A savvy pop-rapper with crossover appeal, Nelly seemed like a novelty when he first debuted in summer 2000 with "Country Grammar (Hot...)," yet he was no one-hit wonder, consistently returning to the pop charts with successive smash hits like "Hot in Herre." His universality is partly rooted in his hometown: the Gateway City, officially known as St. Louis, MO, which set him apart from all of the prevailing rap styles of his time. He wasn't from the East or West Coast, nor was he from the South; located in the middle of the United States, St. Louis is a Midwestern city halfway between Minneapolis and New Orleans, built upon on the western banks of the Mississippi River. Nelly's locale certainly informs his rapping style, which is as much country as urban, and his dialect as well, which is 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 catchier than most, thanks also in part to his standby producer, Jason "Jay E" Epperson. As a result, Nelly became a rapper capable of crossing practically all boundaries, from the Dirty South to TRL and everything in between. His first hit, "Country Grammar (Hot...)," became a nationwide summer anthem, and many more smash hits followed. 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."
Born Cornell Haynes, Jr., on November 2, 1974, in St. Louis, Nelly moved with his mother from the inner city to suburban Universal City as a teen. There he chiefly attended to baseball and rap, forming the St. Lunatics with a group of his peers (including Big Lee
, Murphy Lee
, and City Spud
). The St. Lunatics
enjoyed a regional hit in 1996 with the self-produced single "Gimmie What You Got," but no recording deal was forthcoming. Frustrated with failed attempts to land a recording deal as a group, the St. Lunatics collectively decided that Nelly would have a better chance as a solo 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 signed him to a solo deal.
His debut album, Country Grammar
(2000), featured contributions from the St. Lunatics as well as the Teamsters, Lil Wayne
, and Cedric the Entertainer, and thanks to the widespread popularity of lead single "Country Grammar (Hot Shit)," Country Grammar
debuted at number three on the Billboard 200 album chart, climbing to the top spot soon afterward. In addition to the Top Ten title track, Country Grammar
spawned the hits singles "E.I.," "Ride wit Me," and "Batter Up." In the wake of Nelly's remarkable breakthrough success, he recorded a group album with the St. Lunatics, Free City
(2001); released by Universal, the album charted Top Three and spawned a moderate hit, "Midwest Swing," which cracked the Billboard Hot 100 at number 88.
The following summer Nelly returned with his second album, Nellyville
(2002), and lived up to his self-proclaimed billing as "1" (i.e., the title of his 2001 hit from the Training Day
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, and he remained a chart presence as he released a string of follow-up singles: "Dilemma" (a chart-topper), "Air Force Ones" (a Top Three hit), "Work It" (featuring Justin Timberlake
), and "Pimp Juice" (the source of some controversy).
Even once Nellyville
ran its course commercially, Nelly's hit streak continued unabated, with "Iz U" (from his stopgap remix album Derrty Versions
[2003 (from the Bad Boys II [2003 and R. Kelly
, who had both recently released very successful two-disc sets). Sweat
were led by a pair of red-hot singles -- "Flap Your Wings" (a club jam) and "My Place" (a slow jam) -- and debuted at the top two spots on the Billboard 200 album chart. Follow-up singles included "Tilt Ya Head Back" (featuring Christina Aguilera
), "Over and Over" (Tim McGraw), "Na-Na-Na-Na" (Jazze Pha
), and "N Dey Say." Sweat
were later bundled as Sweatsuit
(2005), along with the new song "Grillz," itself a number one hit. The time between its release and that of Brass Knuckles
(2008) was the longest Nelly went between albums to date, though he did collaborate frequently (with Ashanti
, R. Kelly
, and T.I., to name only a few) during the down time. Jason Birchmeier, All Music Guide