Despite having more platinum albums than a lil’ bit and more fans on MySpace than about a hundred rappers combined (227,585 as of this review) it still seems like Nelly is forced to prove himself to the haters with every single release. It could be the St. Louis accent, the musical way he flows his rhymes, the fact he consistently scores hits at the top of the pop charts – in actuality it’s probably ALL of these things. When you’re doing something right and you’re on the top of the mountain there’s no shortage of people waiting to knock you off. That’s alright though, because capitalism works best when you set a goal and strive to achieve it. If someone comes along and can do Nelly better than Cornell Haynes Jr. then more power to them. If Nelly fails to get hits or his album flops in terms of sales, somebody else will take the throne, leaving Nelly to either fight to get it back or settle for second best.

Nelly settling for second best seems unlikely – after all this is an artist who confidently bragged about being “#1” six years ago and was willing to go to war with KRS-One over it. He’s only gotten bigger, bolder and more successful since then, although the one thing his critics can stick to him with impunity is that he hasn’t released a new album in at least three years, and even that was an album that repackaged an earlier pair of albums and added a few new tracks. It’s hard to argue with the fact that even the repackaged album was a success, but it’s definitely a long drought since a FULL album of ENTIRELY new material. Given how long Nelly kept his fans waiting, he had to come back even stronger in 2008, a fact evidenced by the title “Brass Knuckles.” Nelly wants to hit as hard as he can with the new release, and with the first single “Party People” he tag-teamed with Fergie to throw a one-two pop music knockout blow.

Nelly: “It’s Nelly motherfucker comin straight up out the Lou’ and
All you New Edition-ass rappers better cool it now
‘Fore I make a fool of y’all, paper stacked as tall as Yao
Ming, look at the bling, settings in rings lookin like basketballs”

Fergie: “Well it’s Fergie motherfucker comin straight from Cali-for-ni-A
Stuntin in my loc-locs, dreamin ’bout me M.I.A.
Boyfriend wonderin where I’m at, cause I’m in the spot-spot
Why he always tryin to be puttin me down on lock lock?”

Wait a minute – teaming with Fergie is a knockout punch? Sho’ right it is! It’s a big middle finger to everybody who said Nelly was too pop to rap. By teaming with Fergie, he made the song EXTRA pop, just to rub it in the faces of the naysayers. Fergie in turn has newfound swagger rapping with Nelly, stomping and cursing, going out of her way to spit an extra-fast flow in the closing verse that includes the line “all of you haters can kiss my behind.” When you’re rolling with #1 it’s hard to not get cocky. The funny thing is that Nelly has been dogged as being disrespectful of his peers and the people who paved the way for him to be here, and on “Brass Knuckles” nothing could be further from the truth. This album features a cornucopia of rap legends, from Chuck D on the smooth G. Koop produced “Self-Esteem” to LL Cool J on the pulsing Free Agentz laced “Hold Up” (also featuring T.I.) where Nelly breaks down why so many people have problems with him:

“Maybe the problem is you’re thinkin too small
You niggaz only want to rap and that’s all
Your only goal is to buy out the mall, I go to buy me the mall
You wanna stunt for the summer, I’m tryin to buy me the fall”

Dream big, live big. That’s how Nelly has done it since day one, when he first started rolling down down baby yo’ street in a Range Rover. Nelly has no reason to apologize for being pop any more or for making songs about his sneakers like “Stepped On My J’z” with Ciara and Jermaine Dupri.

“We used to ditch school and head straight up to the mall (mall)
Just so we could be the first ones with ’em on {c’mon}
Returned to school by lunchtime like, ‘Nigga what now?’
And today we in the club like, ‘Nigga what now?’
You better look down cause uhh, I know you see ’em {say what?}
I know you see ’em {say what?} I know you see ’em
I paid – a thousand for the jeans, I paid 200 for the shoes
And uhh, fuck a shirt, I’ma rock these tattoos”

Some might say that Nelly’s subject material is materialistic. Funny how so many of those same people forget that Run and D were riding in Cadillacs, sporting fresh Adidas and fat gold chains before many of today’s rap stars were even born. That’s not to say an excess of celebration doesn’t rub some the wrong way, especially when money is a lot harder to come by in 2008 than years past, but if you listen to any of his albums you know that Nelly is working hard for the money. It’s that extra muscle in his hustle that naturally comes through in his rhymes. You want to play for the team, he wants to own it. You want to buy some stock in Microsoft, he wants to buy out Bill Gates. No matter how unrealistic it’s what makes Nelly successful, because even if he falls short he’s still aiming so high that he’s going to land farther ahead anyway. “Brass Knuckles” aims high time and again with songs to please both his fans and the radio at the exact same time, from “Body On Me” featuring Akon & Ashanti to “Let it Go” featuring Pharrell. If you don’t like Nelly just because your favorite underground rapper can’t sell as many units as Cornell Haynes, that’s bullshit. Rap has always had room for every kind of flow, from every region of the country, on every topic imaginable. Nelly’s taken the St. Louis’ style to the world and the world seems to like it, no matter what a few loud and angry backpackers might say. Put a little pop in your life and what you’ll discover is that underneath the materialistic veneer Nelly’s got a good delivery, sharp lyrics and impeccable breath control, which would make him #1 no matter WHERE he was from. If you don’t respect that then the “Brass Knuckles” may just knock you out of the game.

Nelly :: Brass Knuckles
8Overall Score