Growing up, my sisters and I agreed that big earrings looked heavy and uncomfortable. In contrast, “Big Hoops (Bigger the Better),” the lead single from Nelly Furtado’s fifth album, The Spirit Indestructible, finds the singer weightlessly expressing her sense of self-actualization vis-à-vis the size of her earrings. “The bigger the better, the better the bigger,” she tautaologizes, breaking up the mantra to drop lyrical shards from some of the tunes that soundtracked her adolescence (“No Diggity,” “Scenario,” “Express Yourself,” “Back and Forth,” “Passin’ Me By”), weaving a tapestry of youthful identity from pop-cultural signposts and shopping-mall fashion statements. The slow-rolling track shouldn’t work as well as it does; imagine an ear-piercing session at Claire’s Boutique interrupted by a short-attention-span round of radio roulette, culminating in a few seconds of drum n’ bass. But it does because of Furtado, whose voice remains as cheek-pinchingly cute as it did over a decade ago when she boh-duh-doh-duh-doh-ching-ching’ed her way through “Baby Girl,” a track from her debut Whoa, Nelly!
Furtado leaps effortlessly over the impressive array of hurdles scattered throughout The Spirit Indestructible, produced largely by Rodney Jerkins. On “Waiting for the Night,” she snatches the beyond-played-out thrash-dance template (the song’s melody and production both recall Jennifer Lopez’s “On the Floor”) and makes it sound, if not fresh, then at least palpably urgent—that is, until it tags out on a wonky accordion riff. On “Parking Lot,” Furtado sounds like she’s trying to win a bet that she could turn the hook from George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set on You” into a new “Hollaback Girl.” The verses of “High Life” are repeatedly slapped by a bullwhip that cracks with each and every beat, creating one of the most assaultive environments this side of Busta Rhymes’s “Fire.”
Whether her strategy is to sing-song her way beyond the abrasive edges or to conversely turn her voice into an even more abrasive element, Furtado makes it all work. She’s fully capable, when goaded, of unleashing her inner Taana Gardner, and does so to great effect on “Big Hoops” and “Something,” a collaboration with Nas. Whether she’s measuring the circumference of her earrings, writing an entry in her diary, or flowing with a meditative drone (which she does in the sparkling, aptly titled “The Most Beautiful Thing”), she clearly enjoys being a girl.