I was introduced to Nelly Furtado’s music twice. The first time came in the form of a song on the soundtrack to the Claire Danes/Kate Beckinsale prison drama Brokedown Palace in 1999. The compilation featured an early mix of “Party,” then titled “Party’s Just Begun.” There was no face to put to the song, just that extraordinary voice (poised, seemingly seasoned, occasionally nasal and certainly not American) and those peculiar dub-pop beats. Flash forward a year or so later and Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird” is in heavy rotation on College Television. MTV hadn’t quite latched onto the video yet, but I quickly realized that the fresh-faced Portuguese-Canadian singing the sugary pop single was the same girl who delivered the darker, edgier “Party.” Surely some major label suit had gotten a hold of Furtado and coaxed a Top 40 hit out of her. It was sure to be a fluke.
A few weeks later a promotional copy of Furtado’s debut Whoa, Nelly! floated around the office of my then-job. I quickly snatched it up and discovered that, while “I’m Like a Bird” was the poppiest thing on the entire record, it was anything but a fluke. She directly confronts the issue on “Shit on the Radio (Remember the Days)” via a stray lover or friend who thinks she’s sold out: “It’s so much easier to stay down there guaranteeing you’re cool/Than to sit up here exposing myself trying to break through.” Chockfull of instantly memorable hooks and words that were sophisticated beyond Furtado’s 20 years, Whoa, Nelly! was a delightful and refreshing antidote to the army of “pop princesses” and rap-metal bands that had taken over popular music at the turn of the millennium. Four years later, the album still sounds as fresh, opening with the sampled Kronos Quartet loop of “Hey, Man!” and cascading track by track into the trip-hop of “My Love Grows Deeper Part 1,” the trip-pop of the hit single “Turn Off the Light,” and the torchy swing of “Scared of You,” while maintaining a rare consistency.
“I’m changing my inflection and how I say the words/Maybe it will sound like something they’ve never heard,” she declares on “Party.” Furtado’s free-verse poetry flows meticulously over a Prince-esque riff on “Trynna Finda Way,” flawlessly summing up her post-rave generation ambivalence (“To see past my lethargy is hard I feign/The beauty of my youth is gone but the chemicals remain”), and her observations are like nothing you’ll hear from her pop-tart contemporaries (“Looks like I only love God when the sun shines my way,” she admits on the cartoonish “Well, Well”). Furtado’s voice is certainly an acquired taste, but there’s no shortchanging her ability to adlib along to a trumpet solo like an old jazz chanteuse (“Baby Girl”) or spit rhymes like a caffeinated MC (“Legend,” “I Will Make U Cry,” in which she snidely taunts an unresponsive love interest by mawkishly weeping, “I will make you cry…boo-hoo!”). The impeccable pop-crackle production (clattering electronic percussion, turntable scratches, hip-hop beats, acoustic guitars and string arrangements courtesy of Track & Field) never diminishes the resonance of Furtado’s voice, but you may need to read the lyric book to fully appreciate the breadth of her world.