Software release versions are supposed to signal some sort of advancement or rebirth, perhaps new features or capabilities that weren’t present in older, simpler versions. Such is not the case with Nelly’s 5.0, an alleged “upgrade” completely devoid of innovation, growth or risk-taking from the former platinum superstar. Happy enough calling in favors from old friends and cranking out attempted club hits, 5.0 plays like a last gasp from an artist who has seen the game move beyond what he’s capable of.
For those familiar to Nelly’s catalog, which should include anyone who has turned on the radio in the last decade, the tracklist, production and lyrics will feel awfully redundant. From lead track “I’m Still Number One,” there’s little effort to mask disinterest on mixing things up. Guest collaborations focus on artists with whom Nelly’s had success in the past, such as Kelly Rowland and Puffy, as opposed to bringing in any fresh blood. Lack of lyrical growth doesn’t help as most Nelly throws out mundane lines that could have been written anytime throughout the course of his career: “to older women you can call me cougar bait/to all you haters i’m going to call you too late.”
Even if Nelly doesn’t have anything new to offer, the old hitmaking skills remain intact, enough to provide a few moments of pure pop satisfaction. Lead single “Just a Dream” has already outperformed your average early aughts rapper’s comeback attempt, relying on a tried and true formula of a catchy hooks and lowest common denominator sonic and lyrical appeal. This isn’t the only moment of potential fodder for your local R&B station: Nelly still plays the part of soft-hearted hard ass, crooning effectively in a reunification with Kelly Rowland “Gone,” a smooth serenade that could provide some late juice for both careers. T.I. and Nelly show natural chemistry as fast-paced rappers adept to mixing street and suave on the upbeat “She’s So Fly,” although T.I.’s lyrical superiority shows why he’s taken the crown as favored sensitive thug.
The latest update to Nelly’s musical career lacks one of its prior strengths—cutting edge production. Gone are the days of serving as a flagship artist for The Neptunes. The tracks consistently lack the diversity of the work of music makers of their stature, let alone the street sensibilities of a Country Grammar. While some dance cuts, such as the Akon, T-Pain, collabo “Move That Body” do contain a little oomph, much more common is the mundane 80s R&B of “Long Gone,” a lazy effort from Polow da Don that is reminiscent of something your grandma listens to.
By the time 5.0 wraps up, those who spent their hard earned cash on this “upgrade” will be pining for the dirtier platform. It doesn’t help that Nelly closes the album with a dubious crooner—the better forgotten “Nothing Without Her”—that’s sure to leave very little good impressions. A few single-worthy tracks, some surprising chart performance and an inevitable Grammy nomination may dupe casual fans of Nelly’s continued relevance. Don’t be fooled—5.0 is the work of a star about to burn out.