It was a rave and a club date, a rock show and a dance party. It was about getting into a groove and busting up more than a few stylistic barriers – at least, within an arena settting.
Mostly, though, last night’s Rupp Arena outing by The Black Eyed Peas before a crowd of 12,000 was about riding a hearty and refreshingly upbeat vibe. By taking hip hop roots and blowing them up into blasts of soul-pop electronica that were alternately retro and futuristic, the Los Angeles quartet came up with an evening of studious raps, siren-like singing and an acre full of audience friendly attitude that made Rupp less like a rock palace and basketball haven and more like a mammoth dance club.
Opening with – what else? – Let’s Get It Started, the Peas popped up from the floor of a two story stage with looks as distinctive as their musical personalities. Will.i.am was dressed like a sequined marching band leader with a facial mask seemingly borrowed from Phantom of the Opera. Fergie, the standout singer in a team full of rappers, was dressed in a silver body suit that made her resemble a borg alien from Star Trek but with, shall we say, more impressive contours. The mohawked Apl.de.ap and leather clad Taboo completed the foursome.
A five member band assisted the Peas, working with programmed beats to ignite the ‘80s flavored dance pop of Meet Me Halfway early into the two hour program. But the musicians were relegated to the top level of the massive stage, as if they were playing in an attic. Such was the clear preferential distinction within the concert’s makeup. This was a program clearly about the Peas themselves. With the exception of a guitarist who journeyed centerstage to ignite the Dick Dale surf guitar rumble from Misirlou for the Peas hit Pump It, the musicians mostly remained in the attic.
A team of dancers, often dressed in costumes that covered their faces, made frequent appearances, most prominently as a chorus line of dancing stereo speakers.
But the Peas proved to be an impressively complete ensemble even without the bells and whistles. Will.i.am freestyle rapped at one point, using text messages sent by audience members as material for rhymes. As the Peas’ de facto frontman, he defined a new school of beat and groove that made the performance quite unlike anything Rupp has seen before.
That was especially apparent during a DJ segment where Will.i.am manipulated tunes ranging from Michael Jackson hits to Nirvana rockers from a laptop on a slice of stage runway that lifted him over the arena floor. In lesser hands, this could have been a time-killing disaster – a marquee pop star offering what might have been viewed as little more than a live mixtape. But Will.i.am was essentially a cheerleader for the canned material. Admittedly, the segment could and should have been shorter. But it was still a very intriguing glimpse of DJ culture let loose in an arena environment.
Fergie offered a three-song selection from her 2006 solo album The Duchess highlighted by Big Girls Don’t Cry – a pop-soul delicacy fueled almost exclusively by her rhapsodic singing and the accompaniment of two acoustic guitarists.
The beat turned decidedly rockish for Now Generation, where the four Peas orated from four separate podiums on the stage. But the big hits – the robotic Boom Boom Pow (performed with the dancers as faceless live action computer animations) and the ultra-summery I Gotta Feeling – merrily wound the party down.
Veteran rapper Ludacris – with a bass drenched Dirty South set that offered hits new (How Low) and old (Pimpin’ All Over the World) – and the Will.i.am-produced electronica/hip hop duo LMFAO opened the evening. Both sets had moments, although LMFAO’s dim-witted I Am Not a Whore was vastly more ludicrous than Ludacris.
Ultimately, both acts succumbed to cheap audience pandering, dime-a-dozen obscenities and unremarkable rhyme schemes. Compared to the bigger stylistic carnival the Peas offered, they were merely sideshow attractions.
(To view more of Mark Cornelison’s photos of the concert click here.)