A few months ago I wrote that Nelly was in danger of falling victim to Ashanti Syndrome, a potentially crippling condition that occurs when a superstar artist inexplicably loses their elite status, even though they’re essentially the same as they were at the height of their popularity. It’s as if America sat them down and said, “It’s not you, it’s me. I just need other music in my speakers right now.” Tragically my warning has proven to be prophetic. Nelly, the man who was previously America’s favorite dirty - excuse me, derty - rapper, has …
DJBooth Album Review
It seems like just yesterday that Nelly was crushing charts and collecting Grammys (with Diddy for Shake Ya Tailfeather, which doesn’t say much about the Grammy committee’s standards), but the truth is it’s been almost four years since his ambitious double-album Sweat Suit. Now, after repeated delays, Nelly is back for another round with his fifth release Brass Knuckles, an album that contains nineteen guest features spread over only fourteen tracks but is often strangely lacking in one key presence: Nelly himself. Regardless of Brass’ success Nelly’s going to remain a very rich man, but I’m going to go ahead and call it. Nelly will never again be a premier rapper. Time of death? A quarter past Brass Knuckles.
There was a time when no one made hypnotically melodic singles better than the pride of St. Louis. With Nelly, what he says isn’t nearly as important as how he says it, and his stick-and-move rhyme style made tracks like Hot In Herre certified smashes. Nelly’s kept his flow relatively consistent over the years, so it’s hard to explain why Brass Knuckles can’t seem to connect. The near-misses start with the head-banging Party People, an adrenaline soaked joint whose beat and chorus was custom tailored to the clubs. Nelly delivers a typically tight delivery, but it’s never a good thing when Fergie almost upstages you on the track, and in the end Party People’s energy feels forced. Speaking of forced, Stepped On My J’Z is Nelly’s almost embarrassingly obvious attempt to recreate the magic of his part fashion-centric hits like Air Force Ones, he even recycles some of the beat from Grillz on the chorus. While the always-scintillating Ciara certainly does her part, Lord knows a Jermaine Dupri verse isn’t going to save J’Z from predictability. On Brass Knuckles, Nelly often sounds like he’s as mystified by his decreasing popularity as I am, and even when he reaches into his old bag of tricks, he can’t quite seem to pull out a winner.
Having failed to connect with the clubs, Nelly turns to the most powerful demographic in all of music: the ladies. If you’re looking to see women swoon you still can’t beat bringing in Usher on the track, a fact Nelly knows only too well. The result is Long Night, a track whose production sparkles with muted synths and slow-grinding percussion, exactly the kind of beat Nelly was born to rhyme over. Nelly easily lives up to expectations, but while Long Night aims for hot and steamy, it ends more like damp and warm. Perhaps sensing his once invincible power fading, Brass Knuckles occasionally become a flat-out aggressive album. From Nelly’s shirtless album cover to f-bomb laced tracks like U Ain’t Him and Who F**ks Wit’ Me, Nelly expends a lot of energy making sure the world knows he can still throw a musical power punch, and he occasionally lands a solid blow. T.I. and LL Cool J drop by for Hold Up, a track where Nelly rightfully points out he’s got more money than nearly every rapper currently on the radio, and Self Esteem combines some of the album’s best lyrics with a Marvin Gaye-esque beat, but just when Nelly is threatening to make something special out of Brass Knuckles he drops the sticky sweet sexuality of Body On Me. Body tries to spice up it’s catchy production with a typically horny Akon hook, but Ashanti came out with the song first and by now….
Wait…I can’t believe I didn’t think of this earlier. Nelly and Ashanti were (or are) a couple, what if Ashanti Syndrome is contagious?! What if Nelly gave it to Ashanti?! Should I start calling it Nelly Syndrome? Good God, this changes everything. Either way, let’s just hope the two of them stay away from Lil Wayne – for the health of hip-hop. This Syndrome has taken enough good artists already, don't let it spread, please.
DJBooth Rating - 3 Spins
Written by Nathan S. on 09/19/08
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