A polished Nelly delivers two solid albums

New on CD

September 23, 2004|By Renee Graham | Renee Graham,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Even though Country Grammar was one of the biggest hits of 2000, few would have predicted that we'd have any reason to be talking about Nelly four years later, let alone that he could have created two solid albums, Sweat and Suit, both released last week.

As nonsensical as a double-dutch rhyme, the title track of Country Grammar was insanely hummable, even if its lyrics were nowhere near as innocent as its frothy, radio-friendly version suggested. That song put Nelly and his beloved St. Louis on the hip-hop map. At the same time, it screamed novelty, as disposable as it was infectious, and seemed postmarked for one-hit wonderland.

Who knew? Nearly a half-decade later, the man born Cornell Haynes Jr. is a Grammy-winning hit machine. He's one of the world's biggest rappers, relying on a formula of party jams filled with celebrations of sexually compliant women, the wonders of weed and lots of product placement.

"I done got so damn cocky, I took that Band-Aid off," raps Nelly on "Na-Nana-Na," referring to his removal of the trademark tape under his left eye. Apparently, he's so pleased with himself that he summoned the ego to release his third and fourth albums, Sweat and Suit, on the same day.

These are two entirely separate discs, recalling what Guns N' Roses did in 1991 with Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II and Bruce Springsteen in 1992 with Human Touch and Lucky Town.

In both of those instances, the Boss and GNR would've been better served by trimming the fat and releasing a tighter single album. So there was no reason to think Nelly, who tends to make better singles than albums, could possibly pull off this feat without similarly overplaying his hand or taxing his audience.

Yet that's what Nelly accomplishes, and with surprising aplomb, especially on Suit, the more R&B-dipped of the two CDs. With seven of its 11 tracks featuring guest stars, Suit could almost pass as Nelly's version of a duets album. There's Jaheim on "My Place," Ronald Isley and Snoop Dogg on "She Don't Know My Name" and, most astonishing of all, country star Tim McGraw on "Over and Over."

Nelly always exudes confidence, but it has never blossomed in his music as it does here. He is usually content with club jams encouraging the ladies to let their freak flags -- and, more to the point, most of their clothing -- fly. He stays on message with such songs as "Pretty Toes," featuring Jazze Pha and T.I., and "Paradise," an ode to a bodacious ghetto queen. There's also the milky soul of "Play It Off," featuring the hardest workin' man in hip-hop, Pharrell Williams, and "My Place," the first single, built on a delicate piano riff cribbed from LaBelle's "Isn't It a Shame."

Nelly enjoys collaborations, and when his guest stars can take a song somewhere he can't, he wisely gets out of the way, as with Anthony Hamilton's electrifying vamp on "Nobody Knows." But the real standout may be "Over and Over," a straight ballad. Nelly sings, more convincingly than anyone could have imagined, about lost love, buoyed by McGraw's just-right backup vocals. It's an emotional breakthrough, the kind of maturity that once seemed beyond Nelly's grasp.

Of course, Nelly still enjoys a steamy good time, and that's where Sweat comes in. "Flap Your Wings" has been lighting up clubs since early summer and bounces along in the dopey good-time tradition of "Hot in Herre." There aren't many rap artists still making danceable rap songs, but Nelly is as dedicated as ever to keeping the lights low, the floor packed and the bodies gyrating.

"River Don't Runnn" gets a reggae touch with help from Stephen Marley, and "Tilt Ya Head Back," which samples Curtis Mayfield's "Superfly," burns nicely with restrained but effective vocals from Christina Aguilera. It's a solid album, different enough from Suit that it's obvious why Nelly felt the need to release it separately. Instead of too much of a good thing, these two albums make clear that Nelly has polished and perfected his country grammar and flourished into a rapper at the top of his game.

Nelly

Sweat (Universal) ***

Suit (Universal) ***1/2

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