Nearly a decade after the release of their previous album, 2010's The Beginning, the Black Eyed Peas truly take it back to the start on their triumphant seventh set, Masters of the Sun, Vol. 1. A lot changed in their eight-year absence: Fergie left the group, reducing BEP to the original trio of will.i.am, apl.de.ap, and Taboo, while the former pair spent time on solo music and judging television singing competitions and the latter beat cancer. Throw in a turbulent period of American politics and social turmoil and the Peas finally had something to say beyond mindlessly repetitive, party-starting platitudes and odes to "My Humps." A return to their roots, Masters of the Sun reclaims their late-'90s boom-bap sound -- recruiting an iconic crew of New York MCs to really drive the point home -- on a satisfying (and surprising) set that is cohesive both in theme and sound. The acid jazz throwback production is strong, with a soulful downbeat vibe flowing throughout, while the three BEP rappers tackle topics such as race relations, gun violence, police brutality, and social media addiction ("RING THE ALARM" and "BIG LOVE"), with a touch of hip-hop boasting for good measure. They sound revitalized and refreshed like a post-millennial Digable Planets or Tribe, pushing these head-bobbing beats and dexterous lyrics like the 2000s never happened. Godzilla-stomp horns herald the time warp back to the Golden Era on "BACK 2 HIPHOP" with Nas, continuing with enough soul and jazz-sampled tracks to bring a tear to the eye of any self-professed old head. Later, Slick Rick drops in on "CONSTANT" -- via a "La Di Da Di" sample -- and the late Phife Dawg and his Tribe brother Ali Shaheed Muhammad join forces with De La Soul's Posdnuos on "ALL AROUND THE WORLD," a dizzying talent cypher that BEP bill as "A Tribe Called De La Pea." On these standouts, the sonic familiarity and focus on verbal skill is utterly refreshing, especially in the world of 2018 trap and mumble rap. Elsewhere, pop-leaning guests provide mainstream polish without distracting from the hip-hop focus. In an obvious callback, trip-hop chanteuse Esthero reprises her role from BEP's 2000 single "Weekends," appearing on the jazzy bossa nova "4EVER." Nicole Scherzinger -- originally approached for the position before it went to Fergie and also once considered as her replacement -- delivers sultry vocals and a "Tom's Diner" hook to "WINGS," while K-pop rapper CL contributes an aggressive verse that stands tall beside the Peas on "DOPENESS." Without the electro distractions of The E.N.D. and The Beginning, or the pop-rap jock jams of Elephunk and Monkey Business, the Black Eyed Peas remind listeners of the pure skill and talent preceding all their radio-dominating chart hits from the 2000s, bridging the proverbial gap back to a time when will.i.am, apl.de.ap, and Taboo simply spit over a great beat. Masters of the Sun, Vol. 1 is a welcome and gratifying return to form, a catalog highlight decades into their careers.
© Neil Z. Yeung /TiVo