"When I had recorded it," says Nelly, "I had already felt that I had won a little battle for St. Louis, just to even be signed with Universal. That album was more or less a celebration of being from St. Louis and celebrating the fact that, OK, we're here now, we're going to get a chance to make our voice heard, to let everybody hear how we're doing it."
Nelly and the crew from which he sprang, the St. Lunatics, are doing it with a unique style, one that, in the world of rap, has never been harnessed so successfully. "He's got a careful balance of singing and rapping," says Chuck Atkins, program director for The Beat (100.3 FM), the radio station that first broke the St. Lunatics, "and I think it was just time for somebody to come and do that. Nate Dogg on the West Coast was doing that, but he was singing more than he was rapping, so he didn't catch like that."
Rather than barking in rhythm, as many rappers do, or squeezing as much verbiage as possible into a measure, Nelly's style is casual and melodic; he'll do loop-the-loops with his voice, carry a melody while creating a rhyme and hum along gently. Of course, the best rappers harness all the weapons at their disposal, and many of them pepper their rapping with a dose of song-styling (the best at this was Rakim in his prime) -- it's not as if no one's ever done it before. But Nelly has a voice that's tailor-made for the style, and on Country Grammar he strikes a chord. "We're in the middle," he says of his approach, "surrounded by everybody else, basically, and everything meets us right there where we at. That's basically how we get our vibe and how we get our sound -- we take everything from all over and come up with our own."
Nelly kicks off Country Grammar with a simple declaration: "You can find me in St. Louie!" Anyone with a heart for the city can feel his love. But for many, his St. Louis isn't theirs. He continues the rhyme: "Where the gunplay ring all day. Some got jobs, some sell yea, others just drink and fuck all day." The convention-and-tourism folks can't do much with that, or with much else on the record. It's a down-and-dirty St. Louis that Nelly portrays, Redd Foxx's St. Louis, a sort of Wild, Wild Midwest. At least a pound of chronic is consumed during the course of the CD; at every turn, Nelly lights up a blunt, makes a play for a lady, pops a rival, flashes his weapon. It's not a wholesome walk through Tower Grove Park on a spring day; it's the raw stuff, and Nelly's detractors -- and there are many -- can grab a line of evidence in every verse. Other detractors, with merit, say that Nelly's rhymes are boastful cookie-cutter gangsta garbage, filled not just with misogyny and cocksure struttting but with bland misogyny and strutting.
And there's no point in defending him against these charges, no reason to supply the standard line "His reality is the result of the culture that produced him." Nelly can defend himself, if he feels like it. But he probably doesn't; he just wants to make an impact, smoke some weed, hook up with a few "fly bitches" and, most important, get paid. The brainiacs indicting him for the message are no doubt the same collegians who, in their English-comp classes, were instructed to "write what you know." Nelly's writing what he knows, and if what he knows rubs people the wrong way, or sends the "wrong" message to impressionable youth, it makes no difference.
Nelly has two sisters, one older and one younger, and two younger brothers (one of whom, who goes by the moniker City Spud, produced four tracks on Country Grammar and is currently in jail). His parents are divorced, and Nelly was shuttled among them and a few relatives during his teens when he was getting into trouble and learning the hustle. He was obviously a talented kid, though, a star shortstop at U. City High who fielded letters "out the ass" to visit minor-league camps. But, he says, "I took a year off 'cause I was doing the hustle. It was just a matter of the surroundings and not being strong enough to tell your surroundings, 'This is what I want to do.' Baseball isn't a popular sport in the 'hood. I kinda punked out on baseball, like, 'Nah, I'll get it. I'll be back.'"
He didn't come back. Instead, he hooked up with a few U. City friends in 1993 and set about learning how to rap. They recorded a few singles, shopped them around and got turned down by confused executives afraid to take a chance on the Lunatics' weird amalgam before finally catching the ear of a Universal record man. Convinced that the St. Lunatics would have a better chance if they pushed Nelly as a solo artist first, he recorded Country Grammar in 1999 and released it in August of this year. After a strong showing from the debut single, "Country Grammar (Hot Sh*t)" -- a single that's still on the Hot 100 after 23 weeks, currently at No. 8 -- the full-length debuted at No. 3, right behind Britney Spears and Eminem, and gradually pushed its way into the No. 1 position, where it remained for six weeks before L.L. Cool J.'s new album finally dropped Nelly to No. 2 last week.