Nelly is arguably the greatest singles rapper of all time. Love him or hate him, few artists, if any, have hovered around the Billboard charts like Nelly. Simply put, dude can write a hook. Be it through his breakout smash “Hot In Herre”, the grinding and singable “E.I.”, or the playful “Air Force Ones”, Nelly has become a staple in the pop world, elevating himself above the status of hip-hop kingpin to that of pop superstar.
A legitimate baseball player, one with the possibility of going pro, Nelly seemed like he could do anything. He was like a kid spinning a globe of dream professions and putting his finger down on rapper. Because of his excessive success, Nelly’s hits were always littered with lighthearted joy. Music seemed like an afterthought. He essentially just made music that he enjoyed and could party to. Even when he tried to be slightly more serious on his 2004 Sweat/Suit double album, he still got his wild’n-out on with tracks like “Flap Your Wings”.
It’s disappointing, then, that on his latest release Brass Knuckles, Nelly has almost completely lost the excitability and mindless cheer that was so crucial in his previous success. As evidenced by the record’s “holy shit is that really Nelly? Has he been juicing with Dr. Dre and 50 Cent lately?” cover, Brass Knuckles is the record where Nelly finally commits to this hip-hop thing, when he tries to rise above the status of MTV celebrity Jock Jam freak athlete and bubblegum rapper.
In keeping with his new, buff (Photoshopped?) look, Nelly gets downright hard on Brass Knuckles. The opener “U Ain’t Him”, typical of most tracks throughout the disc, is better suited for a T.I. comeback album than a Nelly disc. The production on most of the record sounds more like David Banner than Mannie Fresh, boasting the southern aggression more reminiscent of the crack rap coming from Jeezy and T.I. than anything Nelly has even flirted with before. Most notably, the prepubescent “Ohs” and childish yelps are strangely lacking and ineffective throughout the disc, something that truly pinpoints Nelly’s turn away from the lighthearted power of his previous records.
Strangely though, Nelly can actually kind of pull this sound off. His ability to write hooks saves what is otherwise a disastrous production choice for such a Top 40-minded rapper. The choral, crescendoing chorus of “U Ain’t Him” doesn’t sound wholly alien to Nelly’s clubs-vocals. “Hold Up”, which features a T.I. that sounds like he’s been smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, is carried by Nelly’s dual, dubbed vocals that, while clearly out of place, find a way of endearing themselves to the track.
What has suffered on Brass Knuckles because of this turn are the singles. Lead single “Party People” is undeniably the worst single he’s ever released. The track tries to combine the party sound he’s known for with the hard-edged sound he’s aiming for, resulting in what sounds like Fergie aping a Three 6 Mafia production. “Body On Me” is carried solely by Akon and Ashanti’s airy vocalgasms while Nelly floats around awkwardly like a thumbless drunk trying to do some tactile function that requires thumbs. And though “Stepped On My J’s” is the perfect complement to “Air Force Ones”, its general anger of Nelly having his new kicks stepped on is more off-putting than booty-shakingly poppy.
For all of Brass Knuckles‘s problems though, it is probably his most consistent record. There’s nothing that’s boldly offensive or immediately dismissible, save a few slight missteps (“Lie” and “Who Fucks With Me”). It’s possible then that Nelly’s turn toward hip-hop legitimacy actually did make him a better rapper. But I really just want someone to tell me to take all my clothes off; we’ve already got enough T.I. wannabes.