When Eazy-E departed our earthly realm, he left behind not just his own substantial body of work, but an entire, still-thriving record label with a lively, promising roster. The rapper/mogul’s Ruthless Records had been a revolutionary force in the hip hop industry, establishing the dominant aesthetics of the genre’s next decade (and then some) with N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton and The D.O.C.’s No One Can Do It Better, but by the end of 1991, the label had lost both acts. The years in between ‘91 and Eazy’s passing in ‘95 saw Ruthless amass an adventurous selection of talent (white Jewish rap duo Blood of Abraham, for instance) that, while mostly now forgotten (Bone Thugs-N-Harmony being the exception), are collectively remembered as a testament to the eclecticism and potential of the late rapper’s unrealized vision. Still, as grand as Eazy’s long-term schemes were implied to be, it’s hard to imagine that he ever anticipated anything quite like the pop-rap mega album Elephunk, and yet, The Black Eyed Peas’ 2003 sellout opus, would be born from Ruthless Records’ (virtual) demise.
5150: Home 4 tha Sick would be Eazy-E’s second-to-last release in his lifetime and boasts the first published recording of hip hop quartet A.T.B.A.N. (A Tribe Beyond a Nation) Klann who appear on irreverent, novelty track “Merry Muthaphuckkin’ Xmas.” This feature, mostly quick and silly, was also perhaps meant to be a prelude to a deeper partnership, Atban then already at work on an album for Eazy intended to be released two years later. But two years later Ruthless was a very different company with a less certain future, and A.T.B.A.N. Klann’s debut LP was never given official release (besides a limited vinyl reissue in 2020). They dissolved soon after, but high school pals Will 1X and apl.de.ap, who had been signed to Ruthless independent of A.T.B.A.N., kept making music together in spite of this, eventually founding a new group, Black Eyed Peas, along with Taboo and Kim Hill. This configuration of the band found success running counter to the stylings of former mentor Eazy-E, releasing a pair of conscious rap albums (Behind the Front and Bridging the Gap) at the end of the ’90s that championed live instrumentation and hollow humanist messaging in glib opposition to gangsta rap, which was only becoming more popular.
As curious as their arc had been until this point, The Peas had yet to initiate their most improbable reinvention, but with Elephunk, will.i.am (long since free of his 1X moniker) and apl.de.ap were finally able to take their music into a pop strata reserved for the broadest of artists. And broad is exactly what Elephunk is, a sampler platter album that cycles through a selection of lowbrow party anthems, diverse in genre, though in a way that suggests some cynicism from The Black Eyed Peas. Having ditched Kim Hill in between albums to make room for Fergie (recently replaced as well when The Peas reemerged from lengthy hiatus), Elephunk acted as a soft reset for the group, maintaining a lot of the same lyrical content and conscious aspirations, while working overtime to sell the audience on them as appealing, adaptable personalities. This awkward juxtaposition comes into clearest focus on the Justin Timberlake-featuring track “Where is the Love?”, the album’s lead single, which finds will.i.am and apl.de.ap bemoaning the state of the world, expressing disgust for those who only care about “money-makin’” while also managing to equate gang members to the KKK and warn of the toxicity of reverse racism. “Where is the Love?” makes the shallowness of The Black Eyed Peas political project plain, it being sequenced as the final song (besides the sorta hidden track “Third Eye”) suggestive of either arrogance or a wild misunderstanding of the project in full. The songs preceding paint a more confidently stupid image of The Peas, most extremely represented by infamous, once ubiquitous single “Let’s Get R*****”; still shockingly mean-spirited juvenalia (though hard not to laugh at Fergie employing an earnest R&B croon to spell out the title slur). That song, plus the repellent, scatological Outkast knockoff “Smells Like Funk,” offer a pretty thorough characterization of Elephunk’s humor, but also The Black Eyed Peas’ general willingness to submit themselves to anything and everything that could get them radio play. This covers everything from rap rock (“Anxiety,” with a sick Papa Roach feature) to novelty songs about racial fetishization (“Latin Girls”) to fake dancehall (“Hey Mama”) and proto-bloghouse (“The Boogie That Be,” fun track), etc., an overwhelming hour of music that also manages to be pandering. Elephunk is a bizarre album, a rather sad cultural endpoint that birthed a new sort of homogenized pop music with superficial resemblance to rap. There is a sense of shared history and experience apparent in will.i.am and apl.de.ap’s collaborations, but on Elephunk, that history and the context around it moved further into the rearview.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.