“Caught Out There”. “I’m A Slave 4 U”. “Like I Love You”. “Milkshake”. “Rock Your Body”. All productions by the Neptunes, all Top 5 hits here, all early-00s pop landmarks, still accorded due reverence. None of them, however, are the Neptunes’ first UK Number One. That honour goes to “Flap Your Wings”, half of the double A-Side lead single from Nelly’s two-for-the-price-of-two LP release, Sweat and Suit.

“Flap Your Wings” is not prime Neptunes. It’s not even the kind of thing you’d put on a list of their hidden gems. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s functional – a funky, urgent, bongo-driven groove whose busyness sounds more like that other totemic 00s producer Timbaland than the Neptunes’ trademark lean, off kilter rhythms. The beat isn’t a great fit for Nelly as a rapper either – his strengths are more conversational, the way he’ll slip in tender or cheeky asides, like “Hot In Herre”’s “unless your gon’ do it”. But on “Flap Your Wings” he sounds more mechanical, his flow more rigid, his voice one-note and pinched. He’s trying to recapture some of the lightning that made “Hot In Herre” or “Country Grammar” so charismatic, but it’s not something he can do on command.

“My Place”, on the flip, has the opposite problem. Nelly sounds more himself on this loverman’s apology tune, but the undeniably expensive, sample-built backing is anonymous in its opulence. Together the single is two halves of a good track, separated and frustratingly padded, which makes it the perfect launch single for a classic successful man’s folly like Sweat and Suit, an LP which became two for the flimsiest of reasons. (Sweat is for the uptempo jams, Suit for the classy lover’s rap, though nothing in Nelly’s previous work suggested a need to separate them – and a year later the star relented and issued a single-disc highlights comp with the unlovely name of Sweatsuit.)

Like many an act before him – hello Oasis! – the market demand for Nelly product was peaking just as inspiration began to fade. The LPs performed well enough that they’re not remembered as a bomb, but they manifestly weren’t classics, and they bring the curtain down on Nelly’s “imperial phase”. They also point to a growing problem with the UK charts in this era.

Ideally, the charts ought to be a perfect mirror of the heat around an artist – when they have the juice, they’re recording good stuff, and the public want to know more, the chart placings should be high. When they fall off, we shouldn’t be seeing them in Popular. Even in the chart’s glory days this wasn’t always the case, but at this point the charts are often a lagging indicator, reflecting label investment and expectation more than public enthusiasm. To make matters worse, maximum expectation coincides with maximum pressure to ship any product, even if it’s lacking the previous magic. It’s a vicious cycle which makes mediocre No.1s more likely. I’ll dig into the reasons and mechanics behind all this when we reach the fiasco of the 1000th No.1, but the Neptunes and Nelly are victims of these bad incentives. And – because their best work misses the top and their lesser retreads make it – so are we.

Score: 5

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