By Leah Greenblatt
Updated September 18, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Fergie: Randall Slavin

When is a single Pea greater than the sum of her pod? When she steps out with a shrewd, accomplished debut. On The Dutchess, Fergie — a.k.a. Stacy Ferguson, the pert legume whose feminine presence revitalized the Black Eyed Peas — retains the group’s proven gift for indelible melodies, but reaches beyond their cartoonish poses and half-cocked raps for a fuller, more diverse sound. Here, she proves herself equally adept at well-deep reggae riddims, giddy dance-floor jams, and fervent ballads.

The album’s opener, the self-love anthem ”Fergalicious,” doesn’t stray too far from her recent past, with its spare snare-clap beat set behind familiar ”My Hump”-sy boasts like ”They be linin’ down the block just to watch what I got.” But moments later, she is sweetly smitten on the bashful, bouncing ”Clumsy,” and by album’s end, she’s expanding into Broadway-style torch songs on the unapologetically dramatic piano- and string-laden coda, ”Finally.”

Not that she’s forsaken her fellow Peas entirely; the three male members appear (silently) in the video for her current chart-buster, ”London Bridge,” whose horn-hooting, foot-stomping refrain, ”Wanna go down like London, London, LON-don,” unsubtly, if memorably, combines winky sexual metaphors and club-banging beats. And BEP mastermind, along with label prez Ron Fair, produces a number of Dutchess‘ tracks. They’re smart enough to help Fergie navigate several musical genres, as well as personae: One moment she’s a fierce, sexaholic superstar (”London Bridge”) and the next a ragga-punk Caribbean princess (”Mary Jane Shoes,” featuring Rita Marley) or a scared, unguarded woman in love (”All That I Got”).

Though not every track is a gem, The Dutchess reaches further than most albums by contemporary divas, who often seem content to turn out one or two killer singles accompanied by an album’s worth of padding. Fergie tries hard to be all things to all (pop-loving) people — and much of the time, she succeeds.

Even her newfound vulnerability feels right. Famously abbreviated stage outfits aside, Fergie’s ardent joy on the John Legend-assisted ”Finally” track is probably as publicly naked as she’s ever allowed herself to be. Not that she’s morphing into some kind of ”My Heart Will Go On” ballad queen; Fergie is too adept on the dance floor to forsake it. And if occasionally the lady doth attest too much to her own physical charms, The Dutchess proves that she’s earned her Black Eyed independence — and perhaps even her new royal title. B+