Hip-hop and dance music have long been part of Nelly Furtado's musical DNA.
As a teen growing up in Canada's British Columbia, she was a full-fledged B-girl: She loved to rap, dreamed of being a member of TLC, was heavy into the DJ scene and even part of a trip-hop group, Nelstar. Years later, after she became a solo star, she collaborated with key hip-hop figures, most notably guesting on Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On" remix.
But any traces of her hip-hop, R&B or dance roots were faint, if nonexistent, on her own albums. Instead, she became known for eclectic pop on her 2001 multiplatinum debut, "Whoa, Nelly," and went the folky route for its less successful follow-up, "Folklore."
"Even though I loved hip-hop so much, I think I had a bias for a while, because I wanted to prove myself as a musician who would use 40 different instruments on one album and a lot of hip-hop people don't do that, and therefore, they don't get as much respect," says Furtado.
"I really wanted to earn that certain type of musical respect from a certain listener for a long time," adds the Grammy winner. "Now, since I proved myself in that way, I feel a lot of freedom to do the music I really love."
That love is becoming increasingly universal.
"Promiscuous," the hypnotic first single off her new album, "Loose," is fast becoming the song of the summer: It's had a lock on the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Hot 100 chart for three weeks, and the album, which features the production and songwriting touches of superproducer Timbaland, debuted at No. 1 when it was released earlier this summer.
"'Promiscuous' has been at the top of our playlist for a couple of months now, and I don't see it dying anytime soon," says Sharon Dastur, program director for New York City pop station Z100.
"I think it's going to have the biggest reaction of all my albums," says Furtado, 27, who co-wrote and produced "Loose." "But if you ask Timbaland, we kind of did it in our sleep, and I don't mean that to say, 'Oh, we didn't try' ... I don't mean it like that at all.
"But this stuff comes so naturally to Timbaland and I, it's the opposite of calculated. That's why it's called 'Loose.'"
Still, it is a marked departure from her past work, which skirted on the fringes of pop; her first hit, the breezy "I'm Like A Bird," took months to become a hit and "Folklore," her last album, moved her even further from the mainstream, failing to duplicate "Whoa, Nelly's" multiplatinum success in the United States.
"The last album, it just kind of laid there; there weren't any big hits that people were drawn to," says Dastur.
Even Furtado agrees: "I think the material on 'Folklore' wasn't as well received in the U.S. because it was a little more cerebral, a little more kind of political and I don't think people really wanted to hear about (it). It was not really connecting to the audience."
She got help in that department from Timbaland, the producer and songwriter known for crafting hits for the likes of Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z, Aaliyah and Missy. He had previously worked with Furtado on Missy's "Get Ur Freak On" remix.
"I always felt he was my distant musical cousin because he was always pushing boundaries and always carving out his own path, and this new album is a way for me to carve out my own path, because I think you have to keep surprising people as an artist, and I like that — I love doing that," says Furtado.
"Loose" is an amalgamation of sounds, from Latin pop to soft R&B to '80s disco to hip-hop. "I don't like belonging to a genre," laughs Furtado. "It's like my worst fear. I don't want people to pigeonhole me."
Not only her sound has changed: Though the green-eyed Furtado's striking good looks have always gotten her notice, she's more glam this time around. She's ditched the baggy pants and plain shirts for girlie outfits, and Furtado, now a single mom to a 3-year-old, is more willing to play sexy for magazine spreads.
But like her music, she says nothing is calculated about that either.
"I'm not trying to be anything — I think I just am sexy now," she says, before laughing uproariously.
"I don't know, I bloomed! ... I really did, and it's a beautiful thing really. I'm an evolving individual. I don't want to stay in the same place, I don't want to always do the same thing."