Star Power 

St. Louis rapper Nelly sets out on the road to fame and fortune

The scene outside the Spotlight Lounge in Baden last Thursday was insane, nearly riotous. Inside, a couple thousand people were crammed together, waiting for the music to start. Outside, two lines held another thousand or so people. But the staff wasn't letting anyone else in. In the guest-list line, the screams of entitlement were vocal and heated. These were the special people (ooooh), and not only were they supposed to gain entry immediately, they were supposed to get in for free. The $20 cover had been waived; they were down with rap star Nelly.

Everyone in the "line" (more like a humongous rugby scrum) was pushed against the glass doors. As one of the doormen kept screaming, "Step back! Step back right now!" another bellowed, "Nobody's getting in until you form a single-file line! If you don't do that, you'll be out here all night!" Nobody paid attention. Those closest to the door whooped and wailed, their outrage palpable. Those in the back had a more resolved look on their faces, one that suggested a simple reality, verbalized concisely by one: "We're fucked." Nor did it help when the doorman poked his head out the door and yelled, "Tickets, even for the guest list, are now $55!" Needless to say, that didn't fly with the crowd, who started screaming in unison: "We're on the guest list!" Nobody moved. Things were starting to get tense.

The glass doors seemed to bulge as a couple of dogs barked in the distance, barking that got louder until there they were, right on top of the line, cops and their German shepherds, slowly and deliberately making their way from the back of the lot to the guest-list door. The enforcers had arrived, and the words from Nelly's debut album, which had just shipped 700,000 units earlier in the day, took on a whole new meaning: "Call the cops! I see a robbery in progress! Lunatics about to steal the show!" Immediately the crowd dispersed, even before the show had officially started, and a white limo pulled into the now-vacated space near the door.

Earlier in the day, a similar scene unfolded outside Streetside Records in the Loop, though without similar incident, probably because this line comprised not late-night Nelly revelers buzzing about the show but pubescent and prepubescent girls, parents and a mishmash of others. They just wanted a glimpse of pretty-boy Nelly, born Cornell Haynes Jr., he of the smooth half-singing, half-rapping rhyme flow, the one, in his own words, "with the style and grace."

Tuesday, June 25. St. Louis. It's Nelly Day in the city, as Country Grammar is released nationwide, immediately ships gold (orders for the record from stores have topped 700,000) and in the next couple weeks will inevitably go platinum. The first St. Louis artist since ... since when? Who was it? Ike and Tina? Chuck Berry? Fontella?

You've heard "Country Grammar (Hot Sh*t)," Nelly's chart-topping first single. Even if you don't listen to hip-hop radio, you've heard it booming from cars stopped next to you at the light, passing through your neighborhood, pulling into Schnucks. It's this summer's St. Louis anthem, and anyone with a fondness for the city will appreciate the obvious love Nelly has for this town in "M - I - crooked letter - crooked letter - O - U - R - I/No one can do it better." If you hear rap banging from a car, chances are Nelly's on the system, and you can spot his style immediately: It flows, dips and drops loop-the-loops in a beautiful singsong fashion; even when he's telling us he's got his "street sweeper cocked, baby, ready to let it go," it's hard not to bounce along with him. He sings such lines with a combination of passion and compassion, and the result is as engaging as it is disconcerting.

Just as impressive as Nelly's style, though, is the work of the two producers, fellow St. Lunatics (Nelly is a member of the Lunatics, who will have their own album out in the next year) Jason Epperson and City Spud. Their production work provides a solid foundation for Nelly but, even more, stands on its own as dramatic, smart work, informed by but not derivative of the Southern-bounce sound coming out of New Orleans and Atlanta. Epperson and Spud create fantastic party music, peppering the cuts with sticky melodies and a genuine love of adventure and a wild hook.

All of these attributes are in evidence on the hit title track, a mixture of hip-hop, R&B and pop that glistens with hooks and is tethered to the ground by a deep low-end rumble, the kind that loosens screws in Jeep Cherokees from Natural Bridge to Chippewa. Country Grammar is part of an avalanche of exciting hip-hop released in the last year, a deluge that's overwhelming both in its sheer volume (it recalls the glory days of doo-wop, during which thousands of singles were released simultaneously, with fanatics still trying to wade through the plethora) and in its desire to stand apart; in fact, as in the doo-wop years, the volume necessitates originality. Each cut spreads throughout the rap community like wildfire; each hit informs all the others, and sounds from one are harnessed on the next. It's wonderful theft (though Missy Elliott derisively calls it "beat biting"), and -- musically, at least -- it's making hip-hop radio shine right now.

Unlike St. Louis rock radio, the fare on the two local hip-hop stations (100.3 FM, The Beat, and the new Q95 FM) is a goddamn hoot. Whether it's renegade gold-toothers the Three-6 Mafia singing the praises of cough syrup ("Sippin' on Da Syrup"), the 504 Boyz' great ode to the derriere, "Wobble Wobble" or someone else -- the stations never identify songs, so it's impossible to match Billboard names with radio cuts -- sampling Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" and transforming it into an ode to bonin', for some mysterious, universe-folding reason, the cutting edge of hip-hop is right at the mainstream center. Every week, a new cut discovers a beat, a sound, a snippet that informs the entire culture. The result is a weird, wonderful world of sound.

Of course, sound is one thing, message another, and the universal complaint of newbies is the trash-talking bullshit that's at the center of most of the acts, none more so than Nelly. This is some rough-biz mainstream hip-hop, and it's hard to make it through one cut without hearing at least the suggestion of outrageous invective. (The FCC forces the stations to cut the nastiness, and the result, an often absurd mixture of bleeps, blackouts and blank spaces, at times resembles William Burroughs and Brion Gysin's '50s cut-up experiments). There's a lot of sexy licking going on in these songs, a lot of bang-bang-bangin', a load of "bitchin'" and some downright obnoxious bashing. These criticisms are valid, but many critics take the messages way too literally. Nelly makes party music, and if the message is at times incendiary, who is to blame? The artist, for revealing his truth, or the culture that grows the seeds of the message? But there's no denying that those easily offended -- and, honestly, those not so easily offended -- will find some lines and phrases shocking, and it's hard to dismiss these criticisms, because it's right there in front of you.

Nelly's gift, though, is his ability to balance his boastful, "runnin' credit checks with no shame now" and "wanna fuck fly bitches" side with a more tender, emotional side, one that is rejoicing at his newfound fame with the tingling, joyous declaration "I've got money to lend my friends now!" and admitting that he's "a sucker for cornrows and manicured toes." He wears the gangsta mask often, and when he does, the rhymes fly in your face, filled with misogyny and a twinge of violence, one that can't -- and shouldn't -- be explained away, one that threatens to eclipse his obvious skills with a message that's neither constructive nor unique.

But Nelly shines when cracks appear in the mask, and these cracks reveal a tenderness buried in his voice, a voice that is delicate and at times downright lovable. It betrays the tough-guy image with an overwhelming yearning to make good on the hopes so many people have placed on his shoulders, especially when he sings, on "Country Grammar," "Let me in now! Let me in now! Bill Gates, Donald Trump, let me in now!" It's at these times that you can hear the emotion inside Nelly, echoing a whole generation's desire to break out. It doesn't hurt, either, that Nelly has these eyes that twinkle, this smile that explodes on his face, a smile that's likely to erupt directly from a sneer, disarming even the most guarded watcher. He's a handsome devil, and it's this allure that drew all the cutie-pies at Streetside.

In the end, the lyrical concerns no doubt mean nothing to Nelly or to his intended audience, and they're not going to stand in his way. As the self-proclaimed "St. Louis clown, from the U. town" (University City) sings defiantly on Country Grammar's even catchier second single, "E.I.": "Ain't nobody else dropping shit like this. Should we apologize, or fuck 'em, just leave 'em pissed?"

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