No, Nellyville isn’t the gay ghetto in St. Louis, but it is an alternative utopia. When 23-year-old Cornell Haynes Jr., nicknamed Nelly, released his first LP, Country Grammar, in 2000, it sold over 10 million copies and yielded multiple hits, including the Missouri-proud title track; his breezy ode to driving a Mercedes while stoned, “Ride Wit Me”; and yet another party anthem, “E.I.” The handsome and charming Midwesterner became that city’s foremost rap personality and, maybe more importantly, its first.
While he may have stolen Tupac‘s tattoo artist, he also adopted Will Smith‘s PR strategy, balancing thuggy style with a shit-eating grin and a thick layer of humility. Knowing the charts had selected him to be St. Louis‘s ambassador to hip-hop, and slipping into the role without a moment‘s thought, Haynes treated his newfound fame demurely. Saying his solo career was just a strategy to bring his homeboys the St. Lunatics into the fame game, he secured a record contract not only for himself but for the group, and each individual Lunatic as well. (Presumably his lawyer has a trophy from the Bar Association for brokering that deal.) Like nearly everyone in hip-hop these days, he thinks it takes a village to make a rap record. The word represent can hardly describe Nelly’s intense loyalty to St. Louis, between his multiple quality-of-life improvement projects in that city and his arch-o-centric lyrics. And as his popularity expands, so does his determination to share his money and fame with everyone, from his entire hometown to the guys in O-Town.
If you’ve touched 10 million people in the mass media, it’s a short step to indoctrinating them with your philosophy for getting ahead. And so, the story goes, while test driving an SUV near St. Peters, Missouri, the roots-conscious rhyming millionaire discovered that the suburb was for sale. Succumbing to the nouveau riche urge to splurge, Nelly fantasized about purchasing the town and renaming it Nellyville. He bought the SUV instead of the burg, but the opposite move might have reconciled his sudden wealth, his attachment to home, and his acquired situational narcissism (i.e., the delusional state that allegedly made Winona Ryder go hog-wild at Saks Fifth Avenue). In fact, Mayor Tom Brown says, “St. Peters has never been up for sale, [nor do I] know of any other town for sale anywhere. At an assessed property value of [nearly] a billion dollars, I have no idea how anyone would think that they could ‘buy the city.’ ” Maybe some clever SUV salesman pulled Nelly’s phat gold chain to land the sale. In any case, Nelly realized that the ownership of a one-horse town doesn’t compare to selling another 10 million records, that he’s already more famous (and more powerful) than the mayor of St. Louis, and that the real estate market isn’t what it used to be. So instead of creating a small but real paradise for himself, he made like an artist and invented a large but imaginary one for everyone. In the process, he’s produced Nellyville, a great pop album that reconciles his sudden wealth, attachment to home, and desire to rule the world.
Those elements would be easier to manage if Nelly didn’t dress like a gangsta and trade on inner-city style to bolster his popularity. OutKast, Missy, and the Neptunes, also from new Southern capitals of hip-hop like Atlanta and Virginia Beach, have probably avoided a huge public debate just by dressing like freaks. That allows them to sidestep the accusations of Hammerism that Nelly must fend off because he wears a thug uniform and panders to the masses. Never mind that you couldn’t possibly mistake him for an orthodox nigga. In the strictest sense, he doesn’t even rap. Instead, he sings a kind of soul recitative, like a Bobby Womack record stuck on the same note. When you first hear it, you wonder why no one thought to do it before, but you don’t wonder why it makes him stand out. His style rests confidently between Jay-Z and Usher. He bit a children’s rhyme for “Country Grammar,” and like all his best manifestos, it celebrates the good life—sippin’ Bud, drivin’ Range Rovers, rollin’ dubs, fuckin’ lesbian twins—instead of bemoaning the state of the race. But don’t mistake his love of pleasure for laziness. Nelly has the ambition and cojones to name a single “#1,” and run the risk that it’ll reach only No. 7—like it did.
That same single, originally on the Training Day soundtrack, and happily included on Nellyville, has ended up pitting Nelly against KRS-One. The Boogie Down Productions impresario took personally the Nelly lyric “I’m tired of people judgin’ what’s real hip hop/Half the time it be dem niggas who fuckin’ album flop.” It’s unclear why KRS would want to be within a 50-mile radius of a dis that never names him, but he was offended enough to spearhead a boycott of Nelly and Universal Records, calling his decree “the will of God.” “Nelly challenged a sovereign power,” he told MTV News.
As a rule of thumb, it’s probably best to choose your rap stars as if they were African heads of state, and KRS’s judgment sounds oppressively Mugabe-ish. The hip-hop hegemony keeps trying to suggest that because Nelly’s crossing over, his music is bad, but his populist attitude is a big part of what makes him good. And while KRS is correct that sales and quality aren’t synonymous, Nelly understands that keeping it real should never be more important than keeping it fresh. The warden of the St. Lunatics doesn’t even see KRS as his competition. On “Work It,” he joins forces with Justin Timberlake, his natural enemy in the wild, and from the way Mr. Haynes aggressively takes the mic, it seems like a move calculated to make Britney’s ex sound as much like a ‘ho as the backup singers on the Neptunes-produced “Hot in Herre” [sic] who moan about getting naked. “Dilemma,” an infidelity ballad, fuses mack daddy content with TRL style. From “Work It”; the song he wrote for O-Town, “Favorite Girl”; and lending a rhyme to *NSync’s “Girlfriend,” it’s clear Nelly sees boyband worship and fundamentalist gangsta-ism as the last two steps up the pyramid of omniscience.
It follows that Nellyville is perhaps the least conflicted post-fame LP of all time. If Nelly has any problem with riches and notoriety, it’s either that others don’t understand (“If you didn’t like me then/You gon’ hate me now,” he warns in “Hate Me Now”), that they try to play him (“They tryin’ to disrupt my team with . . . publicity schemes,” goes “On the Grind”), or that they might not appreciate the real him (“If they attracted to Nelly/Then who like Cornell Haynes?” he asks). Otherwise, he compliments the slinky downtempo grinds—mostly written by Jason “Jay E” Epperson, rolling more childbearing hips than the tin-can Timbaland sound he used on Country Grammar—with boasts, songs about shopping (“Splurge,” for which Epperson splurged on a real horn section), fetish objects (“Air Force Ones”), and the occasional plug for Vokal, his clothing line. At times the album gives off so much self-referential self-confidence that it sounds like a 50-minute advertisement for itself, especially the three-part skit in which a female Nelly fan demands that her boyfriend go buy a copy of Nellyville because she can’t get off without it.
But being that he’s an altruistic egomaniac (or is that a benevolent dictator?), Nelly’s biggest problem with wealth and fame is that not everyone can have it—especially the needy. In his utopia, states the title track, “All newborns get half a mill.” There’d be no need for a lottery, and the golden rule would be strictly enforced. Our mayor (that’s pronounced “murr” in St. Louis-ese) even thinks that reparations should consist of “40 acres and a pool/6 bedrooms, 4 bath with a jacuzz/6-car garage, full paved and smooth/Full front and back deck/Enough room to land a jet.” And that, Mayor Nelly goes on, would just be the projects. Not even Mandela dreamed that big.