Looking past Eminem, Britney, and Creed to the unknowns, this summer’s most persistent chart-huggers have been a St. Louis rapper whose signing represents a rock A&R man at Universal’s first venture into hip-hop and a Vacaville, California, hard rock band who rap as much as sing and have had discussions with Timbaland. It’s all coming together, you might think as you stare at the ads for WWF and Loud Rocks compilations, an age when dudes will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the Y-ness of their chromosomes. But if you bother to listen, Nelly and Papa Roach sound nothing alike. And for the umpteenth time, the rapper turns out to be pretty good and the rockers utterly depressing.
Papa Roach’s Coby Dick writes about being young and borderline suicidal (“Last Resort”); Nelly and his pals want to smoke weed and fuck all day. By their own accounts they both come from broken homes and stunted surroundings, so these are choices they’ve made. I’ve never thought of the Nelly stance as particularly courageous, but in this context it’s a ray of humanity. Musically, young and borderline suicidal is a smotherer: everything subsumed into a throb of pain. Smoke weed and fuck all day is welcoming: Want to come out and play? There is one plaintive moment in the Nelly album, Country Grammar. On “Ride Wit Me,” a voice croons, “Oh, why do I live this way?” Cue an all-guy choir: “Hey, must be the money!”
That, time and again, is Country Grammar: an added wriggle of humor, or musicality, or intonation, in what ought to be a familiar beat; slang toyed with out of sheer love for its curls. Grace under pleasure. Little things everywhere: the pronunciation of “Saint Lou-ay,” which has a charm that stretches back to “Brother Louie”; a song that begins with a hiccup and syncs its off-beats to the Old MacLatin chorus of “Andale mami, EI EI”; the way one of Nelly’s St. Lunatics exhales “what the hell” in “Utha Side,” as if being cursed was as commonplace as a leaky roof. Bear down on the lyrics and there are things here to offend. But on the surface, where pop is really embraced, this is the friendliest mainstream hip-hop album in ages.
It’s key that Nelly (born Cornell Haynes Jr., in case you were wondering, and we’ll see whether that particular piece of slang comes back to bite) seems more of a dandy than a gangsta—he says he starches his jeans “like Leave It to Beaver,” calls himself a pretty boy, and notes, “I’m a sucker for corn rows and manicured toes.” A baseball player-drug dealer-rapper, the features say, and his idol growing up was virtuoso shortstop Ozzie Smith. Loves St. Louis because it’s the kind of place where you can chill out for a long time and not really miss much. Isn’t that distinctive vocally as a rapper, but he’s a good talker, vibrant, appreciates things. Mase’s manager got Nelly’s demo noticed, and there’s a connection in the two’s laid-back savoriness.
As for the music, produced in-house by “Jay E” Epperson and Nelly’s little brother City Spud, it appreciates everything. Tim and Missy are saluted on wax. Cash Money’s Lil’ Wayne guest-raps. The rural touches nod to Crucial Conflict’s “Hay.” The “Down, down, baby” children’s chant that hooks “Country Grammar” resembles the singsong chant in Eve’s “Gotta Man.” The St. Lunatics aren’t as arty as Outkast in Atlanta, as languid as Suave House in Houston (there’s a “Country Grammar” remix that substitutes Eightball and MJG), as brutal as No Limit, as acrobatic as Bone Thugz in Cleveland, as slobbering as Miami bass. But all these crews are hop-hip: Against rap’s concentrated brilliance, bounce’s casual elongation of time, space, and possibility has upended the form.
Curiously, this has gone on exactly as rap-metal has settled into prominence, a form that fears joviality almost as much as women. The grimness wasn’t always so uniform: 1993’s Judgment Night soundtrack, an early rap-rock summit meeting, featured Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Teenage Fanclub, and Living Colour alongside Helmet, Slayer, and Biohazard. Over time, rockers who rap have turned into the monarchs of mopery that alternative acts were always accused of being. Consider, merely, the titles on Papa Roach’s Infest: “Dead Cell,” “Revenge,” “Snakes,” “Never Enough,” “Binge,” “Thrown Away.”
Imagine Infest‘s guitar crunch: Yep, that’s it, old reliable, though a little sweeter, more like Van Halen’s in this case, maybe because the producer used to work with Ugly Kid Joe. It’s a catchy album on its own morbid terms, and as down-to-earth as Roach’s NoCal forerunners Green Day, just unrelentingly self-pitying until the little sliver of reggae at the end. If Papa Roach love punk, and they say they do, then it’s doubly sad how boxed-in their music sounds—I always thought punk’s theme song was “Rise Above.” Someone tell Coby Dick: Call Timbaland back, soon, or think about a vacation in St. Lou-ay.