Nelly, ‘Coolsville’ (Originally Published January/February 2009)

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Nelly dropped a big summer record, and you ain’t even know it. The video for “Get Like Me” released earlier this week and it’s smoking hot. His featured guests Nicki Minaj and Pharrell offer their talents to create enjoyable anthem that will be played at high volumes. With that said, Nelly hasn’t been on top of the rap game for a while, but will this single help him reclaim the throne? We revisit another time in Nelly’s career when hip-hop heads had similar doubts. This was when Brass Knuckles wasn’t seeing the same chart-topping success as his previous efforts. Still, he wasn’t sweating it. Here’s Nelly in “Coolsville.”

 

With his new album not exactly burning up the charts, it’s getting considerably less hot in herre for Nelly these days. But if you think St. Louis’s favorite Grammy-winning, multimillion-selling crossover rap star/clothing mogul/energy-drink magnate is sweating it, think again. He’s chilling.

Written By Kris Ex

Hate Nelly’s laugh. It’s this totally unreserved yelp that lies somewhere between Dr. Evil and Muttley. It’s something that would come out of a dastard, and it emerges midthought, a predicate unto itself. That it’s a bonhomous, nervous tick coming among revelations of wealth and avoidance of personal disclosure only makes it that much more annoying. When he speaks on buying a full city block’s worth of commercial real estate in his hometown’s downtown area, he laughs: “I don’t report my earnings to the press. If they come and ask me, I might give you a hint, but I always find out you don’t want to tell a muthafucka everything. It’s just like being Tony Soprano. You can’t tell a muthafucka everything.” Laughter. When confronted about Ashanti, his reputed girlfriend—as he was by Ellen DeGeneres on national TV this past September—he laughs again, shooing things off as if the laughter alone is a suffi cient answer. And when faced with a question that melds the two subjects—say, probing for clarity on these topics by querying, umm, perchance, if the profi ts from his Pimp Juice energy drink would be able to finance a wedding with the R&B star, he cackles and dodges: “I’m just letting you know that I can finance your wedding.” Uncontrollable giggles. Then, pointing around the room: “Her wedding, and her wedding—everybody in here’s wedding off the profits of Pimp Juice.”

Considering that this Manhattan photo studio is populated by some dozen-plus bodies, and—assuming that we’re not all getting the city hall Valentine’s Day special—it stands that Pimp Juice, which Nelly affirms was an afterthought, something that just happened, was a better investment than, say, purchasing shares of Washington Mutual.

And if Nelly’s using the laugh to distract or detract, it’s not a conscious strategy. He’s just happy. It’s the opening days of fall 2007. His fifth studio album, Brass Knuckles, will be in stores shortly (or so he thinks), the economy is good (or so we think), there’s some Black guy running for president, which doesn’t matter much because the Black guy’s not going to get past the primaries. Black guys have run before—they’re not expected to come close to winning. It’s just good for morale. And laughter.

But not Nelly’s laughter. Despite its good-natured earnestness, there’s nothing to love about it.

Love that Nelly’s still here. Though it’s not cool to admit it, people were, umm, feeling Nelly when he came out. At least for the first three million albums sold or so, 2000’s Country Grammar had heads singing the schoolboy chorus of his fi rst single, aligning themselves with its gritty undertone—he was talking about riding dirty with a highpowered assault rifle in a luxury SUV, after all. There he was, a brother from St. Louis, an uncharted part of the hip-hop landscape, who came out with no big-league co-sign, who just did the damned thing—rapping, singing songs with bridges, bringing his crew along, changing the game, making ringtone music before there were ringtones.

But then he got mired in hip-hop’s internal self-hate and identity crisis. This music, this genre, this thing of ours (as much as it can be said to belong to us, that is, as opposed to corporate interests), it strives to be both art and commerce, defiantly counterculture yet mainstream, too. With justifi cation. This Cosa Nostra can be singly pro-consumerist. But Nelly proved even that has its limits. He got too successful. Hell, let’s take an extremely partial list of the successes: more than 20 million albums sold in the U.S. alone, three Grammy Awards, four No. 1 U.S. singles, two Super Bowl appearances. Shit, in 2002, even Jay-Z had to include Nelly in his holy trinity of SoundScan kings: Only dudes moving units: Em, Pimp Juice and us.

And then there’s the physique. Unlike LL Cool J, who transformed from a 17-year-old weakling into a Chippendale’s dancer over the course of two decades, and 50 Cent, whose process from menacing doughboy to thug beefcake was aided by a few well-placed bullets, Nelly came to the scene looking damn near ready for the cover of some negro version of Men’s Health. To make matters worse, he’s recently appeared as, honest to Yahweh, an underwear model for Sean John, while the cover art for Brass Knuckles is so few strokes short of gay porn that it makes even his own crew uncomfortable.

Really, if this guy—making a sappy duet with a member of Destiny’s Child not named Beyoncé, going line for line with country-ass Tim McGraw, and turning them both into hits—can have a viable career in the narrow-minded, overly masculine and homophobic world of hip-hop music, by stars and garters, there’s hope for all of us.