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Nelly Furtado is a fan of basketball and Steve Nash

“Whoa, Nelly!” This was the name of Nelly Furtado’s breakthrough 2000 album, and also the reaction music lovers all over the world had when they first experienced this Canadian superstar’s unique sound. Today, the lovely and perpetually giddy Nelly Furtado is respected around the world as a talented producer, an instrumentalist, a songwriter… but, above all, as a best-selling, multiple award-winning singer.

Nelly Furtado’s first song off Whoa Nelly, I’m Like a Bird, seemed to play every hour on every radio station eveyrwhere. Many loved it; others loved to hate it. Still others liked to turn down the volume on their TV screen when the video came on and simply watch the sultry newcomer float across a patch of grass, kind of the way a bird might. But no one could deny that the singer had something special about her. Her second single, the upbeat Turn Off the Lights, was unanimously loved by all who heard it. It revealed her unusual style and her tendency to mix instruments, sounds and vocal pitches.

If Nelly Furtado’s music has a certain hybrid quality, perhaps it can be explained by the fact that Nelly Furtado is something of a hybrid herself. Officially, she’s Portugese-Canadian, but her cultural influences include many others nationalities and scenes. She was born in the lovely town of Victoria, British Columbia, into a family of Portugese immigrants. Nelly Furtado has been a musician practically since birth: she and her mother sang a duet during Portugal Day at a local church when Nelly Furtado was just four years old. By the time she was nine, Nelly Furtado was already well on her way to mastering the trombone and ukulele; in the years that followed, possibly after realizing she needed a few more marketable instruments to add to her repertoire, she picked up the guitar and keyboard as well.

Nelly Furtado was definitely something of a teenage prodigy. By the tender age of twelve, when other girls were experimenting with ponytail holders and practicing kissing their arm, Nelly Furtado was writing songs and performing in a Portuguese band. An eleventh-grade field trip to Toronto turned out to be a turning point in Nelly Furtado’s career. Nelly Furtado met Tallis Newkirk, famous for his work in the hip-hop group Crazy Cheese. Tallis Newkirk got her a gig singing background vocals on a Crazy Cheese song. A year later, after graduating from high school, Nelly Furtado moved to Toronto. She and Tallis Newkirk formed a short-lived trip-hop group. When the group dissolved, Nelly Furtado planned to head home to Victoria, stopping off to perform at 1997’s all-female urban songfest Honey Jam. There, Nelly Furtado’s performance caught the attention of Jarvis Church, of the Canadian supergroup The Philosopher Kings. This meeting lead to Nelly Furtado’s demo album and, later, a record deal with Dream Works. Jarvis Church and fellow Philosopher Kings member Brian West helped co-produce Whoa, Nelly!

Nelly Furtado single-handedly changed the face of turn-of-the-millenium pop music. In an era characterized by superficial blonde pop princesses, wannabe rap acts, and weak attempts to revive metal, Nelly Furtado’s multicultural mix perked up tired pairs of ears worldwide. Nelly Furtado also broke the long, sad tradition of Canadian musicians who receive little attention outside of Canada. Whoa, Nelly! received four prestigious Grammy award nominations, including a win for Best Female Pop/Rock Performance.

Nelly Furtado followed up the success of Whoa, Nelly! in an unlikely and unusual way: she had a baby. As Nelly Furtado explained it in a MuchMusic interview shortly after her second album’s release: “I used to feel like I didn’t belong anywhere, and now I belong to a group. It’s called mothers!” She gave birth to a baby girl, Nevis, in 2003. Like Nelly Furtado’s music, Nevis is a beautiful cultural mix: half Portuguese, one-quarter Indian, and one-quarter Filipino. Nelly Furtado and the father, DJ Jasper Gahunia, split in 2005, but remained good friends and share parenting duties.

People were less enthusiastic about Nelly Furtado’s second album, Folklore, possibly because she failed to surprise anyone this time. Everyone knew she liked to experiment with other cultures, occasionally dress up like a woman from India or sing in Portuguese. Folklore is most memorable for Forca, the song that became the anthem for the 2004 World Cup Soccer Championships.

For her third album, however, Nelly Furtado decided to shock: she became sexy. Yes, many would argue she was already sexy; several male-targeted websites have proclaimed her the Portuguese Courteney Cox. But this time she went all-out. The album, released in 2006, was called Loose. Nelly Furtado insists that the album title, Loose, refers to the creative process she experienced during the making of the album. Viewers of her videos, however, believed the title referred more to her attitudes towards sexuality, judging by some of the outfits she wore in her videos. More in Nelly Furtado’s defense on this subject in a moment…

Loose has reconfirmed Nelly Furtado as a superstar. The album hit number one in several countries. During the latter half of 2006, one would have been hard-pressed to flip through radio stations and not come across either Man-Eater, Promiscuous Girl, All Good Things or Say it Right. Just recently, Nelly Furtado cleaned up the Juno Awards, Canada’s answer to the Grammies. Nelly Furtado won all five awards for which she was nominated. She also had the honor of hosting the awards, using the stage to showcase her comedic abilities. One particularly memorable skit had a costumed Nelly Furtado impersonating her Portuguese great-aunt putting the moves on another Canadian musical marvel, singer and catchy oldies remake king Michael Buble.

But, like most successful, beautiful and ridiculously rich women, Nelly Furtado has her fair share of critics. The two most recent attacks on Nelly Furtado include Nelly Furtado’s switch to hip-hop and Nelly Furtado’s new look.

First, let us examine the controversial claims regarding Nelly Furtado’s supposed switch to hip-hop and R & B. Nelly Furtado was a woman famous for making folk music cool. Nowadays, her music merely bounces back and forth between pop and R & B. Even her signature wide-ranging but slightly nasal voice has been traded in for smooth raps with the likes of producer Timbaland.

However, true Nelly Furtado connoisseurs would argue that claiming that Nelly Furtado had “switched” into hip-hop was totally absurd, because obviously Nelly Furtado had been dabbling in and working towards hip-hop projects for years. For one thing, who could forget Nelly Furtado’s cameo on a catchy remix of Missy Elliot’s classic, Get Ur Freak On? (Here’s some Nelly Furtado trivia for you: it was this collaboration with Missy Elliot that first brought Nelly Furtado in contact with Timbaland, the genius behind Loose.) Secondly, anyone who’s ever read a Nelly Furtado interview knows that hip-hop has been boiling in Nelly Furtado’s blood since her teenage years. Out of her many diverse musical influences growing up, Nelly Furtado lists Ice-T, LL Cool J and Mary J. Blige among her favorites. The magazines Rap Pages and Word Up! frequently adorned the teenage Nelly Furtado’s bedside table, and she and her friends even went so far as to dress up like TLC one Halloween. When asked by an interviewer about her developmental years, Nelly Furtado summarized them as: “I didn’t realize I wasn’t black.”

Now, let us move on to the controversy surrounding Nelly Furtado’s new look.  In 2002’s I’m Like a Bird, Nelly Furtado single-handedly made long jean skirts and running shoes look cool. In 2004’s Powerless, she did the same for hoodies and parkas. In the videos for Loose, however, she looks more… well, loose.  In Maneater, she bares her midriff, grinds against a chain-link fence, and finally strips down to her undershirt. In Promiscuos, she surprises audiences by going heavy on the jewelry and lipstick and allowing several men to breathe on her neck. Critics assert that Nelly Furtado is playing the sex card in order to sell more records. Nelly Furtado shrugs these attacks off, however. Her reasoning: she was pregnant for nine months and then breast-feeding for two years. Now that she’s finally able to fit into tight clothes again, why not enjoy it? She also denies the fact that she’s sexier now than before. She reminds fans that there are many sides to her; they simply haven’t seen her sexy side yet, but it was always there. Finally, she feels it’s important to give her audience a little bit of context about the album’s birthplace: Loose was recorded in Miami, a hot city in every sense of the word. Nelly Furtado claims that Miami is “a very sexy city,” and it’s no wonder that this sexiness should come through in what she calls her “body-moving music.”

Criticisms aside, Loose remains a work of historic significance. It was the album that first allowed a long-awaited collaboration between producer Timbaland and Coldplay singer Chris Martin. It was also an album where Nelly Furtado yet again reaffirmed her unfailing kindness: she included a special shout out to a basketball player, the NBA’s MVP Chris Nash. Like Nelly Furtado, Chris Nash is a native of lovely Victoria, British Columbia. In true hip-hop rhetoric, Nelly Furtado explains: “I had to give him his props! Everybody shoutin' out these other ballers, we gotta get Steve Nash in a song." Props to you too, Nelly Furtado.