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Nelly's Elixir: Make It a Double

By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2004; Page C01

Maybe there's something special in that Pimp Juice after all.

Nelly -- the St. Louis-proud hip-hopper, clothing designer and beverage magnate behind that pimpalicious energy drink -- managed a major double-whammy this week, releasing not one but two exhaustively entertaining albums, the body-moving "Sweat" and the bedroom-minded (but still fairly rambunctious) "Suit."


Nelly's new releases include adept pairings with unhip-hop talent, including country singer Tim McGraw and pop star Christina Aguilera. (Universal.)

As musical party and boot-knockin' after-party, Nelly's sonic shindigs may not be as fiendishly clever as OutKast's two-headed monster "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," but they're just as fun and more than adept at getting you grooving.

The mogul-in-the-making has sold more than 10 million copies of his first two albums, 2000's near-flawless "Country Grammar" and 2002's "Nellyville," which featured the club-quaking smash "Hot in Herre." But the man born Cornell Haynes Jr. certainly hasn't let Trump-size dreams of corporate derring-do dull his over-the-top showmanship.

Thanks to the help of such stellar producers as the Neptunes, OutKast's Big Boi and Jermaine Dupri, there are more sharp hooks on "Sweat" and "Suit" than at a Bassmaster's tournament. Along with whipping up the kind of silly wordplay that sticks in your head (whether you like it or not), Nelly flows faster than ever on the rocket-fueled burners, cooler than ever on the seductive slow jams. His sing-songy rhyming style rarely fails to connect the cacophony of bells, beeps and clankety-clanks he loves to toss into his head-spinning mixes of samba, rap and rock.

Nelly has always been too busy singing about making money and whoopee to sing about violence, and that's a big part of his mega-selling hedonistic charm. A who's who of tough rappers -- Fat Joe, Snoop Dogg, Mobb Deep -- join the fray here, but gunplay and the gangsta life are kept to a minimum. The good host even signs on some decidedly unhip-hop talent to assist him, including Tim McGraw (the country dope croons), Christina Aguilera (the siren shrieks) and Spandau Ballet (the '80s lame-os are sampled).

It shouldn't work, but it does. When former Fugee Wyclef Jean tried the strange bedfellows bit -- Kenny Rogers?! The Rock?! -- he just about killed his career. When all-world rapper Jay-Z attempted a double-disc trick on "The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse," he ran out of inspiration long before his XXL showcase was over.

But amazingly, there's only one outright stinkeroo from Nelly. "Heart of a Champion," which kicks off "Sweat," borrows a hook from -- are you ready? -- John Tesh! That's right: Teshy wrote "Roundball Rock," used by NBC Sports for its NBA coverage, and now used by Nelly. Not only is "Heart of a Champion" clunky and overwrought -- the Lincoln University Vocal Ensemble adds to the bombast -- but it conjures the image of both Tesh and Bob Costas shaking their booties. And that's just wrong.

The rest of "Sweat" usually cooks, especially "Flap Your Wings," with its conga-line beat, spiraling keyboard line and utterly sublime commanding chorus: "Drop down and get your eagle on, girl!" If that doesn't become the catchphrase of the year, then "Let a grand hang out! Let a grand hang out!" from the Fat Joe-assisted chest-puffer "Grand Hang Out," certainly will.

Nelly swipes the bassline strut of Curtis Mayfield's "Superfly" for "Tilt Ya Head Back," which features a frisky Aguilera matching Nelly bedroom boast for boast, their verbal foreplay heated up by sassy blasts of brass. And Nelly's hometown crew of rapscallions, the St. Lunatics -- so lovable on "Country Grammar's" "Batter Up" -- talk up the Gateway to the West on the slightly sinister "Getcha Getcha," head-nod braggadocio that bops along on a fuzzed-out synth rumble.

Nelly really lets his freak flag fly on "Suit," which manages to be even better than "Sweat," if only because the lovey-dovey vibe forces the artist to slow down and add nuance to his delivery instead of simply quick-lipping over feverish rat-a-tat beats.

Turns out St. Louie's favorite hip-hop son has a serious foot fetish, and it's a twisted hoot to listen as he drools over sandal-clad tootsies on the lush, lascivious "Pretty Toes." "My Place," an ode to the booty call, is basically nothing more than three radio-ready hooks played over and over (a smoky Jaheim croon plus chunks of LaBelle's "Isn't It a Shame" and El Debarge's "I Like It"), but Nelly once again proves to have a keen ear for aural candy.

Spandau Ballet's "True" is possibly the worst song in the history of songs, but as a beat-fortified foundation for Nelly's "N Dey Say," the '80s tune is miraculously sexy. Father-to-son songs in hip-hop can be embarrassing affairs, but the forceful "Die for You" is filled with both raging pride and nagging regret.

And then there's the McGraw duet, "Over and Over," the best track on either disc. Over a slightly twangy guitar part, the country star sings, "Cause it's all in my head / I think about it over and over again," as a heartbroken, sweet-voiced Nelly gets confessional. It's not just good -- it's downright hypnotizing.

Yep, Nelly thinks big, but he delivers big, too.

What the heck is in that Pimp Juice anyway?


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