The 2001 RFT Slammies

Homeboy superstar Nelly tops the list of readers' favorite local musicians

Artist of the Year -- Nelly
Recording of the Year -- Country Grammar
Best Rap Artist -- Nelly

We abased ourselves to publicists, left tearful voice-mail messages for his manager, burned incense and prayed to various deities -- but had no luck landing an interview with Cornell Haynes Jr., better known as Nelly, who's clearly got bigger fish to fry than the humble catfish served up by the Riverfront Times (in the form of three Slammies Awards: Best Rap Artist, Best Recording and Artist of the Year). Between appearances on the Tonight Show and Politically Incorrect (where Nelly hugged Dick Clark and uttered the unforgettable line "Everybody love Dick!"), between Vibe photo sessions and expensive video shoots, the St. Louie clown from U. Town is a busy, busy man. We can't resist the urge, petty as it may be, to remind readers of the obvious: Given the short attention span of his audience, it'll probably be quite easy to get an interview with Nelly two or three years down the line, after his fickle fans have moved on to the next flavor of the month. Right now, he's gigantic -- having sold more than 6 million copies of his debut CD, Country Grammar, which remains in the Billboard Top 40 after 44 weeks, an amazing statistic in itself -- so we forgive him for blowing us off. We'd blow ourselves off, too, had we film scripts to peruse, models to fuck and millions of dollars to spend.

This time last year, Nelly didn't win a single Slammy. His first single from Country Grammar, "Country Grammar (Hot Shit)," had just been released on Universal, the biggest record label in the world, and although it had generated a buzz among the hip-hop cognoscenti, it hadn't registered yet with the greater public. This year, Nelly ran away with every Slammy for which he was nominated. (Had he been nominated in the Best Roots/Americana or Punk categories, chances are he would have won there, too.) In one year, Nelly has gone from relative unknown to the biggest star St. Louis has ever produced. Already he's sold more records than Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, Ike & Tina and Fontella Bass. Even if he retires tomorrow -- or, more likely, the capricious hip-hop audience tosses him aside in favor of next week's pretty boy -- he's achieved more in a year than most St. Louis musicians will in a lifetime, at least from a commercial standpoint.

Although it seems strange to commend an artist for his longevity when he's been famous for less than a year, Nelly's success seems to have legs, at least in the context of the hip-hop industry. Porn stars and pro athletes usually have longer careers than rappers. The fate of the average hip-hop artist is more or less the same as that of a fuzzy chick sold at Easter to amuse an enthusiastic toddler; both will surely be fondled, adored and soon thereafter crushed to death or left to starve. Where are the rappers of yesteryear -- the Coolios, the M.C. Hammers, the Big Daddy Kanes, the Naughty by Natures? The lucky ones, such as Run-DMC, wind up playing cheesy radio festivals and appearing in commercials for eyeglass frames or landing a role on a TV show, like Ice-T. The fact that Nelly's CD has stubbornly lingered on the charts for the better part of a year bodes well for his career; if the debut by his group, the St. Lunatics (scheduled for release the first week of June), and his second solo record do half as well, he'll be a bona fide legend.

Yeah, yeah: So Miles Davis will be revered long after Nelly has faded from our collective consciousness. Who cares? The beauty of hip-hop, of pop music in general, resides in its ephemerality, its throw-away glamour, the way it occupies a particular moment in time. There's a reason the adjective "fresh" enjoys such currency in the mirror worlds of rap music and the fashion industry: Both push goods that are made to be devoured, digested and replaced, the brutal trajectory of capitalism. It's no coincidence that rap lyrics contain so many references to brand names, designer labels: Chanel, Polo, Nike, Gucci, Fendi, Donna Karan -- all are mentioned in Nelly songs. With a few notable exceptions, hip-hop is obsessively consumerist: both devourer and devoured, both worshiper and sacrificial victim at the gaping maw of commerce. Most rap is a celebration -- and, in a perverse way, an indictment -- of what writer Daniel Harris calls "the magnificent vulgarity of capitalism." It might be crass, faddish and disposable, but it's exactly what we want.

Doubters need only listen to the first few minutes of Country Grammar: the sticky-sweet hooks, half-sung and half-rapped with a casual, feral grace; the seductive samples; the loping, laid-back flow of the rhymes, which move from street-sweepers to fly bitches to filial devotion, from St. Louis malls to Vanna White to the pleasures and perils of recreational drug use. On one end of the spectrum, critics condemn him for being too gangsta, too ghetto, too negative; on the other end, detractors complain that he's too bubblegum, too soft, too smooth. As evidenced by Nelly's phenomenal sales, the vast majority of the listening public thinks he's exactly right: right in the middle of the country, right in the middle of the market. According to Charlie Chan, this year's Slammy winner in the Rap/Hip-Hop DJ category (he also gets a shout-out on "St. Louie," the first song on Country Grammar), Nelly's success has been great for the St. Louis hip-hop scene, sour grapes notwithstanding.

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