I’ve half-read plenty of books in my day—stuff that was just too boring, too long, too labor-intensive to stick with until the end. But I’ve never had that problem with a CD, since they are short and easier to pay attention to than a 900 page epic with no pictures.
For the first time, I would like to acknowledge the one album that I not only struggled to get through, but that actually caused me embarrassment. I felt embarrassed for my ipod for being the vehicle through which I channeled the music (legally, of course) and I felt embarrassed that someone on the subway might overhear what I was playing.
This dubious distinction goes to The Dutchess, the solo debut from Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, an album that plays like a guide for musicians on how not to make music. Of course I listened to the whole thing including bonus tracks, to have something to discuss, but when I turned my ipod on again to pump myself up to write this, I grimaced. I physically felt my face muscles contract. How do you review something that causes such unattractive physical effects?
What is not so hard to believe is that Fergie herself was braced for reactions like mine. The album serves as its own defense, as if she was prepared for a backlash. On “Pedestal” she tells off her critics who apparently, by voicing their dislike for her, are people who have never gotten off their asses to be productive members of society. I disagree. While her critics may not be as famous as she is (as far as I know), I personally don’t shout from the rooftops about how I’m “a lady. . .dancin’ like a ho”, or that I’m “tasty tasty”. But if those things are the benchmarks for productivity, then she’s right, I am lazy lazy.
My biggest point of contention with Fergie is not her lame lyrics or the bad examples she is setting—it’s that she has no commitment to the persona on display. If you’re going to sing about how you like to dress and dance all slutty, be a ho, I beg of you! On “Fergilicious,” the album’s lead track, she sings that the definition of Fergilicious is to “make them boys go crazy." But before you get the wrong idea, she wants you to know “[she] ain’t promiscuous.” Nothin’ like a good cocktease!
Then, on the album’s first single “London Bridge,” she quotes possibly the most famous line spoken by a whore on film with “Me love you long time.” When this line was sampled by Two-Live Crew in their 1989 song “Me So Horny,” the intent was clear: this was a song about most definitely wanting to have some sex. Fergie uses the same words, but it’s like she’s singing from behind a Windexed glass door. She’s there, but she’s protecting herself; she’s luring you in, but the closest you’ll get is when you bonk your head on the glass. Plenty of female artists have embraced their sexuality and it’s worked for them—look at Madonna and Peaches—so it’s confusing why Fergie is afraid to just go for it.
Fergie does do some things well. For instance, she’s really good at rehashing what other people have done better. “Glamorous” (featuring Ludacris), which could just be renamed “Fergie From the Block,” is a stunning account of her ability to keep it real despite life in the first class. And “Finally” is a soaring ballad with all the mmms and whooaaas that Christina Aguilera has perfected.
The album’s boldest move comes on “Here I Come,” where Fergie dares to manipulate pop perfection by sampling The Temptations. The song features Will.I.Am, Fergie’s fellow Black Eyed Pea, whose rapping carries the song through its best moments, but still can’t save a chorus that sounds like it is being pushed through her vocal cords with all the strength of ten weightlifters.
It seems that image is more important than music on this album. And unfortunately, whether it was her choice or the result of forces beyond her control, hearing so much about who she is and who she ain’t just makes for a big old mess. Fergie is the most recognizable member of the Black Eyed Peas, but that’s not enough reason to launch a career as a solo artist. Not yet, anyway. She needs to choose for herself the one fluid, consistent identity rather than several that she thinks will appeal to a larger record-buying audience. But not before she focuses on making good music.