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— by Julianne Shepherd

Last year, Nelly Furtado was happily recording her third album, Loose, in a Miami studio with hip-hop producer Timbaland when something terrible happened: She started dancing. Badly.

"Timbaland was making a beat, and I was in the vocal booth jamming," Furtado explains. "When I started dancing, he was like, 'Stop! You're offbeat! You're throwing me off! I can't make music when you're dancing like that!' I came to Miami with my British-Columbian hippie rave dance, but Timbaland made me learn how to shake my booty, how to dance on the beat."

Six years ago, Furtado's hippie rave dance worked for her. The daughter of Portuguese immigrants in a bilingual household, Furtado was an emerging singer/songwriter from Toronto (born in Victoria, British Columbia) whose cheery folk-pop didn't require firsthand knowledge of on-beat booty-shaking. Furtado's 2000 debut, Whoa, Nelly!, was knee-deep in gossamer trip-hop beats and pervasively folky; the album cover depicted her lying dreamily in a patch of grass. The hit single, "I'm Like a Bird," opened with a string section, rumba-like acoustic guitars, and a mid-tempo shaker rhythm, with Furtado emoting through wistful harmonies ("I don't know where my soul is/ I don't know where my home is"). Her demure steez was a hit, and she sold 2.4 million copies of Whoa, Nelly!.

However, Furtado's second album, Folklore, didn't fare as well. Influenced by traditional Portuguese music and immigrant folksongs — an album celebrating her roots — Folklore was released around the time that her label, DreamWorks, was sold to Universal Music Group, and slipped through the cracks of that corporate merger. Barely promoted, the album sold a pale 400,000 copies in the U.S. Culturally, however, it proved as important as its predecessor — in Portugal, anyway. The song "Forca" was enlisted as the theme for the Euro 2004 soccer tournament held in Portugal, and its chorus (sung in Portuguese) became a source of national pride for the hosts. Furtado's image — and her music — remained wispy, folky and down-to-earth but she wasn't exactly down for whatever.

"Yeah, I was really pretentious for awhile," Furtado jokes. "I thought, 'Hip-hop's good and all, but for my albums I have to do something extra special and fantastic.' "

Still, hip-hop kept reeling her in. In 2001, she hopped on a popular remix of Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On," and the combination of her jazzy voice with Timbaland's electronic boom-bap made for a woofer-shaking hit. "Ever since I did [that] remix, people have been asking me, 'When are you gonna do a record that's more clubby?' "

She began building a reputation in the rap world, becoming a favorite of Timbaland's, who borrowed the Latin-tinged background hook from Whoa, Nelly!'s "Baby Girl" for Ms. Jade's 2002 single "Ching Ching." And in 2005, when Pharrell Williams, avid co-sponsor of ghetto passes, shouted her out on "Can I Have It Like That," her hip-hop transformation seemed preordained. "I had no idea it was gonna happen," Furtado gushes. "I was like, 'Sweet! It's my first official hip-hop shout-out!' "

Hip-hop was hardly unfamiliar territory for Furtado, however. First introduced to rap as a preteen by her brother, Nelly came up in West Coast independent hip-hop culture — ground zero for "backpackers" like Souls of Mischief, the Pharcyde and Hieroglyphics, all of whom Furtado listened to. "I remember being at my brother's 12th birthday party, and one of his friends had brought over Digital Underground's [1990 LP] Sex Packets. I was like, 'Ooh, what's that?' It was the mystery of hip-hop and rap and everything about it."

Like many teenagers, R&B was also bumping Furtado's boombox. "I didn't realize I wasn't black," she says.

"I dressed up like TLC for Halloween with my friends; I was Chilli. We put the condoms on after we left the house," Furtado said of TLC's famous condom-adorned baggy wardrobe. In high school, she beefed up her hip-hop IQ by ingesting all forms of rap media and befriending a crew of graffiti writers, MCs and b-boys, some of whom would form the hip-hop group Swollen Members. "I'd watch this show called "'Pump It Up' with Dee Barnes, and I would buy Word Up! and Rap Pages magazines," she explains. "I listened to TLC, Paris, Ice-T, LL, Mary J. It was a lifestyle."

So when the Canadian folk-pop chanteuse publicly transformed her music into saucy quasi-raps with a pop/R&B feel, it was partly Furtado revisiting her roots. She explains, "This new record is kind of nostalgic, 'cause I'm exploring my hip-hop and R&B influences, but in a much more unashamed way." The drastically different vibe of Loose might come as a surprise to fans of her first two albums. After she dropped her recent triumvirate of smoldering singles — "Promiscuous," "Maneater" and "No Hay Igual" — it was clear that Timbaland not only encouraged her to channel her inner Ms. New Booty, he'd also given her a lesson in the three R's: rap, R&B and reggaetón. The legendary producer's presence was hefty throughout the making of Loose — and it's paid off, as the album debuted at #1 on the Billboard albums chart late in June. "I'm inspired by everything that comes out of his keyboard," she says. "It inspires the artist to step up their game a little bit."

For most of Loose, Furtado holds court in the club, aiming for dance-floor singles via hot beats and suggestive lyrics. The roller-skating jam "Do It" is all percolating, bubblegum keyboards (and one of Timbaland's best beats since he put the snakey whistle on Ludacris' "The Potion"). "Promiscuous," which made it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, is a synth-y dance track on which Furtado and Tim rap steamy come-ons to one another. It's way more overt than anything she's previously released.

"I'm influenced by the assertive female sexuality of '90s hip-hop, from Queen Latifah to MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, Salt-N-Pepa, TLC. They were sexy, smart and creative — strong women in control. That's what I like about the sexual content on Loose: It's very organic." The inspiration for "Promiscuous" came from real-life banter with the song's co-writer, a rapper named Attitude signed to Timbaland's label, Mosely Music. "We were actually flirting when we were writing lyrics," she explains, "and I was like, you know what? I've never done this in my life, but I'm in a carefree mood, so let's do it." Yet it was as important to Furtado to convey the sexuality of "Promiscuous Girl" as it was to plug her favorite basketball player, the NBA's reigning MVP Steve Nash. "I spent two hours making sure Nash got in the song," she says. "He grew up in Victoria, at my rival high school, so I had to give him his props! Everybody shoutin' out these other ballers, we gotta get Steve Nash in a song."

And despite all her sensual R&B alchemy, dance-floor decadence and sexual entendres, the album's dreamy ballads — "Afraid," "Say It Right," "In God's Hands" and "All Good Things (Come to an End)" — convey the same introspection of her earlier albums. For the latter, Coldplay's Chris Martin popped in the studio to collaborate and co-write; Martin and Timbaland have long spoken of their admiration for each other's music, but the Loose session was the first time they'd met. "They were really humbled in each other's presence," Furtado says. "I have a tendency towards melancholy, and Chris Martin is Mr. Melancholic Genius, so it was magic." The song is a convergence of three talents, blending Martin's soft-rock voice, Timbaland's affinity for scorching synthesizers and Spanish-influenced guitars, and Furtado's signature warbling. "For the first two albums, I didn't want to collaborate. This time, I was like, 'How will I know if I don't explore?' It was an experiment — I just like to have the whole world watching when I experiment!"

Loose may have required booty-shaking lessons, but the album synthesizes the many facets of Nelly Furtado, showing she's still the same girl she has always been: a folksinger with soul. "When I started working with Timbaland, it was like we were reconnecting," she says. "I always knew I had it in me."

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Photo: Geffen

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  "Promiscuous" (featuring Timbaland)

  "Explode (live)"
Nelly Furtado performs on MTV.com LIVE

  "I'm Like a Bird"(live)
Nelly Furtado performs on MTV.com LIVE

  Turn Off The Lights" (Remix)
Whoa, Nelly!


  "Powerless (Say What You Want)"

  "On The Radio (Remember The Days)"
Whoa, Nelly!

  "Turn Off The Lights"
Whoa, Nelly!

  "I'm Like A Bird"
Whoa, Nelly!