Over the weekend at a karaoke bar in the southside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a couple got up to sing Nelly Furtado and Timbaland‘s “Promiscuous.” After they finished their sentimental moment, I turned to a friend and asked, “Did you know she just released an album at the end of last month?” “Wait… What? No way! What has Nelly Furtado been doing?” It wasn’t the first time I received that type of reaction. In fact, it’s been universal for the past few weeks since the pop star released her sixth studio album, The Ride, on March 31.
A decade ago, this wouldn’t have been a problem. The Grammy winner had been on top of the industry, riding the wave of 2006’s Loose. Met with light controversy — thanks to the star’s newly flirtatious and sexually empowered persona, alongside her transition from alternative-folk to full-fledged club-tempo pop&B — the Billboard 200 chart-topper managed to provide summer smashes and break sales records a year after its release. If you couldn’t escape hearing her cheeky reference to Steve Nash on the radio, then you probably saw her finishing in first place on TRL‘s countdown next to a helicopter. “Promiscuous” and “Say It Right” both reached the summit of the Billboard Hot 100; the album’s other go-to single, “Maneater,” landed in the top 20, while “All Good Things (Come to an End)” hit No. 1 on the now-defunct European Hot 100 Singles chart.
In the 10 years following Loose, Furtado released other projects: the Spanish-language album Mi Plan (2009) and 2012’s The Spirit Indestructible, which contained the Odd Future-inspired bop “Big Hoops (Bigger the Better).” Plan and Spirit would not capture the same success as Loose — the former reaching No. 39 on the Billboard 200 and the latter debuting and exiting at No. 79, in one week. Unfortunately, “Hoops” would not see the light of the Hot 100 despite its projected appeal in the dance-dominated market of 2012. In an interview with ITV’s Loose Women, the singer revealed that at the height of Loose she “crashed and burned” to the pressures of balancing stardom, touring, raising her daughter and maintaining a relationship. Her subsequent break from performing and releasing new music resulted in a commercial downfall, with the general public nearly forgetting her hitmaking potential. As the releases became more low-key, Furtado’s active star started to fade into legacy territory with articles asking “What happened to her?”
However, it’s stunning to see that The Ride didn’t debut on the Billboard 200 last week. Yes, it has been awhile since Furtado has released new music, as she left Interscope to go independent during her almost five-year hiatus. In addition to that decision, the singer has opted to stay out the spotlight to focus on charitable efforts and her personal growth. But these factors don’t mean that an artist who has inspired current hitmakers like Kehlani should disappear from the conversation of today’s music, especially considering that her latest album is a masterpiece in its own right.
The Ride is an adventurous and musically ambitious 12-track journey (15 on the deluxe vinyl edition) that serves as the perfect remedy for navigating heartbreak. Working as a mixture of the ’80s new wave that Carly Rae Jepsen takes on in E•MO•TION combined with the mood-shifting introspection of Tinashe‘s Nightride, the LP plays as Furtado’s most mature work to date. Always one for experimenting with varying sounds and genres, her partnership with St. Vincent‘s right-hand producer John Congleton is a match made in indie-pop heaven.
Starting with the pulsating Blondie-esque dark pop track “Cold Hard Truth,” the singer hits hard when she reaches the chorus epiphany: “The cold hard truth is I can make it without you/ The cold hard truth is we were meant to be alone.” The recent news of Furtado splitting from her husband of eight years, sound engineer Demacio Castellon, makes the idea of the project much more clear. The singer told Loose Women, “I was going through a breakup and I would sing to myself while I drove on these long drives.” In the midst of her realizations, Furtado tiptoes into Neil Young country on “Carnival Games,” before roller-coaster screams lead to the song’s impressive alt-rock breakdown akin to a Kate Bush track.
Despite the heartbreak, the singer manages to place powerful, upbeat anthems on Ride, including the jubilant “Live,” which would be suitable for dancing circles around a Coachella bonfire. What this album also has a knack for is riding out (pun very much intended) its production with unexpected twists and turns at the end of each song — all working as their own climactic moments. That moment is topped by the ending of “Magic” — a cut that sounds like a hybrid of Miley Cyrus‘ “East Northumberland High” and RaeLynn before tripping into more psychedelic rock urges. The hum-worthy “Pipe Dreams” — the most hallucinating of all the tracks — excels with a Southern blues bridge that repeats “If I can’t really know you, I’d rather walk on.”
The post-relationship catharsis of The Ride figuratively drunk-texts your exes for you, helping to avoid the hungover regret of profusely apologizing the next morning. Its highlight, “Tap Dancing,” focuses on the realization that going through the motions of a relationship should be mutual. The singer follows that up by explaining if one party doesn’t respond, it’s best to move on and take the “Right Road.” “Phoenix,” the standard edition’s ethereal, closing, Cyndi Lauper-esque ballad — a nice go-to for fans of the softness of “All Good Things (Come to an End)” — provides an opportunity for her similarly heartbroken listeners to move on and “rise” like the majestic bird, reminding them, “You’re gonna be all right, again.”
Sometimes commercial results tend to not be kind to pop icons who venture in the murky waters of “the indie singer-songwriter album.” And sometimes change from a commercially successful pop artist tends to be a little scary. But when it’s done right, an audience should embrace those who seek to escape their comfort zones — even after they’ve taken a few years off from pop domination. However, Nelly Furtado appears to not care about those consequences, instead placing an earnest importance in constantly challenging her artistry.