I first discovered Nelly Furtado with her song "Party" on the beautifully compiled Brokedown Palace soundtrack. But it wasn't until I put a face to the voice (with the video for "I'm Like A Bird") and then heard her full-length debut, Whoa, Nelly!, that I fully realized the girl's talent and potential. The album is a delightful and refreshing antidote to the current army of "pop princesses" and rap-metal, showcasing a myriad of styles including pop, hip-hop, electronica, and folk.
The hit "I'm Like A Bird" is irresistible, and the same can be said for nearly every track on the album. Lyrics in songs like "Legend" can often be missed due to Furtado's unique phrasing (a la Alanis Morissette) and rhythmic meters (a la Busta Rhymes or Left Eye). She scats through a jazzy bridge in "Baby Girl," and invokes Erykah Badu's earthy vocal quality in the superb "Turn Off the Light." But comparisons won't overshadow her obvious personal style. Her mastery of rhythm and expression is admirable.
Furtado's words are sophisticated way beyond her mere twenty years. "On the Radio (Remember the Days)" speaks of a lost lover who thinks she's sold out: "It's so much easier to stay down there guaranteeing you're cool/Than to sit up here exposing myself trying to break through." She explores liberation and fame, and refers to the "shit on the radio" as if she agrees with her ex. "Hey, Man!" is virtually four minutes of pure pop intelligence: "I've got a bunch of government checks at my door/Each morning I try to send them back but they only send me more...Am I vital today?" On the drum n' bass-flavored "Well, Well," she confesses, "I only love God when the sun shines my way." It's an advanced sort of thinking that implies a promising lyrical future for Furtado.
Furtado's free-verse poetry flows meticulously over a Prince-esque riff in "Trynna Finda Way," flawlessly summing up the Internet generation's ambivalence: "To see past my lethargy is hard I feign/The beauty of my youth is gone but the chemicals remain." "I will Make U Cry" is viciously clever, with Furtado cooing and taunting a boy with insipid hahaha's, boohoo's, and faux kisses. Her sarcasm stings.
Whoa, Nelly! is an accomplished debut, blending Furtado's Portuguese heritage with producers Gerald Eaton and Brian West's hybrid of hip-hop beats and electronic sampling. Their impeccable production never diminishes Furtado's clear tone of voice (although you might need to read the lyric book to fully appreciate the breadth of her world). This could be the beginning of an extraordinary career.
© slant magazine, 2001.