November 2, 2000

A Queen Among Commoners

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Music in general is an ever evolving pit of imitation. Grasping at every chance for stardom and profit, countless acts channel their ambition into the latest trend. The end result of this is a flock of sound-alikes trying to ride the coattails of more talented and innovative artists.

This fact makes Whoa Nelly, the debut album from 19-year old Canadian singer Nelly Furtado, even more impressive than it already is. While not unaware of the current musical landscape, Furtado’s work manages to channel trends without following them. Instead, she blends them skillfully into an original, if timely, musical hybrid.

Combining elements of Latin music, drum-and-bass, and sugary pop, the songs on Whoa Nelly are beautifully schizophrenic, working in enough new angles to keep listeners from establishing a clear set of expectations.

In keeping with the “do your own thing” feel, Nelly Furtado’s songwriting manages to avoid the blissfully content lyrics that characterize today’s female pop scene. Instead, she wavers between mourning the harsh side of love and vocalizing the massive sense of empowerment that can only come from a woman with sex appeal.

The dichotomy between “Baby Girl”‘s predatorial “so take yourself and wrap around my little finger” and the painfully vulnerable “I remember the days when I was so eager to satisfy you/ and be less than I was just to prove I could walk beside you” manages to give Whoa Nelly a human element that isn’t present in most pop music. By not shying away from unpleasant emotions, she manages to exist as a real person, instead of merely being a carnal fantasy like her counterparts.

Furtado’s voice does even more to highlight the emotion of her lyrics. In a time when vocal maturity has come to mean something high gloss and technically perfect, songs like “Party” move in an opposite direction, showcasing the feelings that exist in every accidental crack of the voice. While she does showcase a more traditional vocal style on the album-closing “Scared of You,” she manages to avoid over-singing her songs, knowing better than to hide clever lyrics like “I’m drinking spirits in the hopes that I will find myself one” behind unnecessary vocal flourishes.

Musically, Whoa Nelly combines a seemingly random mix of elements, incorporating unexpected sounds in unexpected ways, resulting in something that sounds vaguely, but unidentifiably, familiar. “Trynna Finda Way” combines spoken word poetry with a slinky keyboard run recycled from Dr. Dre’s “Forgot About Dre,” while “Scared of You” works in Spanish guitars. Elsewhere, touches of drum-and-bass and reggae are blended in, surrounding the basic building blocks of acoustic guitar and percussion.

This creativity is what makes Whoa Nelly so refreshing. While a lot of music can’t help but seem uninspired and derivative, Nelly Furtado manages to craft something which is at once lively, unbelievably catchy, adventurous, and unexpected.

Sounding nothing like what her beautiful blue eyes and pastel cover art would lead listeners to expect, Furtado transcends pop music’s often limited scope, instead creating a debut album that is both entertaining and thoughtful.

Archived article by Mike Giusto