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If you stripped Ludacris of his punch lines and robbed Robert Kelly of his ability to sing, then left them in a studio for a month you’d come out with an artist like Nelly; Melodically enjoyable with enough swagger to make you almost spill your drink at the club. While said artist will never find themselves in nerdfest arguments about greatest of anything, he will be a must have in music collections. Ever since his debut in 2000 with Country Grammar Nelly has walked this line of being affable and entertaining without pushing the envelope and his latest, Brass Knuckles is no different.

Cornell Haynes, Jr. plays to the crowd hard on his first release in four years. Rick Ross, T.I. and Gucci Maine are recruited to keep the d-boyz in his corner and veterans Snoop, Chuck D and LL (who gets a not so subtle nod in the albums creatine-enhanced artwork) are there to appease anyone who still cares to argue whether Nelly is “hip-hop” enough.

But Nelly is most comfortable in his “Rhythm and Bruise” lane that mixes copious amounts of crooning with flirtatious four-letter words. A soon-to-be single Usher lends a hand on “Long Night” as Nelly pimps with his signature wit: “He gonna put you in his black book, I’ll put you in the Guiness…some call me Dennis, cuz my Rodman diggin’ in leave ‘em all screamin out daamn…”

The middle of the disc plays like a lock and key party with Nelly pairing off his male and female guests for musical menajes. Akon and Ashanti ruffle the sheets on the formulaic “Body On Me” and Jermaine Dupri leads Ciara by the hand on this CD’s Nike commercial, “My J’z.” However, listeners will raise a collective eyebrow on “Let It Go” where Nelly seems to channel Big Boi from Outkast in both flow and delivery.

The results are pretty good when Nelly hooks up with his St. Lunatic clique on the hard- body “Chill” and the hilarious “Lie” with its absurd hook, “She said you tried to fuuck heerrrr, well she’s a motherfuuuckin liee.”

On the downside “One and Only” is a sappy mish-mash of Champaign’s “Try Again” and Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” where Nelly decides to sing the whole thing. At least he didn’t break out the ten gallon hat and spurs this time.

With the exception of the I-am-somebody PSA “Self-Esteem,” Brass Knuckles is a collection of the same escapist Maybach music that has dominated much of the airwaves this year. It may not be the knock-out blow to the masses that he was anticipating but Nelly went to the mat for his core listeners.

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