Not No Number One: Isaiah Rashad’s “Nelly”

Isaiah Rashad returns to pay tribute to the greatest of all St. Lunatics.
By    September 24, 2015


Max Bell bought Country Grammar and Nia in 2000.

Isaiah Rashad knows his history. He compresses the past into one poignant line, or meditates on it for several verses. He’s diligent and self-aware without becoming pretentious or preachy. Insight and levity are delivered in equal measure. There’s a reason that Cilvia Demo remains one of the best debuts in recent memory.

“Nelly” is the lead single from Rashad’s forthcoming, still-untitled sophomore effort. Really, it’s the anti-single. The bird is casually flipped to all chart-topping trends and metrics. The title isn’t a diss. It is a reminder, a cautionary tale with a message so glaringly obvious that Rashad doesn’t have to say Cornell Iral Haynes Jr.’s alias once.

On the hook, Rashad couches his message in a croon to an unnamed addressee. For him, a number one is a death sentence. He wants to be played, not played out. It’s honest, not an affectation. He’s rapped about the pitfalls of industry-backed success since he came in (“Road to the riches still paved with the ditches / Get caught up in the hype, your career is for a night” – “Shot You Down”).

Your lyric annotation website of choice is probably already picking apart the layers of said chorus. It might double as a metaphor for Rashad’s relationship goals. It might be an attempt to engage hesitant listeners. It might be Rashad’s answer to “I Used to Lover H.E.R.” It might be all three, or something else entirely. At the very least, it means more than cars, guns, and children’s rhymes.

Sonically, “Nelly” retains the same muted tenor that guided much of Cilvia Demo. It’s slowed but not screwed. The percussion is sparse but crisp. Skittering trap triplets are sacrificed for the silence that makes each beat visceral. Minimal chords and an ambient swirling afford the warmth that’s absent from nearly all rap radio station playlists. Throughout, Rashad employs the lax, half-sung delivery that made songs like “Heavenly Father” so emotionally arresting.

While the chorus outlines his artistic intent, Rashad spends his verses on the biographical, moving seamlessly from past to present. In the first, kin slang as he watches from the sideline, alone and lacking direction. In the second, grandma passes just before the album drops, kin still slang, and the same ills plague Chattanooga. He’s not telling you to light another and pass it, he’s rapping between inhales.

Is “Nelly” too sleepy for a lead single? Probably. Still, that doesn’t undermine its effectiveness. Look at the face of the man surrounded by the pun[ny] lemon and lime concessions in the photo at the top of this post. His hawking them is a concession. He knows. He patently refuses to let it affect his music. Somewhere, Nelly cashes a songwriting check from Cheerios.


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