Oh Nelly: I … Love You
The rapper's impact has seemingly been written out of wider cultural history. Let's fix that.
From time to time a broadcaster like Channel 4 or a rockist magazine such as Rolling Stone puts the weight of recorded music history on their shoulders and attempts to define the greatest songwriters of a generation. Usually, the results are predictable: a Brian Wilson here, a Smokey Robinson there, the guy who wrote the Toy Story soundtrack, whoever waltzed out of the coffee-house culture of the 1960s and someone who wrote a really good album about romance-fuelled drug addiction.
Like dinosaur bones or the rainforest, it's important to preserve the work of these lionised musicians. That's what the lists are for. But inasmuch as these coffee-table directories can introduce future generations to Joni Mitchell or one of the greatest love songs in history ("Pale Blue Eyes"), it's essential we address the fact they're all missing one important component. And what's that, I hear you cry? His real name is Cornell Iral Haynes, Jr – which, according to iconic law, already puts him ten steps ahead of you and I – but you'll probably know him by his stage name.
*extremely ad-lib voice*
I'm talking about Nelly.
Nelly, perhaps the most famous wearer of Band-Aids in our earthly narrative, has yet to be included in any rundown of great American songwriters. Does he deserve to be? Arguably not. Does it make me sad he isn't? If it were possible to crawl down my throat, past the solar plexus and into my core, that's how deep the response to this question is buried (yes, obviously it makes me sad; what about you too, boo?).
You see, Nelly has never been given the praise he deserves for being the face of some of the most recognisable hits of the 2000s. These songs may not be in any way comparable to, say, the collected work of Leonard Cohen (because that would be fucking stupid, wouldn't it?), but they do have the staying power of a footless horse. Like: How many Nelly songs do you know the words to? Swim deep into the mind – fumble around a little bit – and tell me what you find. Is it "My Place"? How about "Hot in Herre"? Do "Grillz", "Ride Wit Me", "EI" or "Over and Over" feature? How about the irrepressible, "OK ma, what's your preference / nice and slow or fast and reckless?" guest verse he pulled on "Nasty Girl"? Woooooo! Embrace it. Welcome home, ladies and gentleman. Now come on inside so I can talk at you some more about St Louis' finest.
So you're in the house Nelly built. But before we can pull up a settee and slide comfortably into shared revelation of this great American songwriter, a final distinction or two needs to be made:
1) Unlike some of Rolling Stone's faves, Nelly is not a lone soldier – he writes his songs but does so with a team. More of an entertainer than a composer, he exists in a similar sphere to Elvis (another great performer, but sadly also one who only managed to write ten songs to Nelly's 44);
2) The 2000s produced lots of charting rap singles with the same memorable quality of Nelly's hits: Ja Rule's "Always on Time", the song by J-Kwon about teen drinking, any rap song on a Now… That's What I Call Music compilation – they're all located somewhere in the the limbic system. However Nelly stands alone. If Chingy were a bug, Hayes Jr would crush him "Right Thurr". He is, above everything, a recherché tour-de-force, a liger among a sea of big cats and wounded sheep.
The son of divorced parents, Nelly – who was born in Austin, Texas – grew up in St Louis, Missouri. There's a locational importance to this; prior to the release of Nelly's debut album (put out in 2000), the embers of rap's coastal rivalry continued to burn, while the likes of OutKast and Goodie Mob had shone a light onto the south. At the time of Nelly's signing to Universal, Eminem had yet to put out his breakthrough album The Slim Shady LP. Though Eminem would later carry the keys of the region for some time (later usurped by Kanye West), it felt unusual for a rap act to come from the Midwest. Unlike New York, LA and Atlanta, the Midwestern states were known more for their heartland rock and country music. So it was decided, to inspire pride in the people of St Louis and the surrounding areas, to centre Nelly's debut within the city's musical origins. Its name: Country Grammar.
Introducing itself with a skit by hometown comedy hero Cedric the Entertainer, the tonal palette of Country Grammar stood apart from other rap albums of the time. Here was an artist from St Louis and proud of it, using the city to his advantage – ultimately putting them on the map for the rest of the world. Just like Jay Z and his Yankees hat, Nelly meshed his aesthetic with the sporting team of the community, the St Louis Cardinals; look at any early video and you'll see him repping one of the baseball team's jerseys. In fact, "Batter Up" – the last single from the album – is a wordplay-filled ode to both the sport and his hustle. Then there's the sound: a combination of laid-back Midwestern steez, trunk-bumping funk and, on "Ride Wit Me", a sprinkling of the finger-picking guitar sound Nelly would go on to wield on later albums. The album topped the Billboard 200 Chart; eventually it was diamond-certified by the RIAA. Nelly had put "the STL" on. Oh, and don't forget Lil Wayne featured on the album too. The block was indeed hot.
Though Country Grammar isn't exalted to the same degree as other early 2000s rap albums – say, Outkast's Stankonia or Jay Z's The Blueprint – it's importance shouldn't be overlooked. Roll around now back to the present and the most popular sound of the time. What do you hear? If you've your finger on the pulse, it's likely whatever comes to mind is preceded by one of producer Metro Boomin's infamous adlibs. He's responsible for hits from 21 Savage and Future to Kanye West and Travis Scott and was just seven years old when Country Grammar was released. Still, a Fader interview with the St Louis resident credits Nelly as his first – and biggest – inspiration: "From his mother's collection, he'd heard everything from MC Lyte and Ice Cube to Yo Yo Ma and Faith Hill. But he fell in love with Nelly, and that's when he decided he wanted to make rap music."
Once Country Grammar had done its job and introduced Nelly as a bonafide star, not just in the States but across the world, it was time for the follow-up. Released in 2002, Nellyville smoothed out the edges of his debut and buffed them up with the glossy production of The Neptunes and Just Blaze (who worked on "Hot in Herre" and "Roc The Mic" respectively). Single-wise, this is arguably Nelly's best work: the Kelly Rowland featuring "Dilemma" went straight to number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, as did "Hot in Herre", while "Work It" featured Justin Timberlake. Ultimately: if Country Grammar was Nelly's introduction, "Hot in Herre" was a mark of intention – Nelly wouldn't be disappearing anytime soon. If he did however, the sound of this album left an almost permanent dent on music culture. The hook to "Dilemma"? This will soundtrack relationships, real and imagined, for decades. "Checkin your reflection and tellin your best friend / Like, 'girl I think my butt gettin big!'"? Unforgettable.
At this point, Nelly should have disappeared. But Nelly did not disappear because Nelly is one of this generation's most underrated songwriters and artists. What followed was a double album – Sweat and Suit – idealised as the representation of his different personalities. Sweat represented the "energetic" sound of Nelly's earliest work, but ultimately (despite debuting at number 2 on the Billboard 200 Chart) failed to produce any notable singles. However the more "grown-up" of the two, Suit, did – and that's where things start to change. First of all, the album features "My Place", a kind-of-really-beautiful and somehow forgotten track that oozes with the smoothness of plain-sailing relationships despite its subject matter. Then there's "Over and Over".
"Over and Over" is an important track in Nelly's career because it bridges the gap between two great American traditions – rap and country music – in a way he hadn't really achieved on his previous releases. Featuring Louisiana country artist Tim McGraw, it's a legitimately sad track, evoking literal images of Nelly looking out of the window of his tour bus, tears streaming down his eyes (or at least me in my parent's car as a teenager, thinking this was some deep-ass shit). The song is basic but it does the job, capturing the feeling of obsessively thinking about an ex-partner decamping elsewhere. More than that however, it gave Nelly a relatively new lease of life as a pop-country crossover artist – leading to later collaborations with Florida Georgia Line on "Cruise" and his own track "Hey Porsche", which we at Noisey described as being composed "with the skill and precision of someone who's been making skilled and precise pop-rap since before most of us hit puberty". Despite having the duality of being both incredible and awful, like all of Nelly's hits "Hey Porsche" is an undeniable earworm. Then there's "Just a Dream", the closest Nelly has ever come to having a stadium rock song.
Between the release of his seven albums (the last one being 2013's MO), Nelly's also been involved in a bunch of extracurricular activities, to varying degrees of success. Remember Pimp Juice, his energy drink? What about the time he starred in The Longest Yard next to Adam Sandler and Chris Rock? But these pursuits – some dodgy, others savvy – don't compare to his songwriting talent. Instead, they're perhaps part and parcel of why he's seen as light-hearted antidote to other rap acts rather than an artiste.
Because that's the thing about Nelly, isn't it? A lot of people don't see him as an artist in his own right. Instead, Nelly is defined more as a pop artist. On the one hand, this makes sense. Heavyweight rap acts like Kanye West and Lil Wayne have as many well-rounded, artistic albums as they have Billboard Hot 100-charting singles, whereas Nelly has yet to release a similarly lauded longform body of work. But as we've discussed – and come now, for it is almost time for you to remove yourself from my sofa – there is a unique artistic quality to Nelly, one that burns with the light of his city, is set apart from any other rap act of the time, and in its unforgettable quality, makes him an artist who deserves to be remembered.
On the press run for his last record in 2013, I asked Nelly how he thought about his legacy – whether he's upset he hasn't been met with the same widespread critical adoration as other rap acts and songwriters or if it doesn't matter and he thinks people will still be crying along to "Dilemma" in 20 years. For a moment he looked sad, almost depleted from years spent grinding through press days and smash hit singles. Then he turned his head and spoke with almost defeated conviction:
"Hopefully that carries on into how people remember me. People will go back and be like, yo, dude has some joints."
Does this statement carry some truth? Do I like to return to Nelly's music from time to time, and think about how good it is? Damn right. I'd be on the next flight, payin' cash, first class, sittin' next to Vanna White!
Now get TF out of my house.
You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter.
(Header image via Wikimedia)