Musician will.i.am might be the only pop artist who can make comparing a woman to a farm animal seem like nice, clean fun. The Black Eyed Peas' idea man exudes frantic goodwill, even when he's cramming his productions with unsubtle hooks and tricks or building party anthems around the most juvenile rhymes since the members of Kriss Kross hung up their backward coats.
His schizophrenic charisma is evident throughout Songs About Girls, his first proper solo album (in stores this week). It's really two albums in one: an experiment in introspection and a full-body grab for more hits.
Let's start with the hits, those playground chants destined to drive us all crazy for the next few months. "I Got It From My Mama (Genetics)" follows the formula of the Peas' awful, irresistible "My Humps," with a bunch of babes explaining the law of inheritance to a drooling Will over some French synth-pop. Songs like this are what Chupa Chups lollipops are to candy - empty calories in a familiar shape and a titillating flavor.
As for "The Donque Song," who can really blame Will for indulging in such an obvious animal analogy? Derriere worship has been the safe zone of hip-hop lewdness ever since Sir Mix-A-Lot equated it with black pride in "Baby Got Back," and Fernando Garibay's Timbaland-lite production justifies Will's lyrics about bounce.
Snoop Dogg provides a sturdily lascivious cameo; Will himself imitating Justin T's vocal slide is good for a laugh.
The song, like "My Humps," demonstrates exactly how even blatant female objectification becomes acceptable: Make it funny, involve the ladies themselves by having a female voice sing the chorus and a catcall can easily become everybody's favorite singalong. Will, who made Fergie into the Dutchess and is now working with Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, likes a gal who's not afraid to sell herself.
These songs, along with the electro-flavored stripper cheer "Get Your Money" and the environmentalist sob song "S.O.S. (Mother Nature)," are the sort of sophisticated bubblegum that Will does better than virtually anybody right now. Behind those tracks, though, lurk his cris de coeur: half a dozen songs about one lost love, for which this fidgety auteur settles a style of guitar-kissed dance balladry that, in comparison to the current blue-eyed soul revival, might be called brown-eyed rock.
On the poignant Electric Light Orchestra tribute "Over," the nostalgic "Fly Girl" and the balsamic-splashed "Fantastic," Will reveals a personable singing style and a sound that, although still relying on rhythmic twists, focuses more on songcraft's narrative flow. Instead of hitting listeners in the face with a chorus they'll hate in the morning, these songs add up to a real story. And if heartache isn't exactly an original topic, it's one that humanizes this hit machine.
In its best moments, Songs About Girls offers the Will that some will love to love, as well as the Will everyone loves to hate.
Ann Powers writes for the Los Angeles Times.