Nelly's decision to release his Sweatsuit project as two respective albums, Sweat and Suit -- the former clubby and insincere, the latter refined and mannered -- is somewhat of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it's nice to pick whichever side of Nelly's persona you prefer, whether in general or at any particular moment; on the other hand, the separate-album concept makes for two very one-dimensional albums that begin to sound formulaic by their respective conclusions. The thing is, Nelly has plenty of great songs here on these two albums. Quality certainly isn't an issue -- he works with a who's who of pop-rap circa 2004, from the Neptunes to Christina Aguilera to Snoop Dogg to Missy Elliott, and ends up with a wealth of certified and could-be hits. Yet by sorting them into two different categories and then lumping them together onto two separate CDs, the diversity at hand is nullified. Granted, this two-styles, two-discs approach worked well for OutKast on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (and less well, but well nonetheless, for R. Kelly on Happy People/U Saved Me), but it doesn't work so well for Nelly. His Sweatsuit recordings are diverse, for sure, but OutKast he isn't, nor is he the Pied Piper. Rather, Nelly is essentially a pop star who happens to rap, and as such, he specializes in calculated pop formulas -- namely clubby, cocky party songs (previously "Hot in Herre," presently "Flap Your Wings") and sweet, sultry love songs (previously "Dilemma," presently "My Place"). And by sorting those two formulas into respective albums, the calculation becomes overt and comes across as formulaic to discerning listeners. The key, then, is to not be a discerning listener: it's best to just let these songs play and take them for what they are -- well-done popcraft.
The Suit disc is by far the more interesting disc of the two. There are only 11 songs here, but thankfully they're relatively diverse compared to those of Sweat. All except three of them are collabos, and often the collaborators steal the show, reducing Nelly to guest status on his own album. "Play It Off," a tiptop-shelf Neptunes joint boasting a great Pharrell vocal contribution, kicks off the album marvelously, and the next two tracks -- "Pretty Toes" and "My Place" -- are top draws also. The former is a fun Jazze Pha song toasting fly girls, and the latter is a "Dilemma" retread -- where that song had aped Patti LaBelle's "Love, Need and Want You" for its hook (to much success), this one apes yet another Philly soul classic, Teddy Pendergrass' bedroom ballad "Come Go With Me" (again, to much success). Another highlight is "She Don't Know My Name," a Speakerboxxx-like Big Boi (of OutKast) production where Ron Isley and Snoop Dogg steal the show, leaving Nelly only a 45-second verse for himself. Most of the other songs have their virtues: for instance, "N Dey Say" appropriates Spandau Ballet's timeless 1983 Top Ten hit "True"; "Woodgrain and Leather Wit a Hole" is a laid-back ode to smoking and driving (hydro smoking, that is); "It's My Life" marks the return of (...drum roll, please) Mase; and "Over and Over" includes an overdubbed hook by country star Tim McGraw that works much better than it should. All of this amounts to a brief album with absolutely no filler. Granted, Nelly's rapping here is more restrained and insubstantial than ever, but when you have a cast of collaborators like this, the actual rapping is beside the point -- these are fun songs, plain and simple, and wonderfully catchy to boot. This makes for a great album. Had Nelly combined the 49-minute Suit with the half-dozen highlights from Sweat, however, he'd have a really great album. (Doing just that on your PC or Mac is highly recommended, by the way, and quite fun.) ~ Jason Birchmeier