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A savvy rapper with crossover appeal, Nelly seemed like a novelty when he debuted with the Top Ten pop hit "Country Grammar (Hot...)" in 2000, but he quickly proved to be a legitimate hitmaker with "Hot in Herre," "Dilemma," and "Shake Ya Tailfeather" -- and those three only account for a fraction of his Hot 100-topping and Grammy-winning hits. These feats built the foundation of a career that boasts six consecutive Top Ten albums, from the diamond Country Grammar (2000) to the platinum 5.0 (2010) and "The Fix" (2015), leading to warmly received collaborations in the 2020s.
Nelly and his mother moved to St. Louis when the rapper was ten, and his universality is partly rooted in St. Louis, Missouri, which has set him apart from prevailing rap trends. His locale has certainly informed his rapping style, simultaneously country and street, as well as his dialect, a Southern drawl with some Midwestern twang. Never shying away from a commercial approach -- he happily embraced his country roots on the 2021 country-pop album Heartland -- Nelly has embraced a singalong style that has made his hooks catchier than most.
Born Cornell Iral Haynes, Jr., Nelly moved with his mother from downtown St. Louis to the slightly more suburban University City as a teen. There, he chiefly attended to baseball and rap, forming the St. Lunatics with a group of his peers (including Big Lee, Kyjuan, Murphy Lee, and City Spud). The St. Lunatics enjoyed a regional hit in 1996 with the self-produced single "Gimmie What You Got," but no recording deal was forthcoming. Frustrated with failed attempts to land a record deal as a group, the St. Lunatics collectively decided that Nelly would have a better chance as a solo act. The rest of the group could follow with solo albums of their own. The gamble paid off, and Nelly soon caught the attention of Universal, which signed him to a solo deal.
His debut album, Country Grammar (2000), featured contributions from the St. Lunatics as well as the Teamsters, Lil Wayne, and Cedric the Entertainer, and thanks to the widespread popularity of lead single "Country Grammar (Hot...)," the album debuted at number three on the Billboard 200 album chart, climbing to the top spot soon afterward. In addition to the Top Ten title track, Country Grammar spawned the hit singles "E.I.," "Ride wit Me," and "Batter Up." In the wake of Nelly's remarkable breakthrough success, he recorded a group album with the St. Lunatics, Free City (2001). Released by Universal, the album also charted in the Top Ten and spawned a moderate hit, "Midwest Swing," which cracked the Billboard Hot 100.
The following summer Nelly returned with his second album, Nellyville (2002), and lived up to his self-proclaimed billing as "#1" (i.e., the title of his 2001 hit from the Training Day soundtrack): Nellyville topped the Billboard album chart, while the Neptunes-produced lead single, "Hot in Herre," remained atop the singles chart. In all, Nelly impressively held the number one spot on ten different Billboard charts the week of Nellyville's release, and he remained a chart presence as he released a string of follow-up singles: "Dilemma" (a chart-topper featuring Kelly Rowland), "Air Force Ones" (a Top Three hit), "Work It" (featuring Justin Timberlake), and "Pimp Juice." "Hot in Herre" and "Dilemma" each won Grammy awards -- the former for Best Male Rap Solo Performance, and the latter for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration.
Even after Nellyville ran its course commercially, Nelly's hit streak continued unabated, with "Iz U" (from his stopgap remix album Derrty Versions ) and another Grammy winner, "Shake Ya Tailfeather" (from the Bad Boys II soundtrack), keeping him in the spotlight while he readied his separately released double-disc Sweatsuit (2004) project (following the lead of OutKast and R. Kelly, who had both recently released very successful two-disc sets). Sweat and Suit were led by a pair of red-hot singles -- "Flap Your Wings" (a club jam) and "My Place" (a slow jam) -- and debuted at the top two spots on the Billboard 200 album chart. Follow-up singles included "Tilt Ya Head Back" (featuring Christina Aguilera), "Over and Over" (Tim McGraw), "Na-Na-Na-Na" (Jazze Pha), and "N Dey Say." Sweat and Suit were later bundled as Sweatsuit (2005), along with the new song "Grillz," itself a number one hit.
The time between the release of Sweat and Suit and that of Brass Knuckles (2008) was the longest Nelly went between albums to date, though he did collaborate frequently (with Ashanti, R. Kelly, and T.I., to name a few) during the intervening period and built his acting résumé. The star-studded 5.0 (2010) featured the singles "Just a Dream" (produced by Jim Jonsin) and "Move That Body" (produced by Dr. Luke and Max Martin, featuring Akon and T-Pain). M.O. (2013), issued three years later, featured numerous tracks with Pharrell, plus Nicki Minaj and Nelly Furtado as guest stars. Nellyville, a BET reality series, started airing in November 2014. "The Fix," featuring Jeremih, arrived the following year and was his 27th single to appear on the Hot 100. After a 2018 track with Jacquees, "Freaky with You," Nelly retreated a bit but returned in 2020 with a slew of collaborations with such country artists as Jimmie Allen, Florida Georgia Line, and Kane Brown. This was the prelude to Heartland, a 2021 album that blended country-pop and rap. ~ Jason Birchmeier & Andy Kellman