When Nelly first debuted nationally in summer 2000, he seemed like a novelty, but it quickly became apparent that he was, in fact, an exceptional artist, a rapper with truly universal appeal. He wasn’t from the East or West Coast, and wasn’t really from the Dirty South, either. Rather, Nelly was from St. Louis, a Midwestern city halfway between Minneapolis and New Orleans. His locale certainly informed his rapping style, which was as much country as urban, and his dialect as well, which was, similarly, as much Southern drawl as Midwestern twang. Plus, Nelly never shied away from a pop-rap approach, embracing a singalong vocal style that made his hooks incredibly catchy. As a result, Nelly became an exceptional rapper capable of crossing all boundaries, from the Dirty South to the TRL crowd and everything in between. His first hit, “Country Grammar (Hot…),” became a summer anthem, and many more hits followed. In particular, his popularity peaked in summer 2002, when he topped seemingly every Billboard chart possible with his Nellyville album and its lead single, “Hot in Herre.”
Nelly was born Cornell Haynes Jr. in St. Louis, where he encountered the street temptations so synonymous with rap artists. And like so many of his contemporaries, a change in circumstance at a pivotal time in his life may have changed the course of Nelly’s life. In his case, when he was a teenager, Nelly was taken away from those streets when his mother moved to nearby suburban University City. It was there that he shifted his attention to playing baseball, storytelling, and writing rhymes. With some high-school friends, Nelly formed the St. Lunatics, who scored a regional hit in 1996 with a self-produced single, “Gimmie What You Got.” Frustrated with failed attempts to land a record deal as a group, they collectively decided that Nelly would have a better chance as a single act. The rest of the group could follow with solo albums of their own.
The gamble paid off, and soon Nelly caught the attention of Universal, who released his debut album, Country Grammar, in 2000. What distinguished Nelly’s take on rap from others was his laid-back delivery, deliberately reflecting the distinctive language and Southern tone of the Midwest. The album featured contributions from the St. Lunatics as well as the Teamsters, Lil’ Wayne, and Cedric the Entertainer, and spent seven weeks on top of the U.S. album charts. All along, Nelly’s goal was to put his hometown of St. Louis and the St. Lunatics on the hip-hop map. Though Nelly had become a star as a solo artist as planned, he said that he is and always will be a member of the St. Lunatics, a collective that also includes Big Lee, Kyjuan, Murphy Lee, and City Spud. Nelly fulfilled his promise in 2001 with the release of Free City, the debut St. Lunatics album featuring the hit single “Midwest Swing.”
The following summer Nelly returned with his second album, Nellyville, and lived up to his self-proclaimed “#1” billing. The album topped the Billboard album chart while the Neptunes-produced lead single, “Hot in Herre,” remained atop the singles chart. In all, Nelly impressively held the number one spot on ten different Billboard charts the week of Nellyville’s release. Few rap artists could boast such numbers, and Nelly surely savored his number one status, particularly after being dismissed as a novelty two summers earlier when he debuted. You could call him a pop-rapper if you liked, but you surely couldn’t challenge his number one status. After all, his hit streak continued unabated, with “Iz U” (from his stopgap Derrty Versions remix album) and “Shake Ya Tailfeather” (from the Bad Boys II soundtrack) keeping him in the spotlight while he readied his double-disc Sweatsuit project (following the lead of OutKast and R. Kelly, who had both recently released very successful two-disc sets). The seperately released double album dropped in fall 2004, preceded perfectly by a pair of red-hot singles: “My Place” (a slow jam) and “Flap Your Wings” (a club jam). A stroke of commercial (and to an extent, creative) genius, the superstar-laced project catapulted Nelly back atop the pop-rap world, where his presence was peerless.