So I'm slouching at a beach bar, watching a Key West sunset turn my pina colada orange. (Yes, I dig girly drinks and am man enough to admit it.) I'm on vacation, and although I long ago scheduled an interview for this evening, I long ago assumed it would fall through. That's why when my phone sounds off, barely registering above the Buffettized din, it takes me by surprise. • Oh yeah, that's right: Will.i.am, leader of the Black Eyed Peas. As his PR person connects us, I scrounge for paper and pen. • "Hey, Will! I'm in Key West! Ever been down here?" • Now listen: There are scant moments in your life — if any, to be brutally honest — when you'll be having more fun than Will.i.am, our Party Star Emeritus, producer of all the anthems that play as we boogie and beer-goggle and let our freak flags fly. I Gotta Feeling. Boom Boom Pow. Let's Get It Started. Pump It.
Thirty-four-year-old William James Adams Jr. is cool, funny, loose. Repeat: He's not like us. Every day is sunset in Key West for this dude. He might be the only person who can get away with waxing poetic about a co-worker's "junk inside that trunk" — and then have said co-worker, that would be the very powerful Fergie, pop 'n' lock her "lovely lady lumps" at his beck and call.
He's a fashion maven (the i.am line) and an actor (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), and he looks GQ doing that, too. He's a Teflon celebrity. In June '09, he got into a fracas with mondo blogger Perez Hilton and came out of it with class and calm. The Peas were just hit with a lawsuit claiming Boom Boom Pow has suspiciously borrowed parts, but Will will no doubt handle that without wasting much sweat, either.
And yet, on this Monday in paradise, I think I have Will beat, especially since my first question silences him for so long I wonder if we've been disconnected.
"You were a major supporter of President Obama. What grade would you give him for his first full year in office?"
After almost a minute, Will speaks. The Party Star Emeritus sounds defeated. I feel guilty, but that might be the colada talking.
"That's a tough one," he says, his sandpapered voice steady but somber. "I really want to answer that question, but if I don't, you're going to think I'm dodging." He sighs: "I've been avoiding that question for a while."
In January 2008, Will wrote the song Yes We Can for the president's campaign. After the election, he unveiled It's a New Day. For the inauguration, he collaborated with producer David Foster on America's Song. Of all the Hollywood elite who rah-rahed our 44th, Will might have been the most visible; heck, he even appeared via hologram to chat with Anderson Cooper.
And yet, when it finally comes to handing out a grade, Will's evaluation of Obama is a hard one: "I'd give him a D with a smiley face. A smiley face with hope. It's not an F. Bush left a f------ s----- scene to fix. No one could fix it. Jesus wouldn't get an A."
Will declines to elaborate: "I'm not a politician, dude. I'm a musician. I write songs. I make people feel good. I don't write policy. Obama was by far the man we should have supported. I hope we get it together. I hope we finally start focusing on people."
And thus I find out a hard truth: When Will.i.am's not partying, neither are you. I hold off on ordering another drink. Just as well. What he's about to tell me about Michael Jackson will sober me up anyway.
• • •
The Black Eyed Peas — Will, Fergie, Apl.de.ap and Taboo — play the St. Pete Times Forum on Wednesday. They're touring in support of current album The E.N.D., which has sold more than 9 million copies worldwide; it also won three Grammys on Sunday. The phenomenally bestselling band is celebrating 15 years together. Even though Will controls the songwriting and the microphone, he says BEP "is a democracy. I promise you. It's not a dictatorship. We're the Four Musketeers."
For instance, if Will had his way, this tour would be stripped down, nothing but hot lights and hotter songs. "I don't like to spend money," he says with a laugh. "But Fergie said we needed to have a bigger stage. We needed to up our game. So it's a big-a-- stage. It's mad-futuristic. We have robots. This is Fergie. She inspired us to take it to the next level."
Fergie, who joined the band in 2003 (or right when BEP blew up), is the lone Pea to have a hot solo career in the United States. (Apl.de.ap is a god in his native Philippines.) Although Will often works on his own, too, his recent bid for solo fame, 2007's conceptually provocative Songs About Girls — which was just as good as any Peas album — was a commercial disappointment. It taught Will that the notion of an album is dead. "There are no record stores anymore," he says. "The clubs — that's the only place music lives."
Hence, the singles-rich The E.N.D., which meshes the feel-good sounds of the past (the disco rub of the '70s, the synth gloss of the '80s) and the star-warring beats of the future. "I have a friend who calls me a 'steampunk,' " he says. "I take things from the past and make it futuristic sounding."
His business model for the band has also been forward-thinking: danceable hits and videos that appeal to women and men, a work ethic that borders on the obsessive and, most important, living the life boasted in his rhymes. When I ask Will where he likes to vacation, he says, simply, "The clubs."
• • •
Before I head back to the beach, I have one more question. A few years ago, I heard a rumor that he had collaborated with Michael Jackson on new material. Is this true? Is there a Will.i.mj album lurking around out there?
"There is that," Will says, letting a nice fat pause linger.
And?! When's it coming out?
"I don't feel comfortable releasing that."
So it will never get played?
Sure, it will get played, he says:
"In my house."
As I sit there, jaw-dropped at the musical possibilities, Will chuckles. The cool Party Star Emeritus has returned. I'm speechless. And all is right with the world.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.