Alex Swhear is damn sure glad ya came here.
Flashback to the summer of 2002. Two albums are dominating the musical zeitgeist. First comes The Eminem Show. Marshall Mathers boasted all the hallmarks of an artist courting Serious Respectability—pained personal confessionals; Aerosmith samples; Obie Trice guest verses about sexually transmitted diseases. The Eminem Show’s five-week death grip on the Billboard charts ends with the debut of the summer’s other juggernaut—Nelly’s sophomore album, Nellyville.
To say the albums are different would be to put it mildly; as they both tower over all competitors, it isn’t a stretch to perceive Nellyville—ostensibly a party record—as a welcome bit of counterprogramming to Em’s grim theatrics. Marshall’s effort opens with politically-driven vitriol backed by driving rock guitars and the ominous sound of jets overhead; Nellyville opens with our narrator musing about how neat it would be to live somewhere with no rain and limited teenage pregnancies.
These differences are instructive. Nelly’s crowd-pleasing instincts garnered a considerable audience in an era of commercial hip-hop otherwise dominated by Em’s narcissism and Jay-Z’s pre-retirement posturing (which was at the time consumed with prematurely litigating his own legacy). Comparably, Nelly’s stuff felt oddly universal. Nelly wasn’t quite replicating the PG-rated fluff of Will Smith records, but next to many of his peers he came off as unusually good-natured and amiable.
This is in part because, hailing from St. Louis, Nelly introduced a strain of hip-hop not yet injected into the mainstream DNA, occasionally grating Midwest dialect and all. Nelly’s style birthed a wave of similar artists (including both Andy Milonakis collaborator J-Kwon and noted ISIS skeptic Chingy) who achieved varying degrees of success, but none who could replicate his own.
It would be reductive to pin Nelly’s success on any one thing, but the unbridled joy doesn’t hurt. Cornell Hayes’ glee is contagious, often elevating songs and verses that might have been more forgettable in the hands of someone with less charisma. Breakout single “Country Grammar (Hot Shit)” snatches its hook from a children’s song more at home during a game of hopscotch than on urban radio. Follow-up hit “Ride Wit Me” grins about first class plane tickets and compliments a thicky-thicky-thick girl on a job well done brushing her hair. You don’t have to laugh when you revisit the campy “Batter Up” video (I didn’t), but you can at least admit it was probably a lot of fun to film.
All three songs are from Nelly’s debut, Country Grammar, and it remains his most essential body of work. But the follow-up, Nellyville, is even more drunk on success—after all, by then, he’d actually attained it. Where Country Grammar is a raucous house party, Nellyville is bigger, more confident—a full-fledged victory lap. He spends the bulk of “Oh Nelly” boasting that he “changed the game,” and it’s surprisingly convincing despite his rather thin rationale. He opens “Dem Boyz” by asserting his status as a household name. While he isn’t yet aimlessly swiping his credit card a la “Tip Drill,” much of Nellyville finds our narrator enjoying the fruits of his newfound fame and (especially) fortune. “Splurge” is a four-minute justification for his new spending habits, but he sounds more amused than defensive.
To be clear, Nellyville is hardly a masterful artistic statement. The album is running on fumes by the time it reaches its end, wasting out the clock by recycling previous successes. “Say Now” takes a single line from “Country Grammar,” microwaves it, and calls it a new song. “CG2” is a cynical repackaging of the same song, a sequel no one wanted that relies on nothing but empty repetition and nostalgia for its predecessor, a sort of hip-hop Blues Brothers 2000.
The album is stuffed with a series of unfortunate skits in which Cedric the Entertainer tries desperately to obtain a copy of Nellyville (if he fails, his significant other won’t have sex with him, you see). If you think this sounds like the sort of schtick that would fall flat in the streaming era, I would politely rebut that actually, it fell flat in 2002, too.
The resounding success of Nellyville, like its predecessor, lies in the handful of big tent singles, of which there is no shortage. “Hot In Herre” is the biggest, and for good reason—it’s Nelly at his most slick and effortless, backed by an irresistibly funky peak Neptunes beat that practically drips with sweat.
“Dilemma” is just as inescapable, the type of sugary pop that early 2000s Ja Rule wielded as a blueprint. “Air Force Ones” is a paean to shoes, as earnest in its way as any love song I’ve ever heard, with uncharacteristically memorable guest verses from the St. Lunatics. “Pimp Juice” is a slithering attempt at 1970s funk by way of late-night basement karaoke. “#1” finds Nelly chest-thumping and defiant, asserting his dominance over all nameless haters. “Work It” is easily the weakest of the bunch—harmless and inoffensive, but hindered by Justin Timberlake’s post-NSYNC, pre-Justified growing pains and its own predictability.
Nelly never again reached the heights of his 2002 ubiquity. His dual release of Sweat and Suit two years later had its merits, but the initial flop of the misguided “Flap Your Wings” brought him down to earth in a very real way. Subsequent releases have struggled mightily, with the exception of occasional minor hits like “Just a Dream.” His earliest and best output, though, has endured with surprising resilience. Few worthwhile wedding receptions exist with a DJ but without a Nelly song or two. Any party playing “Shake Ya Tailfeather” is instantly a better party than it was five minutes prior. In an era where the key figures in mainstream hip-hop (Kendrick, Drake, J. Cole) tend to take themselves seriously, there’s still plenty of room for Nelly’s affable populist charm.
I saw Nelly in 2002, a few months after the release of Nellyville. It was my first concert. There are a lot of things I remember about that night. I wore a band-aid on my face. I smelled marijuana for the first time. I sat next to a couple dancing just a little bit too slowly to every song (this worked during “Dilemma” and almost nothing else). Mostly, though, I remember that Nelly entered the arena performing “Air Force Ones” in an enormous flying shoe.
A lot has happened to Nelly since then. As a pop culture figure, his star has dimmed, but he has somehow endured, however improbably. He became a reality star. He was the subject of a viral campaign to mobilize mass streaming of his songs in order to help him pay off his tax debt. Perhaps most bleak of all, he’s currently touring with Florida Georgia Line. Mostly, though, when I think of Nelly, I think of his unimpeachable early-2000s run, no matter how much time has passed. And specifically, I think of Nelly eagerly rapping about shoes inside of a gigantic flying shoe while 20,000 people gazed up in amazement. That seems like as good a legacy as any.