March 14, 2010
A Reader's Gut Reaction: Nelly - Nellyville (June 25, 2002)
(For today's Reader Review, frequent contributor Dag Dilligent uses waaaaaaay too many words to discuss former pop rap superstar-slash-soon to be reality show star on VH-1 (that's my prediction, anyway) Cornell Haynes Jr., better known to you two as Nelly, and his second album Nellyville. I'm fucking serious: there is a lot to read on here, so if you're the type who hates it when I spin a yarn for several paragraphs before making my point, well, what are you doing on this blog? Anyway, I think I already know how people will feel about this album, but you should read through to its conclusion anyway. Enjoy!)
I guess I should start off by saying I’ve never really paid close attention to any of Nelly’s “work”. Sure, I've heard some of the shit he dumped onto the radio, and I didn’t like it. So why am I reviewing Nellyville? For two reasons: first off, this album has sold over six million copies. Six million! Rolling Stone named it as one of the 50 Best Albums of 2002 and it was nominated for two Grammys (which, as we should all know by now, means jack and shit in hip hop). So it must have something going for it, right?
Second, and most importantly, this album was part of a (ridiculous) rap battle between Nelly and KRS-One. It even features a direct attack on the Blastmaster and several offhand responses to Kris Parker's assaults on both commercial rap and Nelly specifically. You see, on his 2002 album The Mix Tape, KRS slams Nelly on the first line of the first track “Ova Here”: “Yo Nelly, you ain’t for real / and you ain’t universal / your whole style sounds like an N*Sync commercial.” Wow! Kris even turns it up from there: he makes it clear that he considers Nelly to be a sellout pop rapper and someone who is ruining hip hop, even ending by encouraging listeners to boycott Nellyville. In an interview given later, he even stated that the boycott was the will of God.
But why was Kris so mad?
Well, the whole beef started when KRS-One and Tonedeff dropped a solid track called “Clear 'Em Out” for a compilation entitled The Difference (KRS destroyed Tonedeff, by the way). The track doesn’t name Nelly specifically; but it does talk about the difference between real hip hop and commercial rap. Most people felt that it was an indirect attack on Nelly, which KRS denied: he even sent an e-mail to Nelly’s camp saying the track was not an attack and that he wasn't looking for beef. But Official Jointz, the label that released The Difference, saw the feud as a marketing opportunity and released a statement claiming that the song was, in fact, a Nelly dis. So Nelly, being a rapper and all, responded, “Who is he to say what's real and fake hip-hop? He needs to come with a hit record.”
So Nellyville contains some material that is meant as a response to “Clear ‘Em Out”. Two tracks specifically attack The Blastmaster: “#1”, which takes a few indirect swipes, and a remix of State Property's “Roc The Mic”, which angered Kris enough to write “Ova Here”. Nelly says that KRS attacked him first (which is technically true), so his response was justified. Kris said that he is all about peace and would squash the beef if Nelly would adhere to the “overstandings" outlined in the Temple of Hip-Hop's Declaration of Peace (the religious movement founded by Kris).
But enough about that for now. On to the album.
Let me make an early prediction before I hear a single beat from Nellyville: this album and others like it are the reason that Nas declared hip hop to be dead. I predict that this album will be full of incoherent rhymes about material possessions, crime, and fashion, spit with flair but without heart by Nelly and a bunch of his lackeys over empty and overproduced club beats. This will be intertwined with offensively bad skits and a healthy serving of disrespect for the ladies (while at the same time catering to that very audience).
But as of right now I'm going to give Nelly, aka Cornell Haynes Jr., a clean slate. After all, I've got nothing against St. Louis (except the climate), I like it when hip hop from any new region emerges, and I happen to enjoy rap battles (those that end well, anyway). So I'm forgetting everything I know about his music (which is easy to do, since he hasn't had a hit song in a while), and treating this review as if Nelly were completely new on the scene. I will be as fair as I can be to Nellyville and Mr. Haynes.
Nellyville is a terribly titled album that followed up Nelly’s wildly successful breakout album Country Grammar (which sold over nine million copies) (holy fuck). It was an instant commercial success, knocking The Eminem Show out of the number one slot on the Billboard 200 after a five week reign. It hit the shelves with significant momentum from the radio hit "Hot in Herre".
Cornell Haynes is a rags to riches success story. This guy earned his record deal with an innovative flow and a bubbly pop sound that stood in stark contrast to the darker sounds filling the airways at the time, capturing the attention of the ladies (who buy the most albums) along the way. It seemed like everyone was looking forward to the release of Nellyville. But would they be disappointed? Let's put a band-aid on our face and find out.
The beat bubbles and kicks off the album with a lot of energy, so I guess you could say it's smooth and overproduced. The lyrics are absolute bullshit (more on that in a minute), and the chorus is a mumbled mess. Nelly's trademark sing-song flow is irritating, and his forced accent makes him difficult to understand (example: “I'm the murn” = “I'm the mayor”). Nelly explores what life would be like if he were the mayor of your city, which is a fine topic and has been done well before (see: “If I Ruled the World” by Nas). He starts things off by guaranteeing $500,000 to newborns, and then girls are promised diamonds on their birthday that are "the size of their age" so "one year get one carats / two year get two carats / three years get three carats / and so on into marriage". (Those were nearly the actual lyrics: Nelly pronounces “carats” as “curds”, and “marriage” as “merge”.) Things actually get even more ridiculous from there, as Nelly describes a world with no crime, and quickly follows that up by saying that nobody is snitchin'. Huh? Everyone will have "40 acres and a pool", with decks, front and back, big enough to land a jet (note: this is exactly what KRS was attacking on “Clear ‘Em Out”). Finally, Nelly mentions that his welcome mat will be made of fur. Real classy. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. All of that aside, this track features something rarely heard in rap but employed a lot by Nelly: a non-looped instrument, in this case an electric guitar that comes in strong for the bridge. While Nelly may have been looking to enhance his sound by adding some actual melodic content, his nonsensical singing ruins it.
2. GETTING IT STARTED (FEAT CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER & LA LA)
The first skit of the album features some unnatural dialogue between St. Louis native Cedric the Entertainer and La La (formerly of MTV). Apparently, La La wants to hear the new Nelly album, so Cedric leaves to search for it. The jokes are awful and the skit just goes on and on and on.
3. HOT IN HERRE
The first single off the album, Grammy winner for “Best Rap Solo Performance” and a worldwide smash hit, produced by The Neptunes at the top of their game. So it’s gotta be good, right? Wrong. This is a club banger, so you could make the argument that the quality of the track depends on the groove. Well, the beat is high energy, and it could be considered the epitome of the Neptunes sound, so it’s got that going for it (I’m sure Nelly paid quite a bit for it, anyway). But to be fair, this is a Neptunes song as much as it is a Nelly song, as they did all the work crafting a dance song around idiotic lyrical content and a preposterous chorus. The chorus is basic, terrible, and repeated eternally; with two extended breaks for the hook ("mix a little bit of ah ah / with a little bit of ah ah / baby let it all hang out"). So let’s get to the lyrical content. There is none. This track is full of energy, but so are grease fires, and most people eventually learn that grease fires are bad. Skip.
4. DEM BOYZ (FEAT ST. LUNATICS)
A St. Lunatics posse track. Since Nelly started life as a member of the St. Lunatics, he should be in his element here. To be honest, they sound a lot better when working with harder material like this as opposed to watered-down commercial stuff. The beat is rather upbeat but still uninspired, and the slurred delivery of all the rappers drag the track down. Now to be fair, when the beat clears up and the artists are spitting over a basic break beat, they sound a lot better, so the clutter of the beat also doesn't help. Nelly and Murphy Lee have very similar flows: Nelly’s trademark is his high-pitched word-dragging, while Lee delivers with a little less flare, like Nelly Lite. The other two on the track (Ali and Kyjuan) have non-distinct Southern sounding flows. The guy with the face mask (Slo’Down) isn’t on this track, as he is apparently more of a silent hypeman for the group, which is unfortunate because he seems like he would have the most to say. As for the song itself, nobody really stands out in rhyme ability, although I think Murphy Lee may be a bit hungrier than Nelly. In fact the rhymes range from stupid to downright irritating. At one point Nelly says “from here to Montana”, which, thanks to his delivery, sounds like “from Hannah Montana”. Other than that, there is not much of interest, except an odd line from Kyjuan: “Dem Boys on dem porches in Air Forces reading Sources / My choice is ol' school's over dem Rolls Royce's”. At first, I thought meant that he was more interested in the tradition of old school hip hop then gaining wealth (after all, the previous line mentions reading The Source), but upon further examination I realize that I am an idiot, as the line was about cars.
5. OH NELLY (FEAT MURPHY LEE)
The beat of this off-key club cut is another attempt at hardcore, and if you can get past Nelly's sing-song flow, then you will probably be disappointed by the lyrical content anyway. Actually, these lyrics probably represent Nelly at his best, but they are nothing great: “If what you got ain't hot / then check your flame / If what you spittin' ain't hittin' / then check your aim / Your record sales start to slip and / then Nelly to blame”. Meh. But he quickly descends into his typical trappings with commercial gems like “Me and my dirties, we like to buy things”, and straight nonsense like “First name Nelly / Last name Nel / first letter C / last letter L”. Huh? I don't know how this features Murphy Lee since I only heard Nelly (unless that was him on the chorus, which was horrible by the way). Unless you like crap beats and assorted club calls (“Oooh-Wee!” and “Skurrrrt”), you should skip this one.
6. PIMP JUICE
Another single. Let me start out by mentioning the chorus: “She only want me for my pimp juice / Not my pimp juice, I'm talking new pimp juice / I think I need to cut her loose”. Amazingly bad. When this song was getting radio play, the media used it as an example of how rap music exploits women. After all, this song is essentially about picking up prostitutes, so they may have had a point. Nelly responded by claiming that “Pimp Juice” was a metaphor for a car. And yet, the lyrics in the song explicitly state that “Pimp juice can be anything”. My theory is that “Pimp Juice” is actually about Nelly’s energy drink, which is coincidentally also named Pimp Juice. This track features Nelly rhyming in falsetto like a 1970’s soul crooner over a smooth funk-flute groove. The bass line sounds extremely familiar but I couldn’t place it. But the end result is just appalling. Nelly also drops this gem: “Treat you like you’re from Milwaukee / send you Green Bay Packin’”. Note to Nelly: Milwaukee and Green Bay are different cities.
7. AIR FORCE ONES (FEAT ST. LUNATICS)
The third single off the album and another crew track. The beat starts out with a hyperactive technology sound, a keyboard set to “synth”, and a loop of the phrase “big boy”. The chorus starts things off: “Give me two purrs / I need two purrs / so I can get to stompin' in my Air Force Ones”. Ugh. To be fair, we’ve heard reputable emcees rock a track about shoes before with Run DMC's “My Adidas”, so perhaps a comparison of the two tracks would benefit the review of this song. “My Adidas”, an enduring and innovative track that debuted in 1986, featured Run and DMC using shoes as a metaphor for staying true to yourself while climbing the ladder of success. The shoes are their companions, by their side (or, ostensibly, on their feet) through victories, tough times, and tough decisions. You can easily relate to the message, and the metaphor is clever, which is why that song has stood the test of time. “Air Force Ones”, on the other hand, has none of these redeeming qualities. I guess Nelly’s crew might gain confidence from purchasing and wearing their unique shoes, or maybe the whole song is a sincere and innocent tribute to the act of buying shoes. Who knows? But I think that those are obscenely narrow points of view: this song is about how great the St. Lunatics are, and how great their shoes are. The St. Lunatics can, and do, buy shoes that are not accessible to the common man either because of class or stature (sample lyric: “You couldn’t get this color if you had a personal genie”) (Side note: I would love to have a personal genie. Wouldn't you?). This is a song about the wealthy lording their money and influence over everyone else. Its radio success lies in the fact that most people in the lower class would love to join the upper ranks at some point, and this music lets them mirror the success and arrogance of the wealthy. This track features four rappers: Nelly, Murphy Lee, Kyjuan, and Ali, who all seem to be on the same muscle relaxers because they all have the same lazy speech patterns. Now, it’s tough to determine who handles the mic the best because they are all rhyming about inane nonsense. Nobody wins with this track. Nobody.
8. IN THE STORE (FEAT CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER)
The story continues from the earlier skit. Can Mr. Entertainer find the new “sold-out” Nellyville album in time to impress La La, who is waiting “at the crib”? Who knows?
9. ON THE GRIND (FEAT KING JACOB)
A strong electric guitar starts out the track, followed by an anthem of a beat, mixed with a bit of a Twilight Zone-ish melody. This is a straight filler track without much to offer. King Jacob, a regular St. Lunatics producer, brings very little to the track, but does manage to rhyme the word “time” with the word “time”. Nelly sounds uninterested: I don’t think he even knows what he's rhyming about because it just works out to be an incoherent mess. Also, he pronounces the word “poppin” as “popein”.
10. DILEMMA (FEAT KELLY ROWLAND)
The album’s second single and the most successful song of Nelly’s career (it also served as the springboard for Rowland’s post-Destiny's Child solo career), nominated for three Grammys including Record of the Year, and named Billboard's eleventh most successful song of the decade. I cannot imagine a more commercial song. The beat is silky smooth and comes right from Patti LaBelle’s “Love, Need and Want You”, as does the chorus. Kelly Rowland sounds perfect and is speaking directly to pre-teen girls who have Nelly posters in their locker…or maybe mid-life mommies who are looking for someone new and younger (maybe someone with a Band-Aid on their face). Nelly is sing-rapping (srapping?) about his home-wrecking abilities, and the result is such a sugary mess that I felt the onset of Type II diabetes starting to occur. As a rap song: skip. As a pop song: skip.
Some nice brass starts the song off, but it quickly reverts to the usual smooth garbage. Actually, this song is bad even for this album, and it’s really long. Based on the title, I assumed that the song would be about rich people splurging on things like “the hottest fits” and “the hottest whips”. And while the song does spend some time on that topic, Nelly seems to be defending his rise to the upper class. He mentions his tough childhood, his charitable donations, his dedication to his fans, and how he changed the game. With all this hard work, it’s only fair that he gets to have a little fun with his money right? After all, the haters don’t know what he’s really about, right? Nelly's probably a much deeper person than his musical output would suggest. I mean the man “could park in the mountains and…still get valet”.
12. WORK IT (FEAT JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE)
What a refreshing combination: Nelly and Justin Timberlake. It’s like a falsetto assault over a synthesizer-heavy pop beat. I literally had to adjust the treble down to make the song tolerable. Justin handles the chorus and a few extra lines, but Nelly does most of the work. By that, I mean he spends the track ordering ladies to “show something” and “get up and take a stance”. He also takes some time to admire their dipping, popping, waist pops, tats, stilettos, and thongs. This song is a blatant attempt at trying to grab pop market dollars, and it only should succeed in disappointing both Nelly fans and Timberlake fans. If that's not enough for you, examine this lyric: “She got me hypnotize / Just like that Biggie guy”.
13. ROC THE MIC (REMIX) (FEAT FREEWAY, MURPHY LEE, & BEANIE SIGEL)
Nelly’s direct attack on KRS-One comes in the form of a remix of someone else's song. It’s got the same beat as the original State Property number: producer Just Blaze had Freeway and Beans spit some new lyrics and then introduced two of the St. Lunatics into the mix. The original was a major radio hit from the soundtrack to the failed Damon Dash film State Property. I didn’t care for the original version of this track, but they played it on the radio so often in Philly that the hook would get stuck in my head. The odd thing is that the boys from Roc-A-Fella probably felt lucky to have their song added to Nelly’s album, as they essentially got paid by the six million people who picked this up without even knowing who they were. Compared to the rest of the garbage on Nellyville, this song is pretty refreshing. That is, until Nelly starts spitting: he sounds out of place, as his flow just doesn’t match the beat. “You better watch what you say around hurrr / cause there's something on my waste to make the whole place clear”. Unsurprisingly, Beans and Free kill Nelly and Lee, with Freeway standing out with a nice back-and-forth with Sigel. Lee is way out of his league. Oh yeah, and Nelly spends his verse attacking the Blastmaster: he manages to spell out K-R-S so that we know who he’s talking about: “Like K - ‘know’ one here even said your name / R - you really feelin' guilty bout something man / S – sad to see you really just want just one more hit – please – please”. He goes on a little more, but it’s neither specific nor all that great. In the end, Kris easily destroyed Nelly and dominated for pretty much the whole battle (no surprise). Later on, both Sigel and Freeway claimed that they had no idea Nelly had beef with Kris or was even doing a battle verse on this track.
14. THE GANK
I have no idea how to describe this one. It starts out how I imagine a Soundgarden song starting, and then, just like the Soundgarden song in my imagination, the track descends very quickly into absolute shit. It’s got what sounds like a Red Hot Chili Peppers guitar loop, and Nelly sings all the way through about how his heart was ganked by his woman. To me, this song sounds like most of the R&B stuff out there in that its well produced and on key, so maybe he has a future in that since he seems to have fallen off in rap. However, I have no problem calling this song bullshit. If my description of this song was confusing, be assured that the actual song is even worse.
A skit that sets up the next track. I think it is, anyway: I have no idea. It features two minutes of laughing and mumbling. Trust me, this is nothing you'll ever want to hear.
A single from the soundtrack to the movie Training Day, also featuring an indirect swipe at KRS. The song sounds like it was expensive and designed for mass appeal. It has very high production values, on the level of “Lose Yourself” by Eminem (which is top notch), but it also showcases Nelly’s weak rhymes. He clearly had to please a industry executives while indirectly attacking KRS-One. It has a slickly produced pop rock feel, a quick beat, and not much else. At first Nelly’s battle rhymes are a bit too vague to make much of an impact, and he comes off a little defensive: “I’m tired of people judging what’s real Hip-Hop”. He manages to get in a few limp shots but doesn’t create anything memorable. Well maybe this classic: “Name not Sigel, but I speak the truth / I heat the booth, Nelly actin' so uncool”.
17. CG 2 (FEAT ST. LUNATICS)
Oh shit! “Country Grammar 2”! “I'm comin' back down baby / This time in the six fo' / A lil' mo' doe / listen to the switches go / Zoop, zoop...zoop zoop zoop / Zoop, zoop…zoop zoop zoop”. Are you fucking kidding me? This time we’ve got all of the St. Lunatics rapping, and I think they achieve what they’ve wanted to do on the whole album: have fun. The content is still extremely weak, and the hook is embarrassing, but at least everyone sounds engaged. It’s easy to recognize the lack of lyrical talent in this song, as everyone comes weak. Ali and Kyjuan are destroyed on this song (and in everything else they have ever spit on), so I don’t know how they even made it into the group. They must have had strong auditions. Come to think of it, I don’t know how Nelly made the cut either, because he's terrible. The beat is a little laid back and much better than the original version, but still awful overall.
18. SAY NOW
Nellyville wraps up with a heavy piano and electric guitar ballad. It’s like fake introspective rock and roll. I think they were going for an epic sound, but Nelly’s stupid flow gives the track a cartoonish feel. At some points Nelly decides to rush his lines, which doesn’t fit at all. Confession time: I couldn’t sit through this song. I walked out at around the halfway point, and so should you.
19. FUCK IT THEN (FEAT CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER & LA LA)
And the album finishes with the conclusion of the Cedric story. He got the album, but, shucks, he got the clean version. La La is not happy.
THE LAST WORD: Nelly is obviously sensitive to the fact that some people don’t consider his music to be real hip-hop, a topic he brings up quite frequently. So I want to be clear: I don’t hate Nelly at all, but his music is just not my taste. My issue is with the six million people who bought this pile of shit. What were you thinking? KRS came correct in every line about Nelly, and I’ll give Nelly some credit, he didn’t take the attacks lying down, but he still got destroyed. Nellyville is exactly what I expected: poor lyrical content, overproduced, club-oriented, uninspired, radio-friendly trash. This type of music is exactly why critics consider rap music disposable. Nellyville has nothing to offer besides a “fun” vibe which quickly wears off. On “Dem Boyz”, Nelly makes it clear that he isn’t worried “'bout certain sounds, that come out these haters mouths”. I know I hammered hard on this album, while I give other albums with similar subject matter a pass, but this is because Nelly and company have nothing but contempt for the listener. This album is solely constructed to separate as many people from their money as possible.
- Dag Diligent
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