#willpower is a curious name for hip-hop mogul will.i.am’s latest album. What exactly might it mean? I’m reluctant to call most of it the result of “will,” implying freedom of choice, because so much of the album is automatic: relentless Autotune, infallible drum machines, and an overstuffed guest list that checks all the right “cross- over” boxes.
But “will” is also the name of a man, will.i.am, whom I’ll call Will. Thus, #will- power can also be read as “will power”—that is, the power of Will—who, as frontman of the Black Eyed Peas and guest on a dozen other bestselling tracks, has enough clout to do whatever the hell he wants, even in these troubled pop-musical times. This doesn’t mean he is responsible for everything on #willpower: few albums are the result of one man’s vision, and this isn’t one of them. However, because Will has acquired sufficient power in the pop world to have absolute control over what gets released under his name, it only makes sense to hold him responsible for everything on the record—some of which is so singularly unpleasant that without Will’s power I can’t imagine any other musician being allowed to release it on a major label.
Will’s musical talent rarely shines through on this album, but his marketing prowess is on clear display. In an iTunes world, he knows, two good singles are all he needs, and he can safely release a lot of terrible music so long as it comes with a guest star, a video, and a catchy bit for DJs to sample. #willpower embod- ies this principle. You probably know the singles: “This Is Love,” produced by Swedish House Mafia and fronted by electronic dance music darling Eva Simons, appears third on #willpower, followed by Britney Spears’ “Scream & Shout.” The former is an anthem, big and classic and comforting as oatmeal. The latter actu- ally makes good use of a Will/Britney duet, though the best moment comes when Britney samples her 2007 self: “You are now, now rocking with/will.i.am and Britney, bitch.”
I think “bitch” might be a Freudian slip here—Will’s accidental way of letting us know how he really feels about us. It’s an offensive thing to say, but no more offen- sive than much of the music that follows. Chris Brown (were there no non-felonious R&B singers available?) comes in after Britney, and at first I think his track, “Let’s Go,” is just a joke on him: the needlessly complex vocal lines that leave Brown treading water, the way Will cuts him off, the fact that “Let’s Go” was the title of a much better Calvin Harris song on his album 18 Months.
And then I hear “Gettin Dumb”—whose title, when I type it, activates Autocorrect so many times that I myself start to feel dumb—and I realize the joke was on us. The track, a representative stew of musical styles, features a loopy semi-dubstep verse for Peas afterthought Apl.De.Ap and begins with vocals from Bom, a member of K-pop sensation 2NE1. The K-pop looks promising on paper, but Bom’s backing lacks her genre’s explosive joy, and she struggles, devoid of emotion, through non- sense lyrics like “let’s paint the town/bring fire, and burn it all down.”
Why paint something you’re about to destroy? Ask Will: after a promising start with the record’s singles, he pounds us into submission with a succession of awful songs. By the end of the 18th track (most of which are 90 seconds too long), only ashes remain of our respect for a man who wrote listenable rap ten years ago, who put a Cybotron reference in “Boom Boom Pow,” and who is much too old to be giving us lyrics like “Hot wheels be hot/May what? Maybach” or “My chick got body/it shakes like jelly/big tit, big booty, no belly [repeated].” He brings to mind Benjamin Button: as he ages, his music degrades into the basest elements of songwriting, if you can even call it that.
Don’t buy this album, but if you happen to hear it in some inescapable public place, take respite in Justin Bieber’s soothing chorus to bland banger “#thatPOWER” or Miley Cyrus’ whistle-backed verse in “Fall Down.” Ponder the metaphysical implications of the fact that “Reach for the Stars (Mars Edition)” became, upon the landing of the Curiosity rover, the first song in human history to be broadcast from another planet. (Now that’s #willpower.) And when “Smile Mona Lisa” comes in, backed only by guitar and some sampled humming and what might be a mandolin, think of it as a possible future for Will, in which he gives away all his money, moves to Italy, and becomes a busker in Venice, days before it sinks into the ocean forever. This might be the only fitting follow-up to #willpower.