Timberlake’s sophomore album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, came out the same weekend as The Dutchess, and in the years following the release of FutureSex/LoveSounds, music fans audibly yearned for Timberlake to return to music. There has not been the same level of “come back to us!” outcry in Fergie’s direction, which is partially due to the fact that fans could hear Fergie’s voice alongside the rest of the Black Eyed Peas, Timberlake released very little music in between FutureSex and 20/20 Experience, making his absence all the more glaring.
However, Fergie’s first solo venture was by no means a "side project": debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart and spending 94 weeks on the albums tally, The Dutchess would go on to sell 3.9 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The album also generated five Top 5 hits on the Hot 100 chart: “London Bridge” (No. 1 for three weeks), “Fergalicious” (No. 2), “Glamorous” (No. 1 for two weeks), “Big Girls Don’t Cry” (No. 1) and “Clumsy” (No. 5). Since 2000, only two albums have produced at least five Top 5 singles on the Hot 100: The Dutchess, and Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream. Now, imagine if Perry had taken more than eight years to follow up that album.
The lack of a follow-up does not minimize The Dutchess artistically, of course, but… we’re used to sequels. Whenever a piece of media becomes blindingly successful, be it a superhero movie or zombie TV series, the general population thirsts for more. And that’s exactly what Fergie’s first solo album was: a monster hit by any metric, as well as an underrated pop pastiche that introduced the world to a fearlessly individual female artist that had been hiding in plain sight. It arrived, it conquered, and eight years later, it still has no upshot.
That's a hell of a break for a pop star to take, especially for one with whose typical music video has over 10 million views on YouTube. Looking back, though, the delay has been understandable. It’s one thing to return to a group after scoring a solo breakout to put a bow on an origin story (see: Destiny’s Child), but it’s quite another to rejoin a collective that becomes the biggest pop group on the planet. After notching hits like “Don’t Phunk with My Heart” and “Pump It” on their 2005 album Monkey Business, the Black Eyed Peas (which Fergie had joined in 2003) unequivocally owned the summer of 2009 with the one-two punch of “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling,” pushing the album The E.N.D. to sales of 3.2 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
More importantly, the Peas had accrued enough hits at that point to put together an international arena tour, which began in late 2009 and ran for over a year. The Black Eyed Peas then pumped out another album, The Beginning, and toured behind that one through late 2011, before going on another hiatus. Meanwhile, Fergie popped up on a few tracks (Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” and the Great Gatsby soundtrack tune “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got)” being the most memorable) and kept building her brand with fragrances and feature film roles. In February 2013, she announced that she was pregnant, and welcomed her first son, Axl Jack, that August.
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But in those eight years of taking over the world as a Pea and becoming a mother, Fergie’s debut solo album — and specifically, the Top 5 hits it spawned — have aged remarkably well. “London Bridge” is dumb, brassy fun with a call-and-response structure that would work in the club today, as it did in 2006. “Fergalicious” allowed Fergie to lump electronica, hip-hop and dance music together while rapping competently over J.J. Fad’s “Supersonic”; it turns on a dime at the 1:55 mark and tosses out the album’s best, boldest girl-power slogans. “Glamorous” is sleek, stylish R&B, a revision of “Jenny From The Block’s” thesis that’s perfect for a summer drive (bonus: peak-era Ludacris!). The magnetic bubblegum of “Clumsy” probably has the strongest production of any Will.i.am song not named “American Boy.” And “Big Girls Don’t Cry” might be the best of the bunch, a killer ballad with careful lyrics and a top-notch vocal take by someone not known for her slowing things down. “Big Girls Don’t Cry” deserves to haunt karaoke bars for years to come.
“Sometimes I can be tomboyish, and sometimes I can be girly,” Fergie told Rolling Stone in a 2006 cover story. “It depends on what mood I'm in. I like the balance. That whole woman/little girl thing, I like to play both of those." That’s the greatest strength of The Dutchess: balance. None of those five hit singles sound similar to each other, and are scattered throughout the album’s track list, preventing a top-heavy listen.
The non-hits follow through in giving the listener a clear sense of what Stacy Ann Ferguson can accomplish — there’s desperation on “Losing My Ground,” haters getting served on “Pedestal” and blunts being rolled on the reggae-tinged “Mary Jane Shoes.” Aside from a cringe-worthy Will.i.am verse, “All That I Got (The Make Up Song)” soars, a doo-wop he-likes-me-for-me track on which Fergie asks, “Would you love me if I didn’t work out or I didn’t change my natural hair?” On The Dutchess, Fergie tries a little bit of everything and doesn’t take any noticeable missteps; freed from the group dynamic but trained on big stages, she has established charisma but the exploratory nature of a brand-new voice.
It’s a weird, wild debut, and one of the most successful ones of this century. There might finally be new music coming, which is welcome news, and also a little unnerving. What will the unyielding 31-year-old of The Dutchess sound like as a 39-year-old mother? Will she still be so hard to categorize? Time will tell. Until that elusive sophomore album arrives, Fergie deserves retroactive praise for an uncompromising first look, and we’ll keep spelling “tasty” with an E tucked in the middle.