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

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Hate. Nelly gets a lot of it. Hate, that is. And not just from the keyboard cowboys. True enough, it was cool to hate on Nelly before it was cool to have an e-mail address. But the hate he gets from some of the more respectable members of the Black community makes the stuff that comes out of the mouths of the types of guys who throw rocks and then hide their hands sound like…actually, the stuff that comes out of the mouths of the types of guys who throw rocks and then hide their hands.

It all started in 2004, when Nelly decided to record a video for his money-and-sex strip-club anthem “E.I. (Tipdrill Remix).” As if the idea of such a song wasn’t bad enough (the horror!), the pretty boy had the unmitigated nerve to (gasp!) slide a credit card down a dancer’s ass crack. Somehow the academic types, who are way too smart to be reading this magazine, let alone watching scandalous videos about butterfaces at unforgiving hours of the night, caught the scent of the clip and began to compare Nelly to a slave owner bidding on the auction block. (No, really.) And leave it to the geniuses at Spelman College, the historically Black women’s institution in Atlanta, to protest, as if no one in college had ever been exposed to strip-club activity. As if—even in this screwed-up, infirm, pathological society, where money is power, sex is a weapon and women are objects—the concept of informed consent between adults is not something they should have been familiar with. Leave it to college-age folk, who, unlike younger teens, who merely think they know everything, think they know every thing but don’t live at home. Leave it to them to protest Nelly’s presence at their hallowed institution. Fuck him and his bone-marrow drive.

Oh, yeah. Nelly was set to go to Spelman not to recruit new pussypoppers, but to, you know, like, try to register bone-marrow donors in the Black community through his nonprofi t organization, Jes Us 4 Jackie. “When you get down to it, you talking about a video,” says Nelly. “I’m talking about lives. It’s not even a fuckin’ comparison. We weren’t able to find [a donor] for my sister [who died from leukemia in 2005], but we were able to find some for, like, six or seven needy people. So I’m not going to say we saved six or seven lives, but—we saved six or seven lives… Or we’ve helped six or seven lives to the utmost. Who out there condemning me could say that? You wanna talk about the ‘Tip Drill’ video. What are you doing? How many lives have you helped save?”

Love Nelly’s laugh. It’s the opening days of fall 2008. Nelly’s fifth studio album, Brass Knuckles, has taken more than 365 days to drop and has not received the warmest commercial greeting (84,000 in first-week sales, as opposed to his last two albums, Suit and Sweat, which both dropped on the same day in 2004 and moved 396,000 and 342,000 out the gate, respectively, claiming the top two slots on the Billboard album charts). The economy’s pretty much gone the way of Yung Berg’s street credibility, and the Black guy running for president, well, That One’s changed everything—how we look at each other, how we look at ourselves, what little Black boys and little Black girls are allowed to dream about.

But Nelly’s laughter is still here, peppering his words with optimism, puncturing any thoughts of bitterness. Perhaps it’s his presumably sizable bank account—he does own an undisclosed percentage in an NBA franchise, his Apple Bottoms clothing line is one of the top-selling junior’s brands in the country, and he’s opened a sports bar with past and present pro athletes Darius Miles, Larry Hughes and Marshall Faulk. Whatever it is, Nelly is determined and jovial, even in these uncertain times. “Okay, what we do? Eighty-four thousand sales the first week? So what’s that? Thirty-five million and 84,000.” He laughs. “Catch me on three more albums, and then maybe we’ll have something to talk about.”

The words are puffed up, but the attitude is not. Nelly’s objective reality lies comfortably in the zone between self-motivational self-aggrandizement and honest, clear-eyed humility. His current situation has him playing “up-close-and-personal” venues like the House of Blues and B.B. King’s in New York, but there’s no acrimony in relation to his downgrade. “The last record I had was, like, four years ago,” he says. “When you been gone for so long, you gotta reiterate yourself back into the movement. On this run right now, I’m just trying to reconnect with people. It’s not like I’m a mixtape assassin or something, where I just keep myself out there on that type of level. I know it’s a grind process, and I respect the game that much more, because you do gotta prove yourself. Hard work ain’t never scared me. We kinda figured, with the way we pushed [the album’s release date] around a little bit, that the first-week numbers weren’t going to be what we would like them to be.

“I like to relate it to Michael Jordan,” he continues (citing his fellow co-owner of the Charlotte Bobcats basketball team). “Mike won three rings. He retired. But when he came back, he didn’t even have a 23 jersey on. He came back with a 45 jersey on. And what happened? He got shook up by A.I. Shaq and Penny took him to school. The next year he came back, he came back with the 23 on, and he came back even hungrier, and he won three more rings. It’s just one of those things where, right now, I got my 45 jersey on. But I’m telling you: I will put this 23 back on.

“After you get out here and you see what it is, [you have to go] back and revamp and bring your game back to a forefront, as far as your strengths and what it is that you do. Even when Jordan came back, he may not have been running and dunking like he used to, but he developed that fade-away. He would still light them up for 30, but he was doing it in a different way. An that’s what I think it is for me now. I gotta find my different way of lighting these muthafuckas back up…I also know that it’s a long haul, and we got things to do. But keep watching this. In this country that we live in, everybody loves a comeback. Everybody loves to see a muthafucka come back from what they thought it was. So we’ll see what happens.”

And then he laughs. And you gotta love it.