sound patrol 9-30-04
Nelly Lite: Less genius, more idiot
Nelly is all things to all people -- there are no multiplatinum weirdoes -- and therein lies his charm. Beloved by all races, the photogenic St. Louis rapper is blasted from suburban softball fields and ghetto stoops alike. Strippers grind to him; preteens load him on their iPods; politicians praise him for his philanthropy. Viva the cuddlethug, Stepford wife to the world.
After selling more than 15 million copies of his first two records and surpassing his projected expiration date by several rap lifetimes, Nelly may believe he's invincible. How else to explain why he would release his third and fourth albums at the same time -- not as a specially priced double album, √† la OutKast, but as two separate, full-priced CDs, √† la Bruce Springsteen and Guns N' Roses? No mainstream hip-hop artist has dared (or bothered) to do something so ambitious (or stupid), and, given the ratio of filler to singles on most single-disc major-label releases, forcing fans to pay twice as much for a handful of good songs seems a bit tacky. The justification (read: marketing strategy) is that Sweat and Suit are two separate concepts, revealing two distinct sides of Nelly and appealing to two distinct demographics. Sweat is for the ballers and the kids; Suit is for the ladies and the over-25 set. Sweat is Nelly Classic; Suit is the "mature" Nelly, who is, after all, pushing 30 and practically an elder statesman by now.
Of the two discs, Suit is marginally more interesting, if only because -- thank heavens for ProTools! -- Nelly transforms himself from a rapper with a singsong flow to a singer with a jones to rap now and again. Of course, anyone who's heard "Pimp Juice" (the Nellyville single, not the soft drink) won't be terribly surprised, although there's nothing on Suit quite so sexy and sinister-sounding. "Play It Off," the Neptunes' joint, is pleasant enough, but it's no "Hot in Herre"; "Pretty Toes," a collabo with Jazze Pha and Organized Noize, is perhaps the best mainstream foot-fetish tune of the 21st century, which, when you stop to think about it, isn't saying much. With its almost-but-not-quite-disturbing spoken-word intro, "Woodgrain and Leather wit a Hole" strives for Eminem-like edginess but devolves into yet another "look at my sweet ride" boastfest. "In My Life" shows Nelly trying to channel Marvin Gaye circa "What's Going On," but a few lines about being nice to homeless people does not a socially conscious anthem make. On "Die for You," Nelly reveals that -- gasp! -- he really loves his kids, and he worries about them and stuff when he's on the road. And if there's anything lamer than sampling Spandau Ballet ("N Dey Say"), it's singing with Tim McGraw ("Over and Over"), and if you can think of anything lamer than that, for the love of God, keep it to yourself and away from Nelly's next record.
Of course, Sweat isn't much better. Perhaps there is something lamer than Tim McGraw, and that's John Tesh, whose "NBA on NBC" theme undergirds the ludicrously self-important "Heart of a Champion." The Neptunes' "Flap Your Wings," the Jazze Pha romp "Na-Nana-Na," and the Christina Aguilera duet "Tilt Ya Head Back" are engaging and silly, a reminder that Nelly, at his best, is gloriously dumb, dumb like Missy Elliott and the Ramones and the Rolling Stones and legions of other idiot geniuses who have graced popular culture over the decades. But the best dumb songs on Sweat don't compare with the best dumb songs from the back catalog, and a string of hotshot guest producers can't gloss over a dearth of inspiration and a surplus of chutzpah. The world already loves you, Nelly; stop pimping yourself so much.