10 Years Later: Nelly, ‘Sweatsuit’ Album
Not even a full month ago, it was announced that Nelly, born Cornell Haynes Jr., would be releasing a country EP titled Heartland. It’s a move that shouldn't surprise anyone, especially his fans.
More than a decade ago, on the cusp of hitting his thirties, Nelly decided to rip off the Band-Aid -- literally and figuratively speaking -- grow up a little and show a smidgen of vulnerability when he dropped two albums, Sweat and Suit on Sept. 13, 2004. Nearly five years into his already successful solo career, the Universal signee was white-hot and one of the standout records from the aforementioned Suit disc was the Tim McGraw-assisted “Over and Over.” While the collaboration was a headscratcher for some, many saw it as the St. Louis native pushing the same boundaries as he did years before with the candy-coated lyrics of his smash debut Country Grammar.
The fact that Nelly had the gall to drop two full-priced albums on the same day unequivocally made waves. His intention was to present the hip-hop industry with a fresh look at his musical capabilities -- certainly much more mature than the singles he started with at the turn of the millennium. Still, Sweat embodied much of that carefree, youthful spirit although Suit outsold it, two times over.
Jack Smith of BBC Music wrote: “Of the two records, Sweat is by far the stronger. Nelly is hardly the world’s greatest rapper, but, given the right set of beats, he makes a superb cheerleader. His past triumphs were built almost solely on making you move and, at its best, Sweat certainly accomplishes that.”
So on May 16, 2005, Nelly made things even easier for his supporters and dropped a compilation disc called Sweatsuit, 10 years old today -- where he essentially doubled back and sold the same product twice. Genius. Something that, if done by another artist, the reaction may not have been as welcoming. This fourth offering from the “Flap Your Wings” creator showcased four new tracks with some pretty big features to include Paul Wall and The Notorious B.I.G.
The album also featured one of Nelly’s biggest hits to date, “Grillz” featuring Paul Wall and Ali and Gipp. The song, produced by Jermaine Dupri, borrowed a sample of Destiny’s Child “Soldier” from the previous year and proved in all of its lightheartedness, to be one of 2005’s most omnipresent ditties. This was a treat -- “Grillz” bounced. It was effervescent, an ode to shiny things and people loved it even those resistant to Nelly’s catalogue in previous years. Nonetheless the album fell short of its predecessors -- only receiving a gold certification and peaking at number 26 on the Billboard 200. Quite a difference from what the double disc release did in the previous year.
The general consensus has always been this: Nelly is great at making club tunes and has been since his start. In 2010, Mikey Fresh of Vibe asked the rapper about his thoughts on being brushed off as less than a “real MC.”
“I didn’t understand what 'he isn’t a real MC' meant,” he replied.
“Should I not try to succeed and sell millions of albums? I thought ‘doing you’ and people accepting it validated what you were doing as ‘real’. We did everything coming up from the battles, talent contests, and quote or unquote mixtape songs. I mean, I could get what people are saying about the music in a certain sense. But I’ve always kept it real with myself.”
One rare review of the Sweatsuit compilation comes from AllMusic’s Jason Birchmeier who offered a scorchingly honest opinion. First, that the added songs were less than momentous and probably should have been left on whatever cutting room floor they were rescued from (“The new songs are unexceptional -- and not entirely new, some of them available elsewhere...”). Then, he took to task the marketing of Sweat and Suit:
“For those who don't already own Sweat or Suit, Sweatsuit is an economical means of picking up the many highlights of those albums in one purchase. It's a wise re-release, and one wishes it would have been available a year earlier for the sake of cash-strapped fans who felt ambivalence toward the prospect of buying two spotty, relatively brief albums when a single-disc, 80-minute one like this would have offered more value.”
To put these opinions in perspective, at the top of 2005, the Game dropped his debut album, The Documentary, amidst a storm of controversy between himself and 50 Cent. Beyond the beef, the project was critically acclaimed, showcasing the LA rapper in his best light as a hood storyteller. He brought a familiar but fresh view to the hip-hop landscape -- and the west coast hadn’t been winning past the Rocky Mountains for a notable stretch of time.
Later in 2005, Kanye West dropped his much-anticipated second studio LP, Late Registration. Akin to The College Dropout, while just a bit more developed and mature, West hooked new fans with dreamy tales of success just barely beyond his grasp over production that was undeniably inspired.
The week that followed Sweatsuit’s release, Chicago MC Common dropped his sixth album, Be, featuring tracks like “The Corner” and “Testify” -- the LP would be his first under West’s GOOD Music label. Be was yet another critically acclaimed album of 2005, even boasting a perfect rating from XXL.
With these factors considered, a compilation album from Nelly featuring many of the same tracks from the two previous releases wouldn’t fare well for the St. Lunatic. Sweatsuit came and went just as quickly and rap fans looked ahead -- it peaked at No. 26 on the Billboard 200 chart. Mike Schiller of PopMatters said, “Apart from “Grillz”, Sweatsuit as a whole is frustratingly flaccid. All it really serves to point out is just what a two-trick pony Nelly has become, even going so far as to reduce the impact of the singles by placing them next to virtual twins...”
“Once 'Over & Over' ends,” Schiller continued, “Even the so-called 'best' of the two discs isn’t enough to hold the attention of even the most patient listeners. The supposed dance tracks don’t bump like they should, and the suave tracks descend into a mire of self-pity and undercooked R&B croon.”
Here's to hoping that Heartland satisfies Nelly's need to experiment while reviving the feeling we had the first time we heard Sweat and Suit -- before Sweatsuit was even considered.
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