TORONTO — For all his zeitgeist-tapping chart-conquering as leader of the Black Eyed Peas, Will.i.am’s solo career has been curiously lacking in commercial success.
Songs About Girls, his third solo record released in 2007, just cracked the U.S. top 40 album chart but failed to ignite, and that was the highest any of his records has ascended.
And it’s unlikely anyone has spent more time thinking about that than Will.i.am himself.
“There’s reasons why it didn’t connect — I’ve spent many nights thinking about that,” the 37-year-old said during a recent interview in Toronto.
According to the pop-rap star, the album failed for a myriad of reasons: he began experimenting with dance music too early without collaborating with any cred-boosting electronic stars, he didn’t yet understand how to properly promote the record internationally and he chose the wrong song as the album’s first single, opting for the upbeat “I Got It From My Mama.”
“I didn’t listen to my gut — I listened to executives saying, ’We like this song! It’s catchy!”’ he said, relaxed but animated on the couch of a Toronto hotel room.
“That’s part of the reason why Songs About Girls didn’t do (more), because I didn’t really understand the science of how things worked at that point in my life.”
On this day, Will.i.am is in town to promote his fourth solo album, willpower.
It’s since been delayed until 2013 due to leaks, but Wednesday will mark the release of a new video for the icy Britney Spears club collaboration Scream & Shout, premiering during the evening broadcast of The X Factor.
Talking to the fashion-forward rap star, whose real name is William Adams, it’s clear that he has a deep understanding of the ebb and flow of pop trends.
At one point, he delves with almost overwhelming detail into the unique marketing needs of various countries — including France, Canada, the U.K., Japan, Brazil and Australia — rhyming off which press outlets in which countries are crucial for promotion.
He’s similarly strategic about monitoring the tide of pop music in general, hoping to hone in on which waves are worth riding.
“I like to be a sponge. Travel, sponge up culture,” he said, smiling. “I’m an anthropologist (of) pop culture … so I will be a popthropologist.”
Goofy wordplay aside, he’s entirely serious about the art of music commerce.
But the group’s success is impossible to deny. They’ve won six Grammy Awards and racked up more than 18 platinum plaques in Canada, while sending five singles including I Gotta Feeling and Boom Boom Pow to the top of the charts.
And the influence of their trend-setting 2010 smash The E.N.D. — infused as it was with electronic dance music — cannot be denied. Will.i.am says that album wouldn’t have been possible without the lessons learned on Songs About Girls.
But he also says it took an understanding of general hip-hop trends over the past 25 years. According to the California native, rap music went through a cycle of hardened street material in the late ’80s — headlined by N.W.A. — then segued into a period of blithe, danceable material in the early ’90s.
He saw the pattern repeat with the popularity of such gritty rappers as 50 Cent and Ja Rule toward the beginning of the last decade, and was confident the pendulum would swing back.
“It was just bombardment — gangsta gangsta gangsta, hard hard hard. Where’s the release? Oh shucks, it’s coming from this electro stuff,” he said.
, shifting excitedly in his seat.
“It’s the weather. Everyone’s coming outside in shorts. I’m like, ’Y’all know it’s about to rain, right?”’ he added, licking his finger and raising it into the air as if an amateur meteorologist.
“That’s what I was. The weather guy. It’s about to rain and you (fools) are wearing shorts.”
He’s used his abilities for pop prognostication to help other artists too, having landed production or songwriting credits on a long line of singles including Estelle’s “American Boy,” Nas’ “Hip Hop is Dead,” John Legend’s “Ordinary People,” U2’s “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” and Britney Spears’ “Big Fat Bass.”
For the most part, he’s fine sharing the wealth. But he admits that sometimes it gives him pause to see just how well one of his productions does for another artist — for instance, Usher’s smash “OMG.”
“I kick myself a lot,” he said. “When he had the Oh My Gosh tour, I was like: ’I could have had an Oh My Gosh tour! What an idiot!”’
Well, the stars returned the favour when it was time to round up collaborations for “willpower.” Although the ongoing retooling of the album makes it unclear which artists will remain on the final version, Will.i.am has worked with Mick Jagger, Jennifer Lopez, Spears, Alicia Keys, LMFAO and Chris Brown for tracks intended at one point for the record.
He also worked with Canadian teen idol Justin Bieber, and the 18-year-old certainly left an impression.
“He’s cool — he’s really nice, down to earth. As big as he is, he’s pretty humble and passionate and excited about music,” Will.i.am said, before shifting gears.
“It’s kind of hard to work with him in the studio though, because he wants to play everything all the time…. Like, ’Hey, check this out! Did you know I could play the drums AND keyboard?’ You’re like, ’Really dude, I know you can play … why don’t we start making the song now?’ ’Dude, did I show you this new drum fill I can do?!’
“So it took a while for us to get into it. But that’s just excitement, being excited to play…. I think Justin’s going to be around for a long time. I like being around that type of energy. Because most people are jaded in the music industry.”