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There's Joy in Nellyville

A potential big-league baseball player, the St. Louis rapper keeps his eye on the ball when it comes to music

July 21, 2002|MARC WEINGARTEN

When Nelly emerges from his dressing room at CBS Television City half an hour before taping his performance on "The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn," he looks as spry and hale as a morning talk-show host. The rap superstar, dressed in his requisite public attire of football jersey and baseball cap, with a diamond-encrusted ram's head pendant hanging from his neck, is placid and cooperative, exchanging pleasantries with the show's talent booker and other bystanders.

But once he and his group, the St. Lunatics, hit the show's tiny performance area, it's a different story. The cameras seem to unleash Nelly's dormant feral energies, and he and his four cohorts break through the program's carefully tended show-biz facade like Rottweilers through chiffon. The polite, tourist-dominated audience responds with waving hands and pumping fists.

Nelly is working the crowd in his own distinctive way, alternating his gruff rap voice during the verses with a playful singing voice on the lubricious chorus. It's a style unlike any other mainstream rapper, and it has turned Nelly into a hip-hop superstar.

Nelly, 23, doesn't like to mess around. The rapper, who sold 9 million copies of his 2000 debut album, "Country Grammar," on the strength of the hits "Ride Wit Me" and the title song, likes big fun, but he's also a micromanager who leaves nothing to chance. If something needs to be done, he'll do it.

Keep in mind that the man is a terrific baseball player who had enough talent to seriously consider a major league career. He has a professional athlete's steely resolve and discipline, a determination to set goals and then exceed them. Ask Nelly why he chose shortstop as his position and he'll tell you it's because "he's the leader."

"He's ultra-competitive," says Kevin Law, the Universal Records executive who signed Nelly to a record contract. "I am too. It's one of the reasons why we have a good relationship."

That iron will has led Nelly up from the underclass into the pantheon of rap superstars that includes Eminem, Dr. Dre and Jay-Z. Confronting the sophomore jinx head-on, Nelly's new follow-up album, "Nellyville," sold 714,000 copies in its first week of release and has now been No. 1 on the U.S. pop album chart for three weeks with 1.5 million copies sold.

The rapper likes to think of "Nellyville" as a loosely structured concept album--a hip-hop rarity--in which each song represents a different facet of urban St. Louis life. "Hot in Herre" is about guys out on a strip-club bender; "Kings Highway" is a nighttime cruise through the city's underbelly. According to Law, who is also the album's executive producer, "Nellyville" is in many ways the artist's true coming-out album.

" 'Country Grammar' was more of a group collaboration than this one," Law says. " 'Nellyville' was written from a more personal perspective. The thing I always stressed was that he take his time with the record. There was no need to rush it out. Everyone's waiting for you to fail the second time. When it was done, we all just knew."

Talking to Nelly about his short sprint to success is like attending an Anthony Robbins seminar on awakening the giant within. He's a firm believer in the Protestant ethic. "Anything you want, you can have, if you work hard enough for it and don't hurt anyone in the process" he says, sitting in the studio's green room before the Kilborn taping. "That's all I did. I was just worn out, man, from where I came from.

"The block was on fire. I had to get myself out of there by making the rap thing work for me."

Nelly makes it sound easier than it really was. He often boasts about being the first significant rapper to emerge from St. Louis, and that was no small task. The city isn't a hotbed of mainstream hip-hop by any means, and Nelly couldn't look to any regional artist for a path to success. As the first St. Louis-bred major rap star, Nelly has sent label talent scouts scrambling through the Gateway Arch looking for emerging talent.

"The underground scene is much better now," he says with some satisfaction. "People are starting to believe more. It's a big commotion!"

Nelly is as proud of drawing attention to Missouri rap as he is of his own accomplishments. He's pumped full of civic pride and eager to discuss the virtues of his hometown, even though he was reared in some of St. Louis' toughest neighborhoods and had a troubled childhood.

Still, there it is in the lyrics of "Nellyville's" title song, the rapper's vision of his native town as a shining city on a hill. Imagine a place with "blocks and blocks of no cocaine, blocks of no gunplay" and "no lotteries, no pick threes or pick twos," Nelly raps, a city where everyone has "40 acres and a pool."

"If I could, I would build this perfect place to put those less fortunate than others," he says. "I'm trying to relieve a lot of people's stress right now, and that's what it's all about."

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