It's exciting to have Nelly Furtado back, considering she gave the mid-2000s an unassailable block of singles with "Maneater," "Promiscuous Girl" and "Say It Right." But times have changed since then. Those three singles were Timbaland collaborations right before Timbaland collaborations started to suck, and Furtado's been mostly out of the urban-pop game since. She's been on the Latin charts a few times and got some traction with greatest-hits compilation, respectable achievements all but hardly the stuff of a total comeback. "Big Hoops (The Bigger The Better)", produced by Darkchild, is her bid for re-entry. Is there a place for Nelly, though, in 2012? Listen below.
Almost every early reviewer's compared Furtado's vocal performance here to Rihanna's, and it's not hard to see why. It's no coincidence that every article about the state of the songwriting machine today, the ones in NPR to The New Yorker and those sorts of places, focuses on Rihanna, because she dominates urban pop to such a degree nowadays that her vocal style is the default, the one everyone wants to emulate. That's what Furtado does; the taffy-stretched autotune, drawled patois and eh-eh punctuation are straight off one of Rih's demo tracks. It's uncanny, even startling; "Big Hoops" really does sound like Nelly had Rihanna's vocal cords grafted in place of hers.
If that happened, though, she'd still be Nelly Furtado, who's always had a livelier presence than her pop peers. And there are plenty of details to these "Big Hoops" that distinguish it from urban-pop boilerplate. Darkchild's sashaying production mostly avoids 2012 cliches; even his timely tricks, like the staccato percussion taps he pulls out or churning bass, are inobtrusive enough not to grate. Nor do the lyrics. The point of "Big Hoops" is that hypnotic "the bigger the better the bigger the better" chant, which works so well it makes everything else irrelevant, but a line like "I don't wanna talk about sex, wanna express myself tonight" might as well be the complete opposite of, say, something off Talk That Talk. Furtado might sing like Rihanna, but she acts like herself.
Not convinced? You probably haven't heard the whole song. About three-fourths in, the track stops swaying for Nelly to cut in, speaking: "Thought this song is over? *giggles* No, it ain't over yet!" What comes next is exhilarating: first the track ratchets up ("I can go fast," Furtado sings), the percussion closer to drum-and-bass than pop templates usually allow, then lurches to a pitch-shifted, heaving stop. It's the sort of moment pop's fantastic at delivering, and if Furtado's album has many more of them, it'll be a welcome comeback indeed.