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 Sweat disc in particular features, at least, a half-dozen songs that could be smash hits, whether on radio, on MTV, or in clubs: "Na-Nana-Na," "Flap Your Wings," "Tilt Ya Head Back," "Grand Hang Out," "Playa," and "Boy" are all first-rate party rap, on a par with anything else out there on the market in 2004. The others are above average also, resulting in a damn impressive lineup of songs. But they're all distinctly clubby and therefore get a little tiring after a while. It'd be nice to have some of the steamy slow jams from Suit interspersed throughout, if only for the sake of variety, not to mention an occasional (heavy) breather. Still, good music is good music, and Nelly comes up a winner here on Sweat. In no shape or manner is this disc a disappointment -- it lives up to its billing and then some. Had Nelly blended these songs with those of Suit into a double-disc buffet or, better yet, cherry-picked them for a single-disc bouquet, he'd have a truly amazing album. (Doing just that on your PC or Mac is highly recommended, by the way, and quite fun.) ~ Jason Birchmeier