Promiscuous World: Ten Years Ago, Nelly Furtado's 'Loose' Ate Music Alive
In 2006 Furtado did a stylistic 180 and teamed up with Timbaland to create one of the best pop records of the mid-aughts. Time to appreciate.
You probably haven't thought about or listened to Nelly Furtado's Loose album in a while. The Canadian singer seems to keep a pretty low profile these days and her third LP, which dropped 10 years ago this week, isn't quite old enough to have been nostalgically rediscovered like No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom or Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill. But as it celebrates its first major milestone birthday, it feels like the right time to reflect on how and why Loose became one of the defining pop albums of its era.
Furtado actually sums it up quite nicely in one of the album's spoken word interludes. Telling Timbaland, Loose's primary producer, why she thinks they work so well together. Stumbling over her words she says: "I always said if we hooked up... it's so crazy, because with your beats with, like, an emotional vocal? Dope, y'know?" This may not be very articulate, but it is pretty accurate. Of course Timbaland was already a legendary hip-hop producer—thanks to his work with Aaliyah and Missy—way before he was tapped by Furtado, but coupled with Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds, which came out a few months later, Loose was the album that made him the go-to guy for pop singers craving a fresher, more credible sound. The following year, he worked with everyone from Rihanna to Ashlee Simpson to Duran Duran, and in 2008 an uncharacteristically late to the party Madonna came knocking.
With his protégés Danja and Jim Beanz, Timbaland co-produced nine of Loose's 13 tracks. Not one is a dud, but as is the case with most pop albums, the highlights are the ones that became really big hits. The seductively sparse call-and-response of "Promiscuous" and oddly haunting rhythmic ballad "Say It Right" both made number one on the Billboard Hot 100, while the straight up club rush of "Maneater" was massive internationally. "All Good Things (Come to an End)," a folkier slowie co-written by Chris Martin, was a big hit abroad too and felt pretty significant at the time. Now, nobody blinks when Beyoncé duets with Jack White or Kanye hooks up with Paul McCartney, but in 2006 the idea of the Coldplay guy sharing studio time with the man who made Missy's best beats felt, well, kind of exotic.
"Promiscuous" also made Timbaland a star in his own right—remember the video, where he raps into his oh-so-2006 flip phone? It was the first track he featured on to become a proper pop hit, and he used it as a springboard for the following year's very successful Shock Value album, which paired him with Elton John, The Hives, Keri Hilson, Nicole Scherzinger, and Fall Out Boy, as well as Furtado and Timbaland again. For a while, it felt as though Timbo and his gigantic biceps were everywhere.
But it would be reductive and totally sexist to remember Loose as simply Timbaland's triumph. It was also a stroke of something close to genius from Furtado, a talented singer-songwriter who'd already had huge hits with "I'm Like a Bird" and "Turn Off the Light." Despite her early success, Furtado was strangely underrated before Loose and didn't seem like the kind of artist who was anyone's fave. But she realized before just about anyone else that teaming Timbaland beats with more overtly pop melodies could be "dope," and cleverly reinvented her image to compliment her new cooler sound. At the time, some commentators claimed she was "selling out" or catering to the basics by showing a more sexual side to her persona, but these accusations were clearly wide of the mark. It's true that Furtado embraced her sexuality during this era, but she did it in a way that felt self-determined and authentic to her. Picture her in the "Promiscuous" and "Maneater" videos; she's showing her abs, not her cleavage or her behind.
Admittedly, "Maneater" features a few lines that don't feel quite right in 2016. When she sings "move your body around like a nympho," it's a poor choice of words at best, and the reference to Full Metal Jacket's Vietnamese prostitute with the "love you long time" refrain now feels questionable too. But elsewhere Loose's sexual politics are somewhat more sound. When Timbo gets the horn on "Promiscuous," Furtado fires back: "You expect me to just let you hit it / But will you still respect me if you get it?" Meanwhile, standout album track "Glow" is a subtle celebration of cunnilingus, and "Do It", a song which almost sounds like a Timbaland re-fix of an early Madonna tune, teams with positive female sexuality. "I've changed my mind ? I'm ready for you this time," smoulders Furtado on the second verse.
It's also worth remembering that Loose has plenty of songs that aren't about sex at all. "No Hay Igual" is a delirious love song sung in Spanish, "Wait for You" finds Furtado fighting to save a relationship, and "In God's Hands" deals with the moment when you accept there's nothing left to save. "All Good Things (Come to an End)" is so totally timeless you can't believe no one wrote it sooner. And "Afraid" is a self-empowerment jam that still feels relatable in the social media era. "You're so afraid of what people might say / But that's OK, you'll soon get strong enough," Furtado sings reassuringly.
Neither Furtado nor Timbaland have ever really matched their Loose-era peaks. Furtado's Spanish language follow-up album, Mi Plan, felt like a conscious effort not to compete with Loose's blockbuster success. She wouldn't release another English language pop album until 2012's The Spirit Indestructible, on which, interestingly, she chose Rodney Jerkins as her main collaborator and didn't work with Timbaland at all. Meanwhile, Timbo became trapped by his increasingly over-exposed sound, though he's since enjoyed a semi-revival with JT's 20/20 Experience singles and his tracks for TV's Empire. But none of this undoes what they achieved with Loose: Timbaland beats. Emotional vocals. Dope, y'know?
Nick Levine will be playing this on loop all summer. We suggest you to do too. Also, he's on Twitter.