So, it turns out the Black Eyed Peas just released a hip-hop album.

It almost feels strange to say. The last time the group released what could unequivocally be considered a hip-hop album occurred in the year 2000 when they released Bridging the Gap (which has probably become an underrated piece of work). Will.i.am and the crew (sans Fergie) have made millions by making songs for NBA promo commercials and junior high school dances and pep rallies. On Masters of the Sun Vol. 1, the Los Angeles rap trio returns to their alternative hip-hop roots.

The opening track blatantly states as such. “BACK 2 HIPHOP” features an appearance from Nas and a quasi-sample from Soul II Soul’s classic “Back To Life.” Will.i.am’s opening lyrics are like a thesis for not only the track but the entire album:

Ring the alarm, get on the horn and inform
Everyone from Oregon to Melbourne
That the funk phenomenon has been reborn and transformed
You coulda sworn that you wasn’t warned ’cause we was
Trapped in the box that rap had spawned

The rest of the group’s lyrics do sound like they were plucked out of notebooks dating back to the turn of the current millennium, as do the boom bap drums and the samples of classic hip-hop songs that pervade the majority of the production. The anti-violence, pro-love sentiment that has always been a BEP trademark has gone nowhere. “BIG LOVE,” the album’s first single and music video, is a dramatic commentary on gun violence. “RING THE ALARM pt.1 pt.2 pt.3” addresses everything from a cure to AIDS to internet bullying to child education. Even Esthero returns for a cameo on the jazzy “4EVER,” a song quintessentially Bridging the Gap or Behind the Front. One of the album’s strongest moments comes in the form of a song called “ALL AROUND THE WORLD,” which features verses from Phife Dawg and Posdonus and vibes like an early 2000s funk-infused boat tune perfect for playing on a beach near the equator.

The most refreshing aspect of the album is that Will.i.am sounds like he is stretching himself again. It was often the case with the last few albums that the production was simple, glossy, and sounded like it required minimal effort to create and arrange. On Masters of the Sun Vol. 1, not only has the group tried to get more creative, but the beats and arrangements frequently change just as a vibe seems to settle in just a little too long from track to track (see “DOPENESS” or “RING THE ALARM pt.1 pt.2 pt.3”). That doesn’t always make up for moments when the lyrics seem slightly wrote or hackneyed (“You either fixin’ it or breakin’ it, takin’ it or makin’ it/You’re either to legit or you kinda fit, fakin’ it” or “I got em sweatin’ like a fat man/I’m all up in your head like a CAT scan”), but the music rarely lets up on the head-nodding sound.

This isn’t an album for the youth and it doesn’t follow current trends. Those that enjoyed BEP songs like “Get It Started” have probably grown out of their appreciation for them. In a popular music landscape that has turned rappers into pop and even rock stars, the Black Eyed Peas have gone back to the essence, seemingly catering to old fans that were around before the band had their first smash hit. For those fans, this album is a pleasant surprise, albeit an imperfect one.

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