Nelly Furtado’s ‘Loose’ Turns 10: Backtracking

Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Our friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.

A decade on, it’s clear that 2006 was a standout year for pop. Justin Timberlake brought “SexyBack,” Fergie went solo, Beyoncé demanded all unfaithful men move it to the left and Christina Aguilera channeled Marilyn Monroe in her latest reinvention. However, there was one achievement that may have eclipsed all of that. As the balmy weather of the summer season crept upon us, so did a slew of pop confections that seemed to be scientifically engineered to dominate in the hot weather months. And they improbably came from Nelly Furtado.

Under Timbaland‘s tutelage, Furtado explored her inner pop diva and unleashed her sexual side on the dance-centric hit factory called Loose, which was released ten years ago today (June 20). Who would’ve thought that the same woman who burst onto the scene with “I’m Like A Bird” would revamp her image into a midriff-baring siren? Ten years on, it’s still one of the most shocking — and successful — transformations in modern pop music.

We’re used to pop today having no barriers, but Nelly Furtado embraced this notion before it became commonplace. Anyone who has indulged in the Canadian singer’s back catalog knows of her inclination to hopscotch from one genre to the next, and in that context Loose was no cheap commercial grab, as detractors would argue at the time, but just her latest stylistic experiment. It was a playful blend of ’80s-inspired pop, old school hip-hop, funk and reggaeton, resulting in one of the most radio-ready albums of that year.

It all started with her comeback single “Promiscuous,” which immediately marked the arrival of 2006’s most unsuspecting pop juggernaut. The hip-hop flavored tune spent six weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 and its accompanying video featured a sexually liberated Furtado, a far cry from the folksy neo-hippie we were introduced to on her much-loved 2000 debut WHOA, Nelly!.

Loose is one of those rare pop achievements in which every track could have been a single, but these weren’t just surface pleasures. The album is a welcome addition to the collection of female pop albums that preach about taking ownership of one’s sexuality, all of which could be traced back to Janet Jackson‘s 1993 album, janet. Opening track “Afraid” is an empowering message of strength in the face of public scrutiny, kicking things off with a guitar solo before transitioning towards a rhythmic electro beat. The song’s lyrics (“So afraid of what people might say / But that’s okay cause you’re only human”) chronicle Furtado’s fears of the public’s perception of her, and possibly allude to how well- or ill-received she thought her image makeover would be in the media. Featuring a brief cameo from Attitude, the opener served as a reminder to all millennials who came of age in 2006 that they have “the choice to take or lead or follow” and that it’s better to be “paid than popular.” It was an anthem for those who traipse through the halls of high school wracked with insecurity — in other words, everyone.

Following that is “Maneater,” the album’s second single in North America. With its confident set of lyrics (“I want to see you all on your knees, knees / You either want to be with me, or be me!”), it became the go-to club number for any women feelin’ themselves on a Friday night. (Furtado would echo that lyrical approach on “Glow,” doing her best Gwen Stefani vocal inflection while aggressively demanding an unnamed lover “make her glow.”) Although not as successful as “Promiscuous,” it managed to crack the Top 20 on the charts.

Not all of Loose was a dance-floor rendezvous, though. Tender moments of reflection come in spades but are remarkably salient. Songs like “No Hay Igual” and “Te Busque” were rendered in ornate blends of reggaeton and Latin pop, respectively. The latter track, which features Colombian pop star Juanes, features lyrics that depict Furtado’s past struggles with depression: “I’ve been too sad to speak and too tired to eat / Been too lonely to sing the devil cut off my wings.”

But perhaps the album’s best moment and arguably Furtado’s strongest offering as a lead artist is “Say It Right,” the album’s third single. A keyboard-driven R&B number again assisted by Timbo, it recalls the ’80s offerings of Eurythmics, with lyrics that allude to transcendentalism and overcoming a romantic breakup (“From my mouth I could sing you another brick that I laid / From my body I could show you a place God knows”). Furtado’s alternately chilly and warm vocals serve as an excellent foil for the track’s spare, skeletal beat. Proving that the chemistry between Furtado and Timbaland was no fluke, the song became the second track from Loose to reach No. 1, ending the 10-week streak of Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” and propelling the album back into the top ten of the Billboard 200 in March 2007.

Possibly due to the failure of her sophomore effort, 2003’s Folklore, many were quick to assume that Furtado made a calculating decision to adopt a sexual image to sell more records. First of all, more power to her if she did. And secondly, the name is right there: Loose. It’s a self-aware move that echoed the evolution of her predecessors like Christina AguileraTLCMadonna and Janet Jackson, joining a proud tradition of pop chicks gone bad. A year shy of Rihanna‘s reinvention with Good Girl Gone BadLoose had already perfected the concept, which is no small reason why it topped the charts and ultimately sold more than 12 million copies worldwide.

Nelly Furtado’s stunning transformation from free spirit to sexpot resulted in one of the most memorable pop albums to emerge from the 2000s. Its music and image overhaul are as fresh and vital now as a decade ago.

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