Hard to believe it was nearly six years ago when Jay-Z spit that line, isn't it? And my, how times have changed. In 2002, it really was Hov, Eminem and Nelly carrying rap sales on their backs. Since then, Eminem's become a bona-fide recluse and Jay left the game, only to return in a less-than-glorious fashion (though American Gangster [click to read] more than made up for it).
But what of Nelly? Having sold over 20 million albums, the rapper simply disappeared from the Hip Hop scene after 2005, save a few high-profile cameos. Business ventures took the St. Louis native out of the music spotlight. Now, with the release of his first album in three years, can Nelly recapture his former glory with his latest effort?
Brass Knuckles kicks it off with the pure energy that is "U Ain't Him," which has Nelly and Rick Ross talking trash about pretenders. Things stay lively as T.I. and LL Cool J join Nelly on the aggressive "Hold Up." Unfortunately, it seems as Nelly doesn't take his own chorus' advice to step his game up, as outdated references to Myspace and trite verses from both Nelly and LL make this song seem destined for mediocrity. Luckily, an excellent flow from Tip and excellent production saves the outing from being a complete disaster.
The album's gem comes in the form of "LA," which serves as an ode to the West Coast. Appropriately, Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg are featured. Though the Doggfather only works the hook, and Nate Dogg's frail crooning is disheartening, Nelly provides an excellent account of his love for the left coast: "I spent a lot of time on this LA coast/Out here tryin' to do the LA most/Chauffer-driven Phantom like the LA Ghost/In the back with the drinks takin' LA tokes.../So now I'm off to Rodeo just to LA shop/Still getting' dirty looks from some LA cops.../I send a lot of love to my LA brothers/My Latinos and my negroes and them LA covers/My blessings goes out to them LA mothers/Know that Nelly is an LA lover."
The first major misstep of Brass Knuckles is "Lie." The song has the St. Lunatics proving once and for all that they really are the worst crew in Hip Hop put on by a famous rapper (sorry, P$C). "Party People," doesn't fare much better, as Fergie talking gangsta shit is laughable. The positive message found on "Self-Esteem" seems incredibly out of place, as does the feature from Chuck D - considering the rest of the album is full of misogyny, and the album's very namesake is violent. "Stepped On My J'z" is a completely unnecessary song, as it was already made - it was called "Air Force Ones," and it was much better back then.
Brass Knuckles is a bit of a perplexing album. Sure, Nelly's presence on the mic is still as entertaining as ever, and his ear for production is still fantastic. However, 13 out of 14 tracks have featured artists, combining for a staggering 19 features. It's clear from his selection of features that Nelly is struggling to regain relevance; yet, such heavy reliance on other artists shows that he is apprehensive about doing it on his own. Perhaps Nelly is banking for nostalgia to propel him back into the forefront of Hip Hop, as his sound has hardly changed since his debut. Regardless of his intentions, Nelly has returned with a mostly pleasant offering, brimming with charisma and charm.