The album the Black Eyed Peas put out before Elephunk featured DJ Premier beats and Mos Def and De La Soul guest spots. The album after it featured “My Humps”. Perhaps there are more dramatic transformations in music, more shameless grabs at pop’s brass ring, than this shift from mid-ranking respectability to world-straddling infamy – but not many.

We’ll get our chance to weigh up the Peas’ platinum-coated Imperial Phase eventually. First, though, the song which broke them – the only record you could credibly claim as a pivot between the head-nodding backpacker Peas and their incarnation as cyborg hit delivery systems.

It’s also – and with hindsight this seems even odder – the only No.1 single explicity about the Iraq War and the wider War On Terror.  There are bands who would have given their granny’s liver to get lines like “Overseas we’re tryin’ to stop terrorism / But right here we got terrorists living / In the USA, the big CIA” to the top of the charts. And “A war’s going on but the reason’s undercover / The truth is kept secret, it’s swept under the rug” is more forthright and plain-spoken than anything the Manics got to the top. Where are the protest songs? Right here. And nobody gave a shit.

To be honest, I’m making this case and I don’t give much of one. One thing “Where Is The Love?” does, as it wraps its occasional truth-bombs in a swaddling of Timberlake-crooned positivity, is demolish the remaining flimsy case for entryism in pop and the value of ‘subversion’. Unless the supposed subversion was so plainly telegraphed and self-congratulatory as to fool nobody, it would slip down pop’s throat with barely a hiccup.

And so the Iraq War’s “Ghost Town” moment – a song plainly against the conflict, at number one for six weeks while the post-war situation tilted from optimism into insurgency and the rationale for the war dissolved in plain sight – was barely noticed. And as such “Where Is The Love?” is the perfect Iraq War protest song: an echo of the February mass protests, where an unprecedented show of peaceful dissent was similarly simply… absorbed. It happened, and it stopped happening, and nothing changed. (Unlike the grotesque chaos unleashed by the war itself, of course.)

So as a song of protest, “Where Is The Love?” despairs – it sees the chasm opening and the only response it can find is shopworn, the early 90s mantra of positivity, which fades even as it’s evoked. Where’s the love, y’all? I don’t know. But aesthetically it’s a different matter – those moments where Will.I.Am and Taboo shake the listener’s collar and try to get their point across are the song’s most desperate and propulsive. The “war’s going on” lyrics in particularly are rapped with mounting and hopeless urgency before Justin Timberlake ushers the song into its beatific chorus.

It’s a swoonsomely pretty song too, in places. The sprightly string lines, and Timberlake’s hooksome coos and harmonies, speak to a group alive to the possibilities pop offers for big feelings and big earworms. On Bridging The Gap, that prior LP, the Peas’ rapping is strictly wholemeal but their fascination with hooks – reusing them, referencing them, translating them – is obvious, and a pointer to where Will.I.Am’s leadership would start to take the group. “Where Is The Love?” is simply the point where he, and his band, admit to themselves that they are just not good enough MCs to contribute much to songs which are selling themselves mainly on those hooks.

So we have an answer for how you get from Mos Def to “My Humps”. “Where Is The Love?”, in form and in content, is an approach hitting its limit. A humane, likeable approach – peace, love, rapping and brotherhood – but one crumbling in the face of the marketplace and the world. New days are strange, is the world insane? The answer was yes, and we were impotent against it. The Black Eyed Peas weren’t the only ones to find their way through the decade by closing their eyes and dancing into that madness.

(One personal point: this is where Popular catches up with itself – the song at Number 1 when I started this project. I was expecting to get here sooner. I was also expecting – well, hoping, I suppose – the topics to feel less relevant. Thanks for joining me on this pothole-strewn road.)

Score: 7

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