Oh, Nelly, what’s happened to you?
There was a time when I’d defend Nelly to the death. Sure, Country Grammar was cocky, silly, and slick, but there was something about the way that Nelly could lay down a groove that just caught me. Songs like “Country Grammar” and “E.I.” didn’t really mean that much on a lyrical level, but they got heads nodding and mouths smiling. Nellyville followed, spawning two of Nelly’s biggest and most recognizable hits to date: “Hot in Herre” and “Dilemma”. “Hot in Herre” tore the roof down, and “Dilemma” was a, uh, sensitive slow jam about infidelity. Both songs had extended stays at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and from the sound of everything that’s followed, the success of those two tracks sent visions of dollar signs dancing in Nelly’s head.
Since then, nearly every Nelly song can be divided into one of two camps: the ones that sound like “Hot in Herre”, and the ones that sound like “Dilemma”. Rather than try to cover up this obvious split, Nelly exploited it last year when he released two albums on the same day. Sweat was an album of the “Hot in Herre"s, and Suit had the “Dilemma"s. Predictably, both albums sold quite well, with the slight edge going to the sensitive jams.
As one might expect, then, Sweatsuit is the requisite just-in-time-for-the-holidays combination of the two albums. The release of Sweatsuit is a savvy move on the part of Universal Music Group, given that all of the serious Nelly fans who already have Sweat and Suit will buy Sweatsuit anyway for the three new tracks (and maybe the soundtrack cut “Fly Away”), and fairweather Nelly fans and newcomers will buy Sweatsuit to get the best of Sweat and Suit without having to shell out twice as much cash to get two subpar discs. It’s a win-win situation all around.
Or, it would be, if it was pulled off with any sort of skill.
Sweatsuit is really, really confusing. Strangest of all the problems is the track ordering that the disc has been given. Rather than kicking off the disc with some high-adrenaline club bangers that would grab listeners by the naughty bits and force them to listen, Sweatsuit finds the album completely frontloaded with sensitive Suit tracks. Granted, opener “Play it Off” (which features the omnipresent Pharrell) has a solid, danceable beat to it, but such a track order allows for such inexplicable pairings as “My Place” next to “Over & Over”. All this does is highlight just how similar the tracks are, at least in beat and melody—the presence of guests Jaheim and Tim McGraw is absolutely necessary for the sake of telling the tracks apart. Six of the first seven songs are from Suit, which means that by the time you get to the tracks worth dancing to, you’ll either be spent from mackin’ it for so long or fast asleep.
The track selection is a bit dubious as well—I realize that “Tilt Ya Head Back” has Christina Aguilera (thus making it uncool in a post-teen-pop world), but it’s one of the most recognizable tracks on Sweat, not to mention one of the best. Naturally, it’s nowhere to be seen on Sweatsuit. Instead, we get repetitive tripe like “Pretty Toes”, which contains one of the most aggravatingly out of sync hooks ever, and “Getcha Getcha”, which sees the St. Lunatics finding “clever” ways to work “hey” and “ho” into the end of their rhymes. In fact, once “Over & Over” ends, even the so-called “best” of the two discs isn’t enough to hold the attention of even the most patient listeners. The supposed dance tracks don’t bump like they should, and the suave tracks descend into a mire of self-pity and undercooked R&B croon.
But then, there’s “Grillz”.
So Nelly only gets one verse. Even so, “Grillz” (naturally the album’s lead single) is a return to everything that once made Nelly a pleasure to listen to, rather than a chore. For one, Jermaine Dupri’s production is uncharacteristically fantastic, finding a down ‘n’ dirty groove in the unlikely source material of Destiny’s Child’s “Soldier”. For two, the song is absolutely ridiculous, to the point where it’s unclear whether Nelly, with Paul Wall and St. Lunatics’ Ali and Gipp, are having a laugh or completely serious. From the point of view of someone who’s never affixed diamonds to his teeth, however, it’s hilarious, and the hilarity adds to the appeal. “Grillz” also sports some of Sweatsuit‘s best lines as things like “Got a bill in my mouth / Like I’m Hillary Rodham” are said with complete and utter conviction. The other two new tracks aren’t as nice—“Tired” sounds like a quicker-paced Suit outtake, and “Nasty Girl” is a much-hyped “collaboration” with Notorious B.I.G. (thanks a lot, Diddy) that doesn’t leave much of an impact.
In fact, apart from “Grillz”, Sweatsuit as a whole is frustratingly flaccid. All it really serves to point out is just what a two-trick pony Nelly has become, even going so far as to reduce the impact of the singles by placing them next to virtual twins. Even “Heart of a Champion”, for all of its pomp and bluster as the opening track of Sweat, is sapped of its energy when placed in the middle of an album that puts so much slow material before it. To be sure, even for all its problems, Sweatsuit is the preferable option to the filler-loaded bloat of the separate Sweat and Suit—still, Nelly can do better.