The hip-hop star known as will.i.am is a student of music history and a tech-head with a passion for living in the future. So when asked recently about where his group, the Black Eyed Peas, will be in 20 years, his brow knitted in serious contemplation. Would the group be alive and well, like the survivors of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who, by the way, inspired the Peas to take a name that belongs in a covered dish)? Or would they splinter and go their own ways, like a cheerier, West Coast version of the Fugees?
After chewing on the question, will.i.am nodded to himself. “We will be going and we will be going bigger than ever, but it won’t be the same. See, look, Fergie soloed, and she sold 5 million records. My solo record is getting ready to come out. That’s 2007, but 2027 is a totally different front. It’s a different story. The front person for the Black Eyed Peas in 2007 ain’t going to be the front person in 2020. It won’t be Fergie, it won’t be will.i.am, it’s going to be Allan Pineda.”
Pineda? He’s another Peas member, the one who goes by apl.de.ap But why exactly will he be trumping singer Fergie, whose album “The Dutchess” has spawned three No. 1 hits? Or will.i.am, whose “Songs About Girls” solo project hits stores Tuesday?
“The reason is China,” the rapper said, launching into a long explanation of Pineda’s superstar status in his native Philippines and how global population patterns and the hunger for Pacific Rim pop culture will push Pineda to the front of the band. It may seem unlikely now, but in the 1970s who would have predicted that Phil Collins would be the biggest star from Genesis?
“They made a movie about him in the Philippines, his whole life story,” will.i.am said. “They gave him like his own day: July 24 is the official Allan Pineda day in the Philippines. I was there when the president gave it to him. I was like, ‘Wow, dude, I ain’t never going to get no day.’ Neil Armstrong, he walked on the moon and he doesn’t have his own day. One giant leap for mankind, but he still got no day.”
As giant leaps go, will.i.am makes one of his own with “Songs About Girls,” his first formal, mainstream solo album. (He did release a soundtrack album to an Internet film and also did a solo collection on commission for, of all things, Zima.) The album has a lead single in “I Got It From My Mama,” a lusty club track that covers much of the same anatomical territory as “My Humps,” that ubiquitous Peas hit that became one of the most popular and most reviled hits in recent memory. (Besides being labeled the “worst song ever” by plenty of critics, “My Humps” has the distinction of rhyming “humps,” “bumps” and “lumps” while describing a woman’s curves yet somehow never mentions “rumps.”)
For longtime observers of the Peas, “My Humps” seemed to crystallize how the group swapped its early cachet as a critical darling of the humanistic hip-hop scene for a run as a frothy, platinum-selling pop act perfect for the ring-tone era.
Will.i.am, sitting on the couch at his home in the Hollywood Hills, dismissed the naysayers.
“We are making the same kind of music we always made. Go back and listen to those early records,” he said. “I don’t know what people are talking about. Music changes, and now, what we do, it fits what people want to hear. But we didn’t sell out or change.”
Still, on much of the new album will.i.am seems to be searching for a bit more sophistication than “My Humps” has. He describes the overarching theme as a semi-autobiographical project detailing a relationship (and a relationship collapse) from his past.
“I look back and now I can see how it ended in a way I wished hadn’t,” he said.
But there’s also “S.O.S.,” a dramatic rap about the environment that the Peas debuted at the Live 8 concerts. The album has brass and soul flourishes too, which in spots recall the work of Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder. But there’s also “The Donque Song,” an ode to the female backside that goes again to the model of “My Humps.”
That song features Snoop Dogg, but the album is otherwise fairly devoid of guest stars, a purposeful choice by will.i.am to avoid the now-clichéd practice of jamming as many big names as possible into the track listing. While talking about the new music, he sat down at the piano in his living room to play some melodies.
“That was really important to me, working with melody and my singing, not just rapping, to try to create songs that last in your mind. I had people like India.Arie tell me, ‘You sound good singing this, you can sing.’ And I pushed myself to go to places that I never thought I could go vocally. I’m not Luther Vandross, you know, or Lionel Richie, but the execution of the idea is spot on.”
Will.i.am is a notorious idea man, so for him as well as those around him, the challenge is never thinking of what to do next, it’s trying to figure what to do first. In the span of 45 minutes, the 32-year-old Boyle Heights native (born William Adams) bounced among no fewer than a dozen projects, including his own clothing line, his work as a producer for Michael Jackson’s next album, the next Peas album and his recent time in Japan researching new computer technologies. In the middle of it all, he took a break because his pal Busta Rhymes called to talk business.
Nothing is more exciting for him, though, than this solo project. He has been inviting journalists to his home and also dropping by the offices of magazines to play the music and win over tastemakers.
Snatching up a keyboard, he used a widescreen television mounted in his living room to show a striking new music video he made for a reflective song called “She’s a Star.”
In the video, the rapper-producer is wandering along the surf at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. It’s pitch black, and wearing white clothes and in low light, the star makes for a dramatic figure. Special effects show him drawing pictures in the night sky, connecting constellations. It’s a strong visual and a moving song. Where did the idea come from?
“Actually, it was in the middle of the night and I had this idea, so I woke one of my guys, told him to grab his camera and come to the beach,” he said. “That’s how stuff happens. People just have to keep up.”