NELLY SEEMED TO have come down, down baby, your street in a Range Rover from out of nowhere. In fact, his laid-back lope hailed from somewhere even more obscure than nowhere in the world atlas of bling-bling hip hop: St. Louis. And yet, even before his career received the official MTV imprimatur and Carson Daly finally started repeating the words Country Grammar to one of the nation's most powerful consumer groups of all time, Nelly's career arc already looked unmistakably like the waxing part of the Gateway Arch of his hometown.
But nobody comes from nowhere. Back in 1996, Nelly debuted like a young LL Cool J, his tough-but-cuddly persona soaking the independently released "Gimme What You Got" in both grit and charm. The single racked up regional sales of more than 5,000 units, many of whose owners would later dial the video to the MC's Universal-label debut, "Country Grammar (Hot Shit)," into near-constant rotation on The Box in the spring of 2000. (Either that, or Universal was springing for the calls--a common phenomenon on The Box.) And as Nelly slid in front of rows of parked Jeeps and Range Rovers and high-fived the biggest crowd of smiling Midwesterners since John Cougar Mellencamp celebrated his "Small Town" upbringing, that single bounced directly into urban-radio saturation.
Heard once, the call-and-response ode to smoking blunts outside with the crew sounds like a simple double-dutch chant ("Shimmy shimmy coco puff/Pass it all around"). Of course, no one with a radio has heard "Country Grammar" only once. Soon, the single reveals itself as a litany for living the good Southern life. Nelly's not just boasting about roaching for his own sake: He's lifting the chronic out of Snoop's tinted limo, out of Redman's Bricktown basement, and claiming spliff-passing as a down-home country tradition, as Southern as sipping mint juleps.
Okay, sure, Missouri has always seemed more Midwest than South to me, too. But cut the gung-ho tour guide some slack for trying to expand hip-hop's geography. For every hollow, heard-it-before boast that St. Louis is a city "where the gunplay ring all day," Nelly includes a thoughtful, heartfelt shout-out to someone as unexpected as fellow STL native Redd Foxx.
Crisply produced by Kevin Law and Fo' Reel's C-Love, the full-length Country Grammar, currently sitting atop the Billboard charts, doesn't stray too far from the title hit's good-thing-going. As Nelly bobs playfully between high and low cadences, musical partner Jason "Jay E" Epperson crafts pared-down Eighties-derived beats that give the MC the bed he needs to lay it down. "St. Louie" pops with a Eurosynth electro beat reminiscent of once-famous Norwegian popsters a-ha, while "Ride Wit Me" warps a DeBarge sample into a surprisingly fresh acoustic loop.
Nelly claims he's "not a solo artist," and posits St. Louis as a town with a viable hip-hop future. Performances from his hometown fellows St. Lunatics, certainly help make the case. ("Call the cops," they insist. "Lunatics about to steal the show.") Nelly's crew may not be a Wu-Tang in training, but they'll probably soon drop a second-string posse record that outclasses Tha Dogg Pound.
Still, as much as Nelly wants to spread the wealth, there's no denying the star quality of his effortless, graceful flow, or the charm of so guileless a newcomer to stardom that he sees fit to boast about having been seated next to Vanna White on an airplane. (Among the guests here, only at. Louis's own Cedric the Entertainer muscles his way into the spotlight, offering hilarious between-song skits.) Nelly's vision of St. Louis as the next vibrant hip-hop epicenter may not be entirely accurate. Hell, Nelly's vision of St. Louis as a Southern city may not even be entirely accurate. But even the most structured grammar sometimes finds it necessary to break its own rules.