have been the hardest-working punch lines in show business for six years, singing ridiculous lyrics, dancing ridiculous dances, and wearing ridiculous pants, all in the name of an unabashedly uncool utopian vision. In the group’s daffy singalongs, as in its multiethnic ranks (the members are African-American, Filipino, Mexican, and Scottish-Irish), we’re meant to glimpse a world in which all races throw down arms, join hands, and possibly do the white-man-overbite dance, too united by common goofiness ever to fight again.
For a group so single-mindedly inane, though, the Black Eyed Peas—at least as they’ve existed since 2003, when singer Fergie joined and the group transformed from a trio of high-minded, rapping breakdancers into their fizzier current incarnation—have never been innocuous. Their extreme eagerness to please, to subjugate their dignity in the advancement of merriment, can take on an aggressive, irritating edge: They are that guy at the party doing the worm with a lampshade on his head long after the booze is gone.
And they seem to take it as an operating principle that a great way to make a song catchy is to make it not just deeply dumb but deeply confounding: They specialize in stupefying refrains that lodge uncomfortably but intractably in the brain, puzzles with no answers. This dark art is nowhere clearer than on “My Humps,” the group’s most notorious, most fascinating, and, it’s safe to venture, most hated track. The beat is hypnotically vacant, and Fergie matches the mood with an anaesthetized little-girl lilt, rapping about her “hump” and her “lady lumps”—double-entendres for buttocks and breasts. The mind boggles at the decision to use such unsensuous words to describe erogenous zones. What is possibly sexy about camelbacks? Doesn’t “lady lumps” have a disturbingly cancerous whiff to it? “My Humps” is either deeply critical of dance-floor leering—the woman who exists only to be ogled is reduced to a tumoral beast—or gruesomely symptomatic of it. In either case, there’s something marvelous about the way the song parks a cognitive car bomb in pop’s lusty driveway.
“Boom Boom Pow” is much easier on the brain. It’s a song about itself, as straightforward as “The Twist,” and it takes a step toward cool while remaining likeably daft. As ever, Fergie is the star. She luxuriates in some playground-grade taunting and gets off a delectably dorky diss that’s already an Internet catch phrase in the making: “I’m so 3008, you so 2000-late.” That there is nothing remotely 3008 about Fergie is part of the fun; if her grasp exceeds her reach, well, that’s essential to her appeal by this point. Many stars talk about humility, but few of them have brought the goods like Fergie: rapping about humps, piloting toy airplanes in her videos, infamously peeing her pants on stage. In divadom’s tabloid stratosphere, if Beyoncé wears it better and Britney is on meltdown watch, then Fergie is just like us. She never comes off like a pop star so much as a woman constantly pretending to be one.
The music, courtesy of group mastermind Will.i.am, is a sleek, economical synthesis of state-of-the-art pop trends and decades-old tricks. The group’s vocals are tickled and stretched by the droidish Auto-Tune effect, and a synthesizer zaps in tight little triplicates, a strobelike technique derived from techno and popularized recently by Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” and Usher’s “Moving Mountains.” The song’s backbone, meanwhile, is a throwback to ‘80s electro: a hopscotching 808 drum machine pattern and a muted drone that suggests a security alarm wailing from behind several feet of concrete. What unites these different musical styles is a privileging of sound over sense and of dance-floor anonymity over rogue individuality: the Black Eyed Peas’ utopian strategies, encapsulated.
The spryness of the music is in direct contrast to the ungainliness of the lyrics—this is still a Black Eyed Peas song. Each member raps, offering up brags that veer from nonsensical (Taboo: “I’m on the supersonic boom, y’all hear the spaceship zoom”) to demonstrably untrue (Will.i.am: “I got that rock ’n’ roll, that future flow!”). But ungainly isn’t the same as unlovable, and the song is distinct from the Black Eyed Peas’ lesser material in that it doesn’t just tug at your pants leg and urge you to have fun. It leads by example.