Few musicians were as popular as Nelly at the beginning of the decade. Each of his first two CDs, Country Grammar and Nellyville, sold more copies than there are people in Norway. But despite some scattered hits since then, he has fallen out of fashion, and most everyone has written him off at this point. So then, let it be known: Brass Knuckles is Nelly’s Thriller. I’m not kidding. Brass Knuckles is not a perfect album, but neither was Thriller. It jumped styles and was not particularly cohesive; similarly, Nelly’s fifth CD skips haphazardly from dirty Southern jams (“Hold Up,” featuring T.I.) to G-funk throwbacks (“L.A.,” featuring Doggs Snoop and Nate) to would-be empowerment anthems (“Self Esteem,” featuring Chuck D). It’s more of a collection of singles than an actual album. But what singles! There’s not really a clunker here (so long as you can stomach Fergie), and every track feels inspired. It explodes out of the gate with the Rick Ross-assisted banger “U Ain’t Him” and features, as every Nelly album does, satisfying ballads, particularly “One & Only” and “Lie.” Folks have slagged Nelly in recent years for sounding too much of an earlier—more embarrassing—era of rap, but barely anything here sounds like the panty-evaporating, slurring Nelly of old. (Exceptions include the single “Body On Me” and “Stepped On My J’z,” a song about shoes white people probably won’t relate to.) Brass Knuckles shows an artist who, having been deemed irrelevant, has come back hungry, utilizing every name in his Rolodex and teaching himself some new tricks.
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