This week in New York will.i.am — the founder and frontman of L.A.'s Black Eyed Peas — is to receive an honorary Clio Award in recognition of “the work and talent of those who push the boundaries of creativity in advertising and beyond,” according to a release from the ad-business group that presents the awards.
The prize certainly says something about his expansive skill set and his impressive trajectory. Over the last two decades the 38-year-old polymath born William Adams has transitioned from the West Coast hip-hop underground to a kind of global omnipresence rarely seen in music. His manager, Adam Leber, calls will.i.am “an industry,” and he’s not overstating it by much.
Will.i.am has voiced characters in the animated films “Rio” and “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.” He serves as a judge on the British edition of “The Voice.” And he’s been involved in a growing number of disparate political, philanthropic and high-tech initiatives.
Then there’s his music: relentlessly upbeat Black Eyed Peas megahits such as “I Gotta Feeling,” solo albums like the just-released "#willpower” and tracks he’s written and produced for artists such as Usher and Britney Spears. Insistently melodic and big of beat, his sound is universal, literally. When NASA wanted a song to mark the landing of its Curiosity rover on Mars last summer, the agency enlisted will.i.am, whose “Reach for the Stars” was beamed back to Earth from the Red Planet.
“I just always wanna be working on something, whether it’s a car, a song, a concept for a company, a video, glasses, a freakin’ hat that turns on your appliances when you go in your house,” will.i.am said last week at a West Hollywood studio, where he was hunkered down behind a mixing console while several of his handlers made arrangements regarding a charter jet. “I wanna be down with the people that know how to do that stuff and contribute to bringing it to life.”
He laughed. “‘We bring good things to life.’ Remember that commercial?”
“Advertising,” “industry,” “commercial” — all are words cool-obsessed pop stars once avoided the way listeners seem to be avoiding "#willpower.”
This month the album debuted at No. 9 with sales of just 29,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, well behind blockbusters by Michael Bublé and Justin Timberlake, not to mention seemingly smaller-scale projects from Phoenix and Rob Zombie. And though the Britney Spears-equipped single “Scream & Shout” is undeniably big at radio — the reason, no doubt, will.i.am was set to perform Saturday at L.A. Top 40 station KIIS-FM’s Wango Tango concert — the song took an unusually long time to become a hit.
The disc’s follow-up single, "#thatPOWER” featuring Justin Bieber, sits at No. 19 on the Hot 100, down two spots from the week before.
Interscope Records President John Janick said he isn’t worried by the relatively soft numbers, insisting that the label’s marketing plan resembles a “marathon,” with “a bunch of hit singles” it’ll roll out over the next 18 months. ("#willpower” contains further collaborations with Miley Cyrus, Afrojack and Chris Brown, among others.)
Yet the muted response suggests that will.i.am is no longer seen as a musician first but as, well, what exactly? A cultural ambassador? A brand synergist? A “maker,” the term he uses to describe himself?
Whatever the case, four years after the Black Eyed Peas’ world-conquering “The E.N.D.,” will.i.am’s multi-platforming seems to be overshadowing his primary occupation.
That’s too bad, because "#willpower” reflects an appetite for variety and experimentation more robust than many stars’. “Scream & Shout” is a lean club jam with hard-edged synths and an imperious vocal by Spears, who for some appealing reason adopts a fake English accent. “Hello” marries a sing-song melody to a whooshing stadium-rave beat.
And “Freshy,” a duet with the Memphis MC Juicy J, demonstrates will.i.am’s enduring flair for the kind of gritty street rap he’s widely thought to have left behind.
“The guy’s mind is just turned on,” said Dr. Luke, the serial hitmaker who worked with will.i.am on “Fall Down,” a sleek pop tune featuring Cyrus. “I don’t think there’s a polka song on there, but even that wouldn’t surprise me.”
Of the album’s breadth, will.i.am said, “I have to have songs for everywhere my tentacles reach.” That means that in addition to the up-tempo dance cuts, "#willpower” features several quieter, more introspective songs he said he wrote with the idea that they might impress the man he referred to as his hero, Quincy Jones.
For one of them, a delicate acoustic number called “Smile Mona Lisa,” will.i.am requested (and received) special after-hours access to the Louvre, where he recorded a live guitarist next to Da Vinci’s painting. “I figured if I can do [the guitar part] on my laptop and make it sound the same, I [should] make it worth my while to go record a human somewhere,” he said.
The idea, as elaborate and ambitious as it is likely to go unnoticed, reflects the dedication with which will.i.am pursues his various interests. If it’s true that he’s doing too much right now — that he’s at risk of venturing off-message, as one of his marketing cohorts might put it — at least he can’t be accused of going halfway.
He may not even mind the decreasing interest in his music. Asked what he admires about Jones, will.i.am didn’t single out a song or an album. “It’s the fact that when you think of Quincy Jones, you go, ‘Wow, so-and-so wouldn’t have happened without him,’” he said. “When I’m 80, that’s what I want people to say about me.”