Four years in hip-hop might as well be an eternity. But that’s how long it’s been since Nelly dropped an LP (technically, Sweat/Suit was two albums released on the same day, but who’s counting?). The point is, the climate in rap is much different than it was back in 2004. MTV still played videos, blogs weren’t as big, records were still selling and Nelly was on top of the world. Coming off 2000’s eight-times-platinum Country Grammar and 2002’s six-times-platinum Nellyville, the St. Lunatic leader saw his ambitious dual-disc effort—the rap-themed Sweat and the R&B-centric Suit—sell over a million copies each. The latter was even nominated for a Grammy. But tragedy struck in 2005, when Nelly lost his sister to leukemia. Since then, the rap superstar has been relatively quiet, save for a few guest spots and last year’s tepidly received buzz single “Wadsyaname.” Finally ready to reclaim the spotlight, Nelly offers up the long-delayed Brass Knuckles.

The first item of business on Nelly’s to-do list is addressing his hip-hop hiatus. On “Let It Go Lil Mama,” the percussion-heavy Neptunes production gives way to Pimp Juice’s overflowing confidence: “I’m the most underrated, underappreciated/Most sold to dated fuckin’ rapper we got/See, I don’t drop every year to give you niggas a shot.” Then, on the exultant “You Ain’t Him,” he sends shots at hatin’-ass poseurs (“I hear a lot of that, I did this, I hear a lot of that, I did that/But while they in front of him, when he take the stand, he pointing at the stand like, He did that”). He’s similarly charged up on the Fergie-assisted first single, “Party People,” and expertly rides a haunting piano melody with his fellow St. Lunatics on “Chill.”

Problem is, for most of the LP, Nelly Nel rarely displays any real creative license and takes few risks. Yes, Mr. Country Grammar has been known to harmonize on occasion, but his off-key singing on “One and Only” makes for an intolerable listen, while the smooth piano melody and deep 808 knock of “L.A.” comes off as a cliché Left Coast record, complete with predictable guests Snoop and Nate Dogg. Then there’s “Long Night,” an underwhelming adventure into debauchery that displays little synergy between Nelly and his co-star, Usher, who gives a phoned-in performance over his brother J. Lack’s jazzy track.

Luckily, the soulful bass groove of “Self Esteem” breaks up the monotony of the album’s heavy drums and synthesizers, as Nelly surprisingly spits politically charged rhymes (“I pledge allegiance all the way to Iraq/But nobody pledging to me when
I get back/Tell my Uncle Sam he was wrong for that”). But it’s hardly enough to offset the overabundance of lackluster guest appearances (T.I. and LL Cool J on “Hold Up,” Akon and Ashanti on “Body on Me”) and conceptual retreads like “J’z” (see “Air Force Ones,” from Nellyville).

After such a long layoff, Brass Knuckles was supposed to help solidify Nelly as the king of pop rap, but instead of elevating the St. Louis rapper’s status, the project merely maintains the status quo. Even if this album isn’t as noteworthy as his previous efforts, Nelly cranks out a few surefire moments of greatness that prove he can still make it go down, down, baby.—PAUL CANTOR