By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Of course, sound is one thing, message another, and the universal complaint of newbies is the trash-talking bullshit that's at the center of most of the acts, none more so than Nelly. This is some rough-biz mainstream hip-hop, and it's hard to make it through one cut without hearing at least the suggestion of outrageous invective. (The FCC forces the stations to cut the nastiness, and the result, an often absurd mixture of bleeps, blackouts, and blank spaces, at times resembles William Burroughs and Brion Gysin's '50s cut-up experiments). There's a lot of sexy licking going on in these songs, a lot of bang-bang-bangin', a load of "bitchin'" and some downright obnoxious bashing. These criticisms are valid, but many critics take the messages way too literally. Nelly makes party music, and if the message is at times incendiary, who is to blame? The artist, for revealing his truth, or the culture that grows the seeds of the message? But there's no denying that those easily offended--and, honestly, those not so easily offended--will find some lines and phrases shocking, and it's hard to dismiss these criticisms, because it's right there in front of you.
Nelly's gift, though, is his ability to balance his boastful, "runnin' credit checks with no shame now" and "wanna fuck fly bitches" side with a more tender, emotional side, one that is rejoicing at his newfound fame with the tingling, joyous declaration "I've got money to lend my friends now!" and admitting that he's "a sucker for cornrows and manicured toes." He wears the gangsta mask often, and when he does, the rhymes fly in your face, filled with misogyny and a twinge of violence, one that can't--and shouldn't--be explained away, one that threatens to eclipse his obvious skills with a message that's neither constructive nor unique.
But Nelly shines when cracks appear in the mask, and these cracks reveal a tenderness buried in his voice, a voice that is delicate and at times downright lovable. It betrays the tough-guy image with an overwhelming yearning to make good on the hopes so many people have placed on his shoulders, especially when he sings, on "Country Grammar," "Let me in now! Let me in now! Bill Gates, Donald Trump, let me in now!" It's at these times that you can hear the emotion inside Nelly, echoing a whole generation's desire to break out. It doesn't hurt, either, that Nelly has these eyes that twinkle, this smile that explodes on his face, a smile that's likely to erupt directly from a sneer, disarming even the most guarded watcher. He's a handsome devil, and it's this allure that drew all the cutie-pies at Streetside.
In the end, the lyrical concerns no doubt mean nothing to Nelly or to his intended audience, and they're not going to stand in his way. As he sings defiantly on Country Grammar's even catchier second single, "E.I.": "Ain't nobody else dropping shit like this. Should we apologize, or fuck 'em, just leave 'em pissed?"