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The Black Eyed Peas blast back

The Peas are back with a futuristic new album and summer’s biggest hit

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What does a pop star do on her birthday? It’s March 27, Fergie’s 34th, and later she’ll celebrate at a nightclub. But right now, the singer is spending this Miami afternoon in a black SUV, waiting for the other three members of the Black Eyed Peas. ”Welcome to the chaos,” she says, fiddling with a ponytail so severe that she wonders aloud whether it’s making her scalp bleed.

Fergie is referring to the promo whirlwind surrounding the June 9 release of the Peas’ fifth album, The E.N.D. Later today they will perform their soon-to-be No. 1 single, ”Boom Boom Pow,” for the first time. After that will come rehearsals for tour dates and TV appearances, each one requiring elaborate choreography and, likely as not, further uncomfortable hairdos. It’s a months-long slog, and it’s just getting started.

Even so, the rest of the Peas are full of pep as they climb into the SUV over the next 20 minutes. First is apl.de.ap, 34, a touch less exuberant than usual due to a late night out. Then comes Taboo, 34, and finally will.i.am, 34, the group’s de facto leader. On the ride out to the show, the four Peas kid around like the old friends they are, competing to top one another’s jokes. One gets the sense they could keep making each other laugh for days if the SUV ride didn’t have to end.

Yet for all the giggling gabfests that result when the Peas hang out, breakup rumors have dogged them in recent years, and many fans wondered if they’d ever hear a follow-up to 2005’s Monkey Business (which has sold 4.9 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan). Will.i.am insists the new disc’s ominous title — it technically stands for The Energy Never Dies — is not a reference to the group’s future: ”The E.N.D. is not the end of us.” Really, though, the speculation has nothing to do with album titles — and everything to do with Fergie. After joining in 2003, she catapulted the Peas to megasuccess. But since their last release, Fergie has grown into an even bigger star on her own. Her 2006 solo debut, The Dutchess, spawned five top 5 singles. It wasn’t hard to imagine Fergie ditching the Pea pod for good.

Compounding that was a serious case of creative burnout. By the time will.i.am started thinking about new material at his home studio in L.A. last fall, both he and Fergie were feeling like they’d reached a dead end. ”When you’ve done thousands of shows around the world, you need something else to get that adrenaline going,” says Fergie. Will felt even bleaker: ”I was tired of asking the question that the record companies were asking, which is ‘How do you sell records today?’ That’s the wrong question. I wanted to make music for a reason.” Ultimately, Fergie decided to do her duty as a Pea. ”It’s nice to be back with the guys,” she explains a few weeks after Miami. ”It releases the pressure. I don’t have to be front and center all the time.”

Just one problem: There wasn’t an album to work on. Will was desperate to discover something that could get him excited enough to whip up another batch of fizzy, futuristic party music. He eventually found inspiration — where else? — in more partying. Drawing on what he’d heard during a year of clubbing with Apl, he overhauled the Peas’ eclectic pop-rap sound, introducing lots of layered synths and heavy house beats. Soon all four Peas found themselves diving into electronic music. ”It took me back to years ago, when I used to go to the clubs that were open all night and all day and I had my glow sticks out,” laughs Fergie.

Last September, Will, Apl, and Taboo flew to London to meet Fergie, who was shooting a supporting role in the musical Nine alongside Daniel Day-Lewis and Judi Dench. By now they were deep into the groove, laying down vocals to go with the high-gloss beats Will had been perfecting. ”When we left,” Will recalls, ”Fergie was like, ‘How many songs do we have recorded already?!”’ Working together since then whenever they’ve found time, the Peas ended up with more than 60 viable new tunes, 15 of which eventually became The E.N.D. ”I’m feeling great about the album,” Fergie says. ”It’s fun, because it’s not like we’ve been doing it for four years straight.”

Back in Miami, the group pulls up to Bicentennial Park, where 50,000 Ultra Music Festival attendees are waiting to hear the Peas bust out their insanely catchy ”Boom Boom Pow.” As they climb out of the car, a swarm of paparazzi rush at Fergie, and the hyperaggressive camera-wielding pros look like they might tackle her if the group’s hulking bodyguard weren’t standing in their way. For Fergie, whose marriage to Transformers star Josh Duhamel, 36, is a tabloid staple, this is a daily ritual. ”They sit outside your house every day,” she sighs. ”Isn’t that stalking?” Apl chimes in to cut the tension. ”See, I look for them. I’m like, ‘Where the f— y’all at? Come on! Apl.de.ap, Black Eyed Peas!”’

Fergie laughs, but you can tell that her privacy is no joke. ”It’s hard. I love my house. I love to work out outside. You just try to ignore it.” But she breaks into a grin as she thinks of another reason to look forward to a new epic promo cycle. ”You know what? I’m going on tour, so they can wait all day if they want to. I’m not gonna be home.”