Nelly pulled an audacious stunt when he released two albums—the R&B-drenched Suit and the rap-oriented Sweat—on the same day in 2004, and was vindicated when the pair occupied the first and second spots on the Billboard 200. Couched in the commercial bravado was an even bolder artistic move: a duet with Tim McGraw that would barely put a nick in Nelly’s street cred while becoming a crossover smash and probably the only video ever to air on both CMT and BET.
Few people have accused Nelly of being an ineffective businessman, and so his first album of all-new material since Sweat/Suit proves that the rapper has done his research by playing it considerably safer than he ever has before. As one of the most versatile pop rappers going, with an ear for melody and a natural charm that should make dopes like Young Joc seethe with envy, Nelly is as consistently entertaining as ever on the cameo-bloated Brass Knuckles. What he does not do is push the ball forward while perfectly capturing the zeitgeist, which used to be his calling card. Pharrell shows up with a wobbling horn riff and classic Neptunes thump on “Let It Go (Lil’ Mama),” but the song doesn’t approach the level of “Hot in Herre.” Similarly, Nelly and Jermaine Dupri try to reprise the success of 2005’s jewelry-repping anthem “Grillz” by rhapsodizing their sneaker obsessions on “Stepped On My J’z,” but the result is as disappointing a sequel as Matrix Reloaded.
The uninspired titles of “LA” (which features Snoop and Nate Dogg) and “Party People” (with Fergie) advertise the fact that their sole raison d’ etre is demographic-coddling. Other guest stars playing perfectly to type include Chuck D as motivational speaker (“Self Esteem”), Usher as sex god (“Long Night”), and Rick Ross as underworld kingpin (“U Ain’t Him”). These artists are good enough at what they do that Brass Knuckles remains far from unlistenable, even if every verse feels phoned-in.
It appeared as if Nelly was going for a different tack when earlier this year he dropped the street-swaggering “Cut It Out,” which featured Southern underground all-stars Sean P of YoungBloodz and the dearly departed Pimp C. But neither that cut nor the more recent “Wadsyaname,” a drippy seduction piece that samples the keyboard line from K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life” shows up on the album. Given these songs’ disparity and obvious flaws, in addition to the generally uninspired nature of Brass Knuckles, it’s clear that Nelly doesn’t know yet how he fits into the newly altered hip-hop landscape. Will he go Autotune? Street-rap? Ringtone? Nelly punts on all of these questions, and Brass Knuckles sounds less like the product of a fighter who’s ready to go back into the ring than one who’s stalling for time.