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Is Nelly Influential?

The Ringer staff weighs in on the legacy of the diamond-selling STL rapper

Getty images/Ringer illustration
Getty images/Ringer illustration

On July 21, Country Grammar, Nelly’s 2000 debut album, was certified diamond — signifying 10 million units sold — by the Recording Industry Association of America.

In achieving this rare distinction, Nelly joins an elite class of rappers: Biggie (Life After Death), 2Pac (All Eyez on Me, Greatest Hits), Outkast (Speakerboxxx/The Love Below), Eminem (The Marshall Mathers LP, The Eminem Show), the Beastie Boys (Licensed to Ill) … and, uh, MC Hammer (Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em).

So, does Nelly’s hip-hop legacy skew toward the iconic status of Big, Pac, Em, and Kast, or is he just Hammer 2.0? Our staff has some takes:

Shea Serrano: I’m stuck in the middle of an answer here. Half of me is saying, “Yes, of course Nelly is influential. In fact, he’s wildly influential, and I’ll point you toward two things. First, Country Grammar came out in 2000 and has now sold 10 million copies. Can you even think of a regional rapper (or regional rap group) who showed up before Nelly that was ever anywhere close to as successful as he was? I don’t think you can. Maybe you’re remembering that the Hot Boys were kind of close, but really they’re not even a little close. They had three albums that came out from 1997 to 2003 and in total they sold only about 1.5 million copies. They were cooler than Nelly, but not as successful. Outkast, fellow diamond recipients, sold a bunch of albums in the same time period as Nelly. Past that, there’s nobody else. So it’s really just those two. So that means Nelly is one of the first guys to undeniably show and prove that regional rappers could be as big commercially as acts from traditional rap territories, which is a thing. Second: What rappers were really singing on rap songs before he showed up doing that shit? There were singers who were singing on rap songs. Bone Thugs did it, but that was, like, their whole angle. For Nelly, it was just a thing that he did, you know what I’m saying? It was his thing. So yes, of course Nelly is influential.”

But another part of me is saying, “No, of course Nelly is not influential. He wore a fucking Band-Aid on his face. And he allowed for there to be a Chingy. I will never forgive him for that.”

So I’m stuck. Sorry.

Victor Luckerson: When West Virginia businessman Jack Whittaker won the biggest lottery prize in U.S. history in 2002, his granddaughter’s first wish was to meet Nelly. Because what 15-year-old girl wouldn’t want to meet the biggest musical star of the moment? Let’s not erase the fact that Nelly was a colossal commercial force the moment he arrived on the national scene. Forget Jay Z’s Vol 2 … Hard Knock Life (5x platinum) or DMX’s … And Then There Was X (5x platinum). Country Grammar is now on the same level of popularity as Oops! … I Did It Again. No wonder your boy joined Britney in the star-studded 2001 Super Bowl halftime show, performing a rock remix of “E.I.” with Aerosmith.

Nelly’s chart dominance is his influence. He was the first monstrously successful rapper who didn’t come across as a complete novelty act. He was a legit pop star, with infectious, crooning hooks, iconic accessories (pretend like you never put a Band-Aid on your left cheek), and a hometown affection that gave him an air of underdog authenticity. 50 Cent and Drake, perhaps the two biggest rappers to emerge in his wake, offered hard and soft variants of his template. But they still didn’t go diamond.

Katie Baker: It is one of the great tragedies of our time that MTV produced only two Super Bowl halftime shows, in 2001 and 2004. The network’s big-tent creative vision embraced collaboration, smoke machines, and demonstrative stage-walking, and had room for everyone ranging from Peak Britney to P. Diddy. (From the 2004 set list: “Diddy” to the tune of “Mickey.”) We lost many things when the NFL put an end to MTV’s contributions in the wake of Justin Timberlake’s good-faith effort to have Janet Jackson naked by the end of that song. But one of the quietly saddest losses has been the ability to check in regularly on Super Bowl halftime show muse Nelly.

MTV turned to him as the glue guy in both productions: In 2001, he was part of a star-studded “Walk This Way.” In 2004 he performed “Hot in Herre,” correctly predicting the wardrobe malfunction with his lyrics. Who’s to say what his halftime show canon might include by this point had those bralette seams held strong? A somber, candle-lit, celebrity-laden performance of “Over and Over” as footage of past Super Bowl losers flickers on the big screen? A retro night that opens with “Ride Wit Me” and encourages fans to Instagram Band-Aid selfies? I think Nelly should become a Super Bowl halftime show artist-in-residence, really. In this bleak post-MTV Super Bowl era, he seems to be pretty available for the job.

Justin Charity: Although Fader-core revisionism asks us to pretend that Drake invented Z100 raps mixed with R&B hooks and melodies in 2011, it seems pretty clear to me that Nelly preempted his light-skinned successor by a clean decade. I call it like I see it. Shouts out to Bone Thugs, Nate Dogg, Z-Ro, Lauryn Hill, Wyclef, et al. And yeah, Nelly.

Kate Knibbs: Yes, Nelly has been influential. Nelly is Drake’s spiritual corniness godfather. Picture this: 2000s-era Teen Drake — excuse me, Aubrey — absorbing the Country Grammar CD in his bedroom as he pores over Degrassi scripts. It happened. Drake looked at Nelly on the jewel case and thought, “Here’s a rapper who isn’t afraid to sing (‘Ride Wit Me’), who isn’t afraid to be from some random-ass city other rappers aren’t from (St. Louis), who comes up with creative names for his friends (St. Lunatics).” And then Drake worked hard and dreamed big, and he became a rapper who sang from an unfancied city with creatively named friends (his … woes …). And just as Nelly let Murphy Lee hop along for the ride, Drake gave PartyNextDoor (among many others) a coattail ride. (Will PartyNextDoor release the “Wat Da Hook Gon Be” of our time? I can only hope.)

Additionally, Nelly has influenced me personally. I now find decorative facial Band-Aids to be a jaunty accessory.

Micah Peters: Are you kidding me? This song is still of dire importance. It was a strip-club record with enough pop sensibility to be played at middle school dances, which is what I associate it with. The computer boot-up noises and the confused Scooby-Doo sound that open up “E.I.” basically signal the beginning of a fucking trial by fire at said dances. They separated the men from the boys. You had less than two seconds to either find someone to get up on (meaning, sway awkwardly at arms’ length away from, your hands at 10 and 2, while the vice principal burned holes in your back with his eyes) — or you couldn’t. And if you couldn’t, you had to instead talk to an overly interested chaperone about “how school was going.”

More importantly, Nelly says “ándale, ándale, mami, E.I., E.I.” Which is conspicuously close to Speedy Gonzales yipping ándale, ándale, arriba arriba.” So while it’s totally possible that the hook is just gibberish, it’s equally possible that Nelly heard “E.I., E.I.” and just rolled with it. It’s like when that cook in ancient China was messing around with some stuff that happened to be in the cupboard (sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal), blew up the kitchen, and accidentally created fireworks.

Donnie Kwak: The first (and only) time I visited St. Louis was to meet Nelly. It was 1999, and all I knew of his name was that it appeared on a promo vinyl single that was sent to my office — black sleeve, no photo, and a sticker with N-E-L-L-Y spelled out on a deck of cards. That first single, “Country Grammar (Hot Sh*t),” was cute and catchy enough, in that Domino “Getto Jam” way. But without a video nor much radio airplay, it wasn’t yet a national hit. Nelly was an unknown.

To increase awareness of their rookie, Universal Records flew out a bunch of journalists (a.k.a. snobby New Yorkers) to St. Louis to meet the rapper face-to-face in his hometown. (1999 label budgets, holla!) Back then, I was working for a streaming-video site called that, in retrospect, was way, way ahead of its time. (Turns out dial-up modems can’t quite handle video.) But toting a video camera around in ’99 had its advantages: In St. Louis, the 88HipHop team — myself and a Swedish cameraman called Jon — were the only ones with filming capability. So, while the other journalists got only brief interviews, Jon and I were allowed to tag along with Nelly as he gave us a private tour of his city.

Here’s what I remember about Nelly:

  • He wore a backward Cardinals hat that had NELLY stitched on it, as if to constantly remind everyone who he was.
  • We rode around in a limo with Nelly and his crew, who we would later come to know as the St. Lunatics; to a man, they were smiley, high, and quiet. In other words: good crew members.
  • The limo stopped at a fast-food restaurant; inside, the female workers murmured among themselves and shyly took Nelly’s order — reacting in the way they would to the cute, popular boy in high school, not a celebrity.
  • Throughout the day, Nelly was wide-eyed, excited, and fully present in his star-making moment. He was friendly and genuine and immensely proud of his city. We talked at length about sports; he shared with us his pro-baseball dreams.
  • I told Nelly I wanted to buy a Rams jersey. It was the peak of the “Greatest Show on Turf” era, and St. Louis was then the NFL’s Golden State (same color scheme, too!). Nelly took us to a sports store in a mall near the Arch. Every Rams jersey was sold out save for Orlando Pace’s no. 76. Because I didn’t want a lineman number, I opted instead for a St. Louis Blues pullover — incidentally, the same one that Nelly would rock in the “Country Grammar” video.
  • That night, we rejoined the rest of the journalists on the “other side” of the city, in a club in East St. Louis, to watch Nelly perform before his hometown faithful. (He rocked an Orlando Pace no. 76 jersey.) The love from the audience was spirited, tangible, and real.

Would I have predicted back then that Nelly would go on to achieve a milestone that Snoop, Nas, and Jay Z have yet to reach? No way. But I did leave St. Louis thinking, “Damn, that’s the nicest rapper I’ve ever met.” And that memory counts for something.