In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.
Fergie wakes up on a desert highway, abandoning the expensive-looking motorcycle behind her, and struts toward the camera. She’s dressed in a manner that’s not very practical for her situation: cape, vertiginous heels, metallic glove, transparent plastic shoulder pads, leotard covered in metal spikes. Around Fergie, various desert beasts — a rattlesnake, an iguana, an African wild dog — vibrate in time with the beat on the soundtrack as she raps about the magnificence of her future plans: “I’ma be up in them A-list flicks, doin’ one-handed flips.” As Fergie walks into a dilapidated diner, she barely seems to notice the giant robot landing behind her.
Inside that diner, Fergie finds will.i.am, who’s wearing Beats By Dre headphones and mixing up mysterious green chemicals. The two Black Eyed Peas hide from the robot and then make a beeline for what appears to be a Porsche hovercraft, or something. In his CGI-looking helmet, will.i.am speeds himself and Fergie away from the robot, who gives chase and then realizes that it can’t keep up. Will flies toward the city skyline on the horizon, rapping about his own plans: “I’ma be a brother, but my name ain’t Lehman/ I’ma be ya bank; I’ll be loaning out semen.” Eventually, he comes to a stop at what appears to be an ancient plane-crash site, and he finds apl.de.ap, who’s looking at an array of screens and glitching out as if he’s a robot, too.
Suddenly, a different giant robot emerges from the scrapheap. Smaller robots come out of nowhere, too. These ones have human faces, as well as speakers built into their bodies. Will.i.am and apl.de.ap find the upper half of Taboo’s body, and Taboo’s legs come walking out of somewhere by themselves. By the time that Taboo’s body is whole again, the robots are dancing, along with masked and robed figures who look a bit like Tuareg blues musicians. The giant robot does Michael Jackson’s kick move. As apl.de.ap raps about sonically spreading positivity, the reassembled Black Eyed Peas march down the highway, toward the big city in the distance.
This garish avant-garde sci-fi musical is director Rich Lee’s music video for the Black Eyed Peas’ track “Imma Be.” I don’t think that “Imma Be” is a great song, but I’m a little relieved that it reached #1. Otherwise, someone would’ve spent a lot of money on nothing.
With the insanely successful one-two punch of “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling,” the Black Eyed Peas spent much of 2009 ruling pop charts in ways that few groups before them could ever claim. Before that, BEP had been around forever, and they’d gone through a bunch of different aesthetic evolutions. When they landed on the electro dance-rap of their album The E.N.D., BEP hit some hidden zeitgeist button. They became the Beatles in 1964, the Bee Gees in 1978. But when the Beatles and the Bee Gees ruled the charts, they did by cranking out hit after hit. Because of changing chart rules and music-distribution models, the Black Eyed Peas were able to achieve that level of dominance through just two songs.
After that world-shaking success, the Black Eyed Peas released “Meet Me Halfway,” a clumsy and ungainly trance-rap track that will.i.am co-produced with Chicago native Keith Harris. Harris started out as a gospel drummer before studying at Berklee and getting into pop production. He started working with the Black Eyed Peas in the mid-’00s, but before The E.N.D., his biggest success probably came when he was one of eight credited writers on the British singer Estelle’s 2008 Kanye West collab “American Boy,” which peaked at #9. (It’s a 9.) Harris and will.i.am evidently understood one another, and Harris worked on a bunch of tracks from The E.N.D. Presumably cruising on the fumes of the Black Eyed Peas’ previous hits, “Meet Me Halfway” made it to #7. (It’s a 3.)
Will.i.am and Keith Harris also produced “Imma Be” together. They built the bubbling beat on the opening horn fanfare from “Ride Or Die,” a track that the Budos Band released in 2007. The Budos Band, an instrumental retro-funk ensemble from Staten Island, shared members with fellow New York revivalist acts like Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra and Sharon Jones’ Dap-Kings. “Ride Or Die” is a supremely old-school vamp with tons of James Brown and Fela Kuti in its DNA. Thanks to that sample, four Budos Band members — Thomas Brenneck, Michael Deller, Daniel Foder, and Jared Tankel — got songwriting credits on “Imma Be.”
“Ride Or Die” is the kind of funky instrumental that rap producers have been sampling since the days before “rap producer” was a viable career path. At an earlier point in the Black Eyed Peas’ run, the group would’ve probably done something a little more traditional with that song. But “Imma Be” isn’t like that. Instead, will.i.am and Keith Harris slow the horn-stab down, stretching it out into a triumphant drone, and they surround it with electronic frippery — weird synth sounds, jittery drum programming, the voice of will.i.am intoning the words “I’ma be” over and over until they lose all meaning and just become a kind of bassline.
The Black Eyed Peas might’ve started as a rap group, but “Imma Be” is the only one of the group’s three chart-toppers that could accurately be described as a rap song. Through much of “Imma Be,” it’s just Fergie and will.i.am flexing over that strange, funky beat. Toward the end, the song speeds up into a booming electro-disco thump full of discordant bleeps and bloops. The transition is exciting and a bit left-field, and I bet it killed in clubs. (I was a new dad when “Imma Be” was hot, so I can’t verify that.) Even as “Imma Be” becomes a rave-adjacent track, though, the members of the group keep rapping.
That’s not necessarily a good thing. As rappers, the Black Eyed Peas are serviceable at best and extremely cringeworthy at worst. Weirdly, the most naturally gifted BEP rapper was always Fergie, who didn’t grow up making rap music and who was brought into the group as a singer. Fergie doesn’t say much on her “Imma Be” verse, but she radiates presence and charisma. By contrast, when apl.de.ap takes over the end of the track, his platitudes about bringing BEP energy across the globe veer into pure cornball territory. But I like some of what will.i.am does says on “Imma Be.” His line about being a human jizzbank is pretty funny, and he puts devastating disdain into his response to detractors: “Why don’t you put it on a blog?” (I am putting this on a blog, so I don’t really have a clap-back.)
“Imma Be” has a slightly defensive tone. Generally, will.i.am didn’t worry too much about the Black Eyed Peas’ transition into straight-up cheeseball pop-rap punching bags, but he takes a few opportunities to talk shit on “Imma Be”: “We can’t help that we popular/ And all these folks wanna flock to us.” Maybe they made “Imma Be” just to remind people that they still could rap, even though Taboo, the Black Eyed Pea with the coolest voice, doesn’t get a verse. If that was the intent, then the results are inconclusive. There are some decent punchlines on “Imma Be,” but nobody was going to mistake these guys for mixtape assassins.
As a piece of low-stakes dance-rap, though, “Imma Be” is pretty fun. The song has none of the anthemic force of something like “I Gotta Feeling,” and it also doesn’t really have a hook beyond the whole “I’ma be I’ma be I’ma I’ma I’ma be” thing. But the song has playful energy, and I never get bored when it’s on. If you’re the type to get annoyed at vocal repetition, then “Imma Be” is not a song for you. It never bothered me. This was the post-“A Milli” era, and a chopped-up vocal sample could work just fine as part of a track’s percussive bed.
The Black Eyed Peas actually dropped “Imma Be” as a promotional single in the summer of 2009, before the release of The E.N.D, and the song made to #50 on iTunes downloads alone. But “Imma Be” didn’t get a proper push until January 2010. That’s when BEP gave one of the only energetic performances at a notably boring Grammys. They all dressed up real weird, with will.i.am wearing something resembling a Destro mask, and went from “Imma Be” into “I Gotta Feeling.” Lady Gaga had opened pop music up to some truly freaky fashion choices, and the Black Eyed Peas may have been the first group to learn from her example.
When “Imma Be” reached #1, the Black Eyed Peas became the first group since Wilson Phillips with three chart-topping singles from one album. (A few solo artists, including Fergie herself, had pulled it off, but no groups.) The group followed “Imma Be” with “Rock That Body,” a track that they recorded with their “I Gotta Feeling” collaborator David Guetta. “Rock That Body” bit Justice’s blaring electro-house sound and sampled Rob Base’s “It Takes Two,” and its video featured the return of the dancing robots from the “Imma Be” clip. This time, though, all those bells and whistles and special effects could only take the song to #9. (It’s a 5.)
Ultimately, The E.N.D. went double platinum, and the Black Eyed Peas didn’t wait long to follow it. Before the end of 2010, BEP came out with their next LP, which was naturally called The Beginning. First single “The Time (Dirty Bit)” is a Puff Daddified dance-rap take on Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’ Dirty Dancing theme “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life,” and it peaked at #4. (It’s a 3.)
The Beginning had one more hit: “Just Can’t Get Enough,” a sentimental quasi-ballad that, somewhat astonishingly, has nothing to do with the Depeche Mode song of the same title. (“Just Can’t Get Enough” made it to #3; it’s a 4.) In 2011, the Black Eyed Peas played one of the least memorable Super Bowl Haltime Shows in history, though I guess they can claim bragging rights as the first rap group ever to headline that annual ritual. Usher showed up? And also Slash? These things happen.
The Black Eyed Peas haven’t returned to the top 10 since “Just Can’t Get Enough.” (As a producer and guest-rapper, will.i.am will appear in this column again.) After they got done touring behind The Beginning, BEP announced an indefinite hiatus. When they returned in 2015, Fergie wasn’t in the group anymore. She officially announced her departure in 2017, and J. Rey Soul, a former contestant on The Voice Of The Philippines, took over her spot on a part-time basis. BEP’s 2018 comeback album Masters Of The Sun Vol. 1 flopped badly, and none of its singles charted.
Against all odds, though, the Black Eyed Peas have figured out a way to remain relevant in this decade. In 2019, the group teamed up with Colombian star J Balvin on “Ritmo,” a clubby, mostly Spanish track built on a sample of Corona’s beautifully cheesy 1993 dance banger “The Rhythm Of The Night.” “Ritmo” popped up on the soundtrack of Bad Boys For Life, which turned out to be the highest-grossing film of 2020, if only because it was the only blockbuster that arrived in theaters before COVID hit. In the US, “Ritmo” only made it to #26, but the single eventually went double platinum, and it resonated around the world, eventually passing the crucial billion-view threshold on YouTube. It’s the only Black Eyed Peas video to rack up that many views; not even “I Gotta Feeling” has hit that number.
When “Ritmo” blew up, the Black Eyed Peas immediately figured out that a new lane had opened up for them. Later in 2020, the group released Translation, a full-on Latin pop album with guest appearances from Spanish-speaking artists like Nicky Jam and Maluma. Their Ozuna collab “Mamacita” topped the Hot Latin Songs chart and made it to #62 on the Hot 100. “Girl Like Me,” a song with former Number Ones artist Shakira, peaked at #67.
There are a couple of ways to look at the Black Eyed Peas’ Latin-pop reinvention. You could regard them as desperate hacks, jumping on any passing trend to regain their commercial momentum. Or you could admire them as canny operators, successfully riding a new wave to regain their commercial momentum. I lean toward the latter. Some of those Latin tracks are pretty good, and if you’re looking to the dang Black Eyed Peas for artistic integrity, you’re doing it wrong. At this point, I fully expect the Black Eyed Peas to return to the pop charts, making Afrobeats or regional Mexican music or Morgan Wallen collaborations or maybe all three at once. I might even be happy to see them.