DAR Nostalgia Hour: Nelly's Peak (2000-2005)

 By True God

When you think of hip hop/rap and locations where people are well represented, St. Louis doesn't usually come to mind. Prior to the year 2000, the Midwest had been represented mostly by Chicago and Detroit natives, with the occasional outlier in other states. Rarely, if ever, does that outlier make such an impact that alter history or stamp their legacies in the fiber of the genre. Even more rare is someone with a distinct style that stands out breaking through if they aren't from a hip hop hub. A journey can take you different places, with the possibility of life changing in an instant being very real. Nelly's career in someway embodies the concept of your life changing in an instant, as all it took was one song to put him squarely in the driver's seat for his next move and budding success. While to the general public, it may seem like the man born Cornell Haynes arrived on the scene out of nowhere, those who knew his story saw this was a long journey with starts and stops, along with some missed opportunities. Today, we explore that path to reach superstardom and the run that he had for those 5 or so years he was on top of the world. Let's get into it. 

1993 could be seen as the true origin of Nelly's career, as he formed a group with some friends that liked to rap as well while in high school called the St. Lunatics. With his friends by his side, Nelly and the group began working on music locally, searching for a big break. In the year 1996, Nelly and the Lunatics managed to gain some notoriety and traction with their release of their single "Gimme What Ya Got", which became a local hit. While the local hit traveled a little, this was a much different era than today and it didn't quite put the Lunatics on the map in the way the group would hope. In some ways, the single was both a success and failure, which led to Nelly deciding to go solo and try his hand that way for the time being (it ended up being a temporary split). This would prove to be a smart decision, as Nelly eventually caught the attention of an A&R at Universal Records and soon after, a deal was offered. It wasn't instant smoothsailing for Nelly out the gate however, as many within Universal Records seemed hesitant to sign and push him. Their apprehension could be understood, as no artists from St. Louis had made a true impact on hip hop at the time, but that was the allure for his supporters at the label. He was a rarity, something unseen in the hip hop world prior which could work as a really interesting marketing strategy. Once the label decided to go ahead with Nelly's music and realize it, it became a sink or swim experiment that showed the label was willing to take a major risk. When the first single released, the world didn't seem to know what hit them and that was a good thing. Armed with a drum heavy beat and a super catchy hook, Nelly's first single "Country Grammar (Hot Shit)" hit the airwaves and video stations with a bang, surely exceeding what Universal envisioned happening for him right out the gate. The song would hit number 7 on the Billboard 100, giving Nelly a major hit upon his mainstream arrival and setting the tone for his debut album. 

Nelly's debut album, titled Country Grammar, was released in June 2000 right in time for the summer. Armed with a hit debut single and a different sound, Nelly began to win over more and more fans. His debut album would hit number 3 on the charts, selling 235,000 copies the first week, a definite win in the books for Universal considering how apprehensive they were initially. While that initial success was probably great to the label, many know that after the first week, the numbers usually go down consistently. For Nelly, this was not the case. As more singles released and word of mouth buzz started to get around, a groundswell of support came for Nelly from all pockets of the world. With follow up singles like "Ride With Me" and "E.I." become massive hits in their own right, Nelly had done what no one else had: put St. Louis on the map. By the end of August 2000, Country Grammar was still selling around 230,000 copies and had already crossed 1.5 million copies sold, ensuring that Nelly would at the very least see a double platinum debut album and be crowned the next big star in music. With massive success in the United States, Nelly would then begin to see a bit of overseas love as well, as his album did well on the foreign charts, especially in the UK and on the Belgian charts. What made the success of Country Grammar so special and even more rare is that Nelly was virtually unknown to the masses upon his arrival, had no real co-signs or guest spots to speak of and wasn't signed to a movement (No Limit, Ruff Ryders, Roc-A-Fella, Cash Money, etc were the biggest labels at the time). In fact, the only outside artist on the album besides St. Lunatics and a random appearance from Cedric The Entertainer was labelmate Lil Wayne. For Nelly to accomplish such a successful debut and reach those numbers in just 2 months without any major cosign or attachment to any crew except his own, it showcased how special and different his music had to feel to the public. 

As the year 2000 progressed, Nelly was everywhere. His album showed very little signs of slowing down, as it would reach triple platinum status by the end of the year, with Nelly gearing up to introduce the world to his crew, the St. Lunatics now. As 2001 rolled in, Nelly and the Lunatics were in prime position, readying their official debut group album. While the St. Lunatics did have appearances on Country Grammar, they didn't truly stand out in those limited moments, so when the 2001 Free City album dropped, it allowed fans to get to know them a lot better as artists. With 20 full tracks, the Lunatics (Murphy Lee in particular) began to shine a bit, allowing the group to have another possible star in the ranks. While I'm sure no one expected the Lunatics album to do astronomical numbers, perhaps one would be slightly disappointed that it only reached platinum, after the success of Country Grammar. By the summer of 2001, Country Grammar had hit over 5 million copies sold, so one could assume Universal probably had high hopes to do at least half of that number. Still, a platinum album for a group is a win, and with that Nelly could hang his hat on having two platinum plus albums in a 12 month span. Along with the sales success, you couldn't turn on MTV, BET or even the Super Bowl and not see Nelly. He would end up performing and appearing at Super Bowl 35, a huge honor as he shared the stage with major pop stars like Britney Spears, N'Sync and the legendary Aerosmith. With just one year officially in the mainstream, Nelly had a multi platinum solo album under his belts, multiple hits, a platinum group album and a Super Bowl performance. There are some artists who have never even come close to accomplishing this. Armed with a successful debut year, more connections, huge popularity and presumably a much bigger budget, Nelly set out to replicate that magic with his sophomore album, Nellyville. 

Nellyville would prove to also be a success as expected, selling over 700,000 copies off the strength of the first single, the Neptunes produced "Hot In Herre" (clearly an indicator of that bigger album budget). With the success of both the album and the single, Nelly had gone two for two on solo albums, with Nellyville crossing 2 million albums sold in just 5 weeks on the charts. The sound of Nellyville varied some from Country Grammar, as the music was a bit more mainstream, but it flowed very well. Some prefer the down home sound of Country Grammar, while others prefer the vibe of Nellyville, but regardless of your preference, these albums were monsters in their own right. Nellyville would sell over 6 million copies with Nelly dominating the singles charts with "Hot In Herre", the follow up "Dilemma" featuring Kelly Rowland and the influential "Air Force Ones" with the Lunatics. Nelly would find himself in one of the greatest positions as an artist in hip hop/pop music. Massive success, some crazy sales numbers, millions of fans and popularity that didn't seem likely to falter. What would be next for Nelly musically? Surprisingly, it wasn't a move anyone expected.

It would have been easy for Nelly to make another album of specific hits and release it, seeing another multi platinum success and coasting. Instead, Nelly took a risk, putting together two separate albums with two different styles to them and releasing them on the same day in the early fall of 2004. The Sweat and Suit albums are to me, the most noteworthy projects in Nelly's career as it showed he was willing to take a risk and aim for the fences, giving fans two different styles in separate projects. With the Sweat album, it seemed as if Nelly was playing it a bit safe musically, bringing that energy and fun that his music had been known for, but playing it safe may have been the wrong move. Despite debuting at no. 2 on the charts (behind Suit, which debuted at no. 1) selling 342,000 copies the first week and the hugely successful first single "Flap Your Wings", the Sweat album didn't seem to really be a memorable project, as it would drop in sales considerably as time went by, which was different from previous Nelly releases. On the flip side, Suit was an album that better suited where Nelly was headed in his career. After the success of "Dilemma", it seemed fans wanted more of Nelly's melodic touch on songs, and Suit gave them plenty of it. Suit is arguably the most daring of any Nelly album, with the R&B tinged "My Place" becoming a fan favorite and a hit, while the crossover no one expected to happen, "Over and Over" with Tim McGraw introduced Nelly to a different, more country based audience. Both singles were massive hits and they powered Suit to a triple platinum plaque, making it far more successful than the platinum Sweat. Combined, the two albums sold a little over 4 million records, a smaller combined number than what both of Nelly's first two albums did, but still a huge success considering. 

As 2004 came to a close, Nelly sat on top of the world still, though maybe not as popular as he previously had been. The Sweat and Suit albums signaled the end of his mega run, as his follow up projects did not compare in terms of success and quality, but to have a run for 5 years like that is almost unheard of, especially for an artist from St. Louis. With a certified diamond album (10 million copies sold) in Country Grammar, a sophomore album that sold almost 7 million, a group album that struck platinum, a clothing line (not sure how well Vokal did, but it was a thing) as well as a double album split into two that sold nearly 5 million copies combined, there aren't many rappers or artists in general that could say they did this. It seems as if some legendary artists get forgotten as time goes by, and while Nelly was never truly forgotten, it seems as if some people don't realize just how massive his success was. It's a very short list of people who have a diamond album, let alone three straight multi platinum albums, so his place in music history is forever etched. If you have time today and are feeling nostalgic, grab your Spotify or Apple Music and give those Nelly albums a spin and please avoid putting a band-aid on. We'd all like to forget that trend. 



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