2013: The Year Nelly Was Everywhere and Nowhere at the Same Time

No other artist spent as much time so close to the Zeitgeist as Nelly this year without being even remotely close to being the Zeitgeist.

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Dec 11 2013, 6:25pm

When the music writers of 2033 are assigned to write a 20-year anniversary piece on music in 2013, you already know what they’re going to cover. Kanye’s Yeezus being a turning point in how mainstream popstars produced albums that were as offensive to their fanbase as they were beloved. They’ll write about “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines,” and mention how Pharrell looks the same at 60 as he did at 40. They’ll talk about how Jay-Z sold an album through a cellphone app. They’ll probably mention Taylor Swift, Vampire Weekend, and how hilarious it was that Rolling Stone was the only publication that acknowledged the existence of a John Fogerty album.

The narrative of every year is written largely by its “winners”—those acts who nail the algorithm that includes buzz, album sales, hot singles, album quality, live show performances, and thinkpiece volume. This is the way it’s been forever, and that’s fine. But if you want to know what really happened in a given year, it’s more interesting and illuminating to know what acts just outside of the buzz bubble were up to. Which is why, if you want to know the major stories of 2013, the only artist you really need to pay attention to is Nelly.

I know this probably seems insane to you; it’s not 2003 anymore. “Ride Wit Me” feels like you’re smoking weed in the backseat of your friend’s car as a teenager. But if you were paying attention, Nelly had probably the weirdest and most interesting calendar year for any major musician. He released a comeback album; he was a (small) part of this year’s annual “pop country is better than pop” discussion; he rode a producer’s comeback wave; and he shared musical space with one of 2013’s biggest lightning rods. Plus, dude even starred on a TV show, The Real Husbands of Hollywood, and was maybe (definitely) the funniest part of it.

No other artist spent as much time so close to the Zeitgeist as Nelly this year without being even remotely close to being the Zeitgeist. And what’s more, he was aware that was the case. We spent 2013 praising Kanye for realizing where he was in the culture and trying to get everyone to acknowledge that (“I am the nucleus”) but then ignored when Nelly did the same. Nelly did incredibly self-aware interviews on the radio and for websites, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who is so secure in his position in popular culture. “People take me for what they take me, man. It’s been 15 years,” he told The Breakfast Club. “I ain’t changing nobody’s mind.” That’s part of the reason the Nelly concert I saw for this website this summer was so life-affirming; Nelly is confident where he is, and only cares about delivering what he can for people who like him. Even so, under accepted metrics, Nelly “lost” 2013, even though he made literally all of the right moves he needed to have a successful year.

Nelly’s 2013 started in March with “Hey Porsche,” a song that doubled down on the brazen pop radio moves and the vaguely country-rap style he invented in 2000. The song stalled at number 42 on the charts, despite it being Nelly’s best song since the 2004-2005 Sweat/Suit era. “Hey Porsche” wasn’t exactly the comeback I’m sure Nelly was hoping for: the song was obliterated by people on YouTube—so much so that our Jeremy Gordon was able to write about people calling out “Hey Porsche” in the comments for other Nelly songs—and by publications like Fader, which had a write up that included the phrases “not a good song” and “impotent pop.” Those reactions are entirely expected. It’s not like Nelly is on the “acceptable” guilty pleasure end of the spectrum for places that allot one or two unabashed pop singers into their yearly coverage.

It’s unfortunate “Hey Porsche” didn’t get as much country in 2013 as it deserved, but watching the video now, it’s clear at least half of the reason it got made was that it served as an advertisement for the big hit of Nelly’s year: the remix to Florida Georgia Line’s perfect “Cruise.” 2013 was a year that a new generation of poptimists started wondering if pop country is secretly better than whatever is on pop radio, a thing that has happened every three years since Garth Brooks’ debut album. Spin, not historically the most country friendly publication, started a monthly country column. Taylor Swift was a large part of this, but acts like Kacey Musgraves, Eric Church, and Luke Bryan enjoyed a lot of love outside of the confines of CMT. But no group enjoyed as much of a bump from the pop country consideration as Florida Georgia Line, as “Cruise” is now officially the second best selling country song of all time. The version with Nelly became a darkhorse candidate for song of the summer; you didn’t hear a song more at 2:30 a.m. in bars in July than that one. [Ed note: Or at any given time around the Noisey desk.]

Would the song have blown up without Nelly’s verse? The song’s slow climb on pop radio was certainly accelerated by Nelly’s presence; the version without him peaked at 16 while the version with him reached number four. In what became a theme that was emblematic of Nelly’s year, he was not a part of the song’s narrative arc in the media at all: The song’s success became evident of country’s storming of pop radio, and of Florida Georgia Line being new stars. This was understandable: Florida Georgia Line deserved their new semi-star status, and it was too easy to write off Nelly’s contribution to the song as a cash and relevancy grab for him. But you only needed to watch one of the myriad of live performances of the song on TV this year to realize that Nelly had more fun with Florida Georgia Line this year than any of us had fun with any of our friends. His jean on jean combo, Porsche driving and headlight dancing in the viewed-25-million times music video is the literal representation of not giving a single fuck.

The only real challenge to the “Cruise” juggernaut this summer were two songs featuring 2013’s least likely comeback artist: Pharrell Williams. He came back with a vengeance in 2013, producing tracks for Tyler, the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, N.O.R.E., Jay-Z, Pusha-T and others. But it was his turn as a Off the Wall-era MJ for Daft Punk on “Get Lucky,” and his role as hypeman for the Marvin Gaye-ripping “Blurred Lines” that made him 2013’s undisputed heavyweight champion.

It sort of seemed like anything Pharrell touched in 2013 would turn to gold. Anything, that is, except the third of M.O. that he produced for Nelly. Pharrell and Nelly have a history of making hits together, and with Pharrell’s resurgence, Nelly couldn’t have timed a deep team up with Pharrell any better. But none of the songs Pharrell produced for the album have popped quite like his other tracks from this year: even a Pharrell cameo on the album’s second single, “Get Like Me,” couldn’t sell more than 23,000 copies of M.O. Why that is, well, that’s hard to explain—especially since the album’s fifth single, “Rick James” is of the same horndog funk that Pharrell created on Nellyville and for Robin Thicke this year. Maybe people reached their maximum saturation point for Pharrell cooing over funk beats at them. Or maybe, yet again, Nelly is left to soldier on amidst indifference, Pharrell or no Pharrell.

2013, ultimately, though, will probably go down as the year we (“we” being the straight, white music press, by and large, it’s worth noting) battled over implied racism and cultural appropriation. It started with Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop,” and continued with “Same Love,” the new Lily Allen video, and it happened most recently when Lorde’s “Royals” became the number one song in the country. But there was no greater lightning rod for appropriation debates amongst journalists than Miley Cyrus, who went from being the Disney-raised progeny of a walking mullet to suddenly smoking weed and hanging out with Mike Will Made It. Her album, Bangerz, ended up not being worth the arguments, and of course, it featured Nelly on the Pharrell Williams-produced “4X4.” That he would appear on a song that has Miley Cyrus saying she pissed herself is not necessarily surprising at this juncture, but that he’d appear on arguably the least offensive track on the album is. This was maybe the only time Nelly not being noticed was a good thing for him in 2013.

And so Nelly’s 2013 comes to a close without much fanfare. The cynical among us will probably consider his year as an abject failure, a last gasp at trying to relaunch his career. But he got to spend the year doing whatever the fuck he wanted. Which is why, when I think back on 2013, I am not going to remember Miley’s VMA performance, or the Macklemore social media Hunger Games. I’m not going to remember Reflektor, and I’m not going to remember deciding my life is too short to spend it listening to a Childish Gambino album. But I am going to remember 2013 as the year when Nelly proved it was possible to be both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. He used to be the center of pop culture and this year he became the rap game’s Forrest Gump; a historical footnote instead of the history maker.

Andrew Winistorfer is still thinking too much about Nelly. He’s on Twitter@thestorfer