The past decade has produced a long list of bold pop icons we'll likely be celebrating far into the future: Lady Gaga and her defiant fashion choices, Nicki Minaj and her internet breaking videos, Kesha and her ability to make a party hit out of images as mundane as teeth-brushing. However, one name is consistently left our of conversations about the G.O.A.T.s, even though without her so much about how we characterize pop today would be entirely different.
Ten years ago, Tuesday, the Stacy Ferguson, now Fergie Duhamel experienced a creative breakthrough with The Dutchess, a 13-track tour de force that will likely bring many of us back to our AIM chatrooms and MySpace bulletin boards. It was a product of a long journey to perform by any means necessesary — she voiced Lucy and Sally on the Charlie Brown cartoons, was in a band called Wild Orchid until 2001 before joining the Black Eyed Peas in 2003. While her voice helped make the Black Eyed Peas a hit factory, it always felt like will.i.am and the other two Peas were holding Fergie back with their hokey rhymes and corny (undeniably catchy) songwriting.
Fergie's solo debut spawned three No. 1 hits — "London Bridge," "Glamorous" and "Big Girls Don't Cry" — as well as two other top five hits: "Fergalicious" and "Clumsy," better numbers than any Black Eyed Peas record ever drew. But even greater than that, the album rewrote pop's rules established in the late 1990s and set new parameters that the genre would follow for the next 10 years.
On The Dutchess, Fergie stood on her own, and stood taller because of it.
The first single from The Dutchess, "London Bridge," was the kooky banger the world needed at the time. "London Bridge" works as Fergie's first single because it maps out her plan for chart domination — dance beats, rapped verses, well-sung choruses and an oddball sensibility. Who else can take "London Bridge" the nursery rhyme and turn it into a club ode to feeling a new man?
The Dutchess' opening tracks expanded upon that promise, as well. "Fergalicious" became a hit because it was so ticky-tacky and goofily self-aware that it was charming. No one likes a braggart, but Fergie took fundamental hip-hop braggadocio and feminized it into an anthem that was about building yourself up — and the countless hours at the gym it takes to look that good. "Fergalicious" also introduced the world to Fergie's penchant for spelling, which she'd continue on her next single "Glamorous" all the way up to her latest single "M.I.L.F. $."
On songs like "Here I Come," which samples Smokey Robinson's "Get Ready," and "Clumsy," which samples Little Richard's "The Girl Can't Help It," Fergie takes retro R&B swag and pushes it into the 21st century. Rapping over club beats and R&B samples makes listening to The Dutchess much like watching Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. It's a highly referential, highly stylized story of a woman who has arrived after years to slay the competition.
That retro-meets-urban pastiche created a new norm for female pop stars. Whereas the late 1990s and early 2000s were dominated by polite, cookie-cutter blondes like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson and Mandy Moore, Fergie signaled that people wanted their pop stars to have larger-than-life personas and outlandish visions of what pop can be.
In that sense, how could the female pop domination of 2009 to 2011 have happened without their influence? Fergie, who wears the hat of MC-slash-singer-slash-fashionista no doubt influenced the trajectory of similar multi-hyphenate acts like Kesha, Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga. Stefani and Fergie signaled to record companies that the public wanted its music in the key of kook, and much of the genre shifted to deliver it.
As much as Fergie was a spectacle, underneath the flashy outfits and banger beats was an immense talent. On the worldwide smash "Big Girls Don't Cry," Fergie reminded listeners that she wasn't all spelling lessons and gym sessions. Her powerful voice, which had so long been used to flavor microwaved Black Eyed Peas hits, finally took center stage.
That "Big Girls Don't Cry" became a smash was even more unlikely because it was Fergie's first slow-tempo track, after the dance singles "Fergalicious" and "London Bridge" and the mid-tempo "Glamorous." But, "Big Girls Don't Cry" exemplifies how skillfully The Dutchess is able to blend ballads and bangers without feeling bogged down. Many artists still fail to match Fergie on this front. Katy Perry continually loses airplay when she releases songs like "Thinking of You," or "Unconditionally" — Fergie has at least three hit-it-out-the-park ballads on The Dutchess: "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Finally" and "All I Got (The Makeup Song)."
Of course, she could also rap her ass off. In a 2014 interview on Hot 97's The Breakfast Club, Fergie spoke about her upcoming album, which has yet to materialize, and her place in rap history. In the interview, Peter Rosenberg remembers when Black Eyed Peas' "Imma Be" dropped and Ebro said, "Y'all can say what you want, Fergie's the best female MC in the game."
"I feel like I do get credit for that," Fergie says in response. "But it comes after the fact a lot of times, because there's been space when I haven't put out records."
In the space between Missy Elliott's last complete album — 2005's Cookbook — and Nicki Minaj's 2010 album Pink Friday, Fergie was probably the only female MC who was charting consistently. But, she was so much more than that. She was a genre-hopping, flavor-mixing force who signaled a way for female pop stars to be more than just singers, just rappers or make music that only adopted one sound.
Fergie has struggled to make it back onto the music scene and drop her second album, tentatively titled Double Dutchess. Her last two singles, "L.A. Love (La La La)" and "M.I.L.F. $," floundered. But while the music scene is struggling to make a place for her, it's hard to deny that music currently lives in a house built off her blueprints.