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Nelly FurtadoCourtesy of Geffen/Universal Music Group

The spiritual and sexual legacy of Nelly Furtado

When the Canadian singer covered Drake and Rihanna’s ‘Too Good’ last month, it was a subtle reminder of how she transformed the pop music landscape ten years earlier

Last month, Nelly Furtado released her cover of Drake and Rihanna’s “Too Good”. What was once a shimmering, Caribbean-inspired groove that masked a trouble in paradise became a stripped-down guitar ballad confronting a tense relationship head-on. “Last night, I got high as your expectations,” Furtado cries, pushing Drake’s agitation at an imperfect romance to even more desperate heights. Though she ventures the duet alone, it’s maybe no surprise that she chose to cover “Too Good” – the song recalls another sultry, tongue-in-cheek duet, her own chart-busting “Promiscuous”. Recorded with Timbaland, the song (along with Loose, the album that it appeared on) pretty much transformed 2006 into a drum-pounding pop-R&B dancefloor.

“Too Good” and “Promiscuous” both detail restless romances occurring on a night out partying. “Promiscuous” imitates a call-and-response sexual flirtation, most likely developing in a loud dance club, with Timbaland expressing “I want you on my team” – to which Furtado sharply responds, “So does everybody else.” Their sentiments are brief as the two are frantic to get to the point – sex. With Drake and Rihanna however, the words are premeditated, yet they introduce an element of doubt into their desired outcome. Drake presents his squandered attempt at love (“I don’t know how to be there when you need me”), but Rihanna serves her own counterpoint later in her verse singing “Lately you just make me work too hard for you.” Where the lyrics to “Promiscuous” are concise with their desires, “Too Good” plays on passive aggression. If Furtado and Timbaland’s interaction was happening on a BBM exchange, Drake and Rihanna’s are undoubtedly occurring in the DMs.

Furtado never let “Promiscuous” be her only legacy in this era. Even though the album Loose is rarely discussed in 2000s look-backs, its by-product has influenced and debased pop music to this day. The album arrived at a time when popular music was timidly reverting back towards conservatism. The biggest songs in the UK by the beginning of the year were Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day”, James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful”, and Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten”, all fairly bland soft rock descendants fit for American Idol elimination montages. A few months later, Furtado released “Maneater”, the first single from Loose and an abrasive industrial banger that narrates the exploits of a cunning woman (who Furtado swears “you wish you never ever met her at all”) over pulsing hi-hats and moaning male vocals that, during production, literally set the studio on fire. The track’s sonic textures and affective, creepy visuals were a rarity at the time, but they’re not hard to find today in alternative pop artists like BANKS, whose 2016 single “Gemini Feed” sees the singer, situated in a consternating warehouse, recount her own involvement with a manipulative ex-lover.

Loose was a brave album – before it, Furtado was known as the pig-tailed sprite singing to birds and brewing world cup anthem music. But after the commercially unsuccessful Folklore and the dissolution of her label, she was eager to abandon the sophisti-pop tag that had been attributed to her since the Grammy winning Whoa, Nelly and instead make music that, in her own words, made her feel ‘liberated’. “It’s a really primal album,” she said at the time, and she wasn’t wrong. The saccharine “Do It” brazenly opens with “You’re standing at the door / I’m falling to the floor / You look even better than you did before,” a line so improvised and nonchalant you can’t help but go along with the plot. “No Hay Igual” is the frantic, Spanish-sung reggaetón number that catches the listener off-guard after “Showtime”, a sweltering ode to Madonna. The minimal, Eurythmics-inspired album standout “Say It Right”, accompanied by the stunning Rankin-directed video, became Furtado’s most successful single worldwide. And the final dance song, “Wait For You”, was the Gwen Stefani single that never was.

Furtado exemplified her range and willingness to experiment. In interviews she stated how she wanted to stop thinking too much and follow her impulses wherever her bamboo hoop’d ears took her. All this optimism and prosperity however, landed her major criticism. Her sex positivity wasn’t always treated casually – even Fergie dissed her on “Fergalicious” (“But I ain’t promiscuous”), to which Furtado later retorted “Seen you tryna switch it up but girl you ain’t that dope” on the Timbaland and Justin Timberlake-accompanied “Give It To Me”. The most common criticism was that she’d sold out, something that forgets her forays into different genres like the curious Michael Bublé duet or the iconic “Get Ur Freak On” remix with Missy Elliott. Furtado continually had the proficiency to make straightforward dance records like the speed-singing “Turn Off The Light”, but with the first half of Loose she made it immensely clear that she wanted to actually sing about dancing and having sex.

The second half, meanwhile, contained soulful and spiritual balladry. “My goal is to always record albums where pretty much every song sounds just as good with only an acoustic guitar and a vocal,” she once told the BBC. Suddenly there was an actual volume decrease, where imagery of deities and the afterlife painted portraits of relationships coming to a fated end. “Our love’s floating up in the sky in heaven / Where it began, back in God’s hands,” cries the chorus to “In God’s Hands”, while the Chris Martin co-written “All Good Things (Come to an End)” reflects similar sentiments. These tracks were weaved in between songs about lust and sex, a unique and daring performance we’d see in ten years with Beyoncé’s LEMONADE.

Now, in a 2016 where sex positivity is treated with greater regard, where irony and playfulness is welcome and where women in music get to break the rules a little more, Loose can retrospectively be seen as an album that explored its humour and ambition to not take itself or its creator too seriously. There’s no way of guessing if she really was warning these men of a “Maneater” or just scaring them for her own amusement, nor whether she’d even leave with Timbaland by the end of the night (the Steve Nash reference might be a clue). And there’s certainly no telling what “Say It Right” was even about. The best visual representation of the album was at the May 2006 season finale of Saturday Night Live, where Furtado performed “Promiscuous” with Timbaland. Her demeanour and charm was flirtatious, teasing at Timbaland’s stoic composure as he struggled not to immerse himself in her high spirit. It’s comparable – and perhaps further tethered to gender roles – as Drake and Rihanna today: in the “Take Care” video, Rihanna lets Drake stroke her longingly while she kind of just stands there, while at the VMAs, she reacts to his professed love with a dab. In these instances, Furtado and Rihanna have the instruments to grant their men dominance, but they’re choosing not to.  

This of course brings us back to Furtado’s cover of “Too Good”, where, fittingly, she turns Drake’s thumping victim complex into an MTV Unplugged session. The cover is a gift to longtime fans, but also a silent nudge to the general public: I did this first. And as she prepares for her comeback album The Ride next year, she reminds us of how Loose shook pop music to its core. It’s no wonder that “Promiscuous” begins with Furtado asking: “Am I throwing you off?”