Nelly - Biography

Nelly is an American pop-rap star who, though decidedly apolitical, can be credited for bringing national attention to the St. Louis, Missouri rap scene and opening doors for other non-coastal rappers. Often derided for his perceived lack of substance supposedly epitomizing all that is wrong with modern rap, he’s part of the music’s respected lineage of rappers like Kurtis Blow and LL Cool J, rappers more concerned with flashy clothes and swooning girls than beefing with other dudes.

Cornell Haynes, Jr. was born on November 2nd, 1974 in Austin, Texas. His father was in the Air Force and, for a time, the Haynes lived in Spain as well as St. Louis, Missouri. His parents split when Cornell was eight. He and his mother moved to University City, Missouri in 1993. There Cornell focused on baseball, playing short stop like his hero Ozzie Smith in the St. Louis Amateur Baseball Association. The same year, Jason “Jay E” Epperson, was working at a roller rink when he became acquainted Ali Jones. Jones, Robert Kyjuan Cleveland, Tohri “Murphy Lee” Harper, Haynes (as “Nelly) and Lavell “City Spud” Webb had formed a rap group, The St. Lunatics, and Jay E produced.

Their first single, “Gimme What You Got” sold around 10,000 copies in and around Missouri. Their full-length, Hot ta Def 99 (1998 Orginal Man Records), was produced by Jay E, City Spud and Tarboy of another St. Louis production team, Track Boyz. Several of their songs were packaged and released as Who's The Boss (2006 Fast Life) in the wake of Nelly’s subsequent breakthrough. After the group decided Nelly would have a better chance of breaking out on his own and then pulling up the rest of the crew, he signed with Universal in 1999.

In November, things went pear-shaped for City Spud, who was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and locked up at the Booneville Correctional Facility after a botched robbery attempt. Shortly afterward, Nelly’s debut, Country Grammar (2000 Universal) was a surprise hit, buoyed by the massive singles “Country Grammar (Hot ***),” “E.I” and “Ride Wit Me.” Not since Shawn Antoine "Domino" Ivy had national hits with 1993's "Ghetto Jam" and "Sweet Potato Pie" had a St. Louisian had a national rap hits.

But whereas Domino had represented Crips and Long Beach, Nelly was unabashedly an ambassador for St. Louis; standing underneath the arch on the album cover, featuring cameos from Ced the Entertainer, name-checking Redd Foxx, proudly celebrating being country, driving a Pontiac with The Rams’ colors. Most notably and influentially, rather than hiding the exaggerated rhotic pronunciation and vowel mergers of the regional dialect, he turned them up a notch, inspiring people from around the world to say things like “hurr,” “thurr” and “scurred.” It sold nine million copies. The first St. Louisian to benefit from the music press’s shift of focus from deep to upper south was Toya, who had a hit with the Nelly-esque “I Do.” In 2001, Nelly starred as a popular rapper in the film, Snipes.

Nelly’s follow-up, Nellyville (2002 Universal) was another Upper South affair, produced by The Neptunes, Jay E and Track Boyz. Guest spots included Tennesse native Justin Timberlake and Atlanta's Kelly Rowland. It sold six million copies. Seeking an opportunity to capitalize on Nelly’s success, formerly popular rapper KRS-One argued unconvincingly that Nelly’s song “#1” was an elipitic and disrespectful reference to KRS-1’s forgotten “Still #1” from a mere fourteen years previous. No stranger to shooting at caged deer (In 1992, when PM Dawn's portly pacifist Prince Be dared question why the supposedly positive/conscious rapper who started H.E.A.L. was still proudly violently boasting "Criminal Minded." KRS-One’s response was to physically attack him on stage at his own show). This time KRS-One released a diss track, “Ova Here” which didn’t chart. Around the same time, the second St. Lunatic solo release dropped, Ali’s criminally underrated Heavy Starch.

The success of Nelly, and to a lesser extent, Toya and Ali, had the labels eager to exploit the local scene and Da Hol 9, St. Lunatics’ Murphy Lee and especially Chingy all had hits of varying degrees. It was therefore something of a surprise for some when Chingy tipped the balance of repping St. Louis with full-fledged crossover at any cost toward the latter with his next releases, Sweat (2004 Universal) and Suit (2004 Universal). Guests like Christina Aguilera, Missy Elliot, TI, Mase and Tim McGraw suggested he wouldn’t be content until the Nickelodeon and Total Request Live audience were his. The albums were designed to showcase Nelly’s two sides. In the reduction process, something was lost and both were formulaic and one-dimensional. Meanwhile, another St. Louis rapper and protégé of The Track Boyz, J-Kwon, picked up where Nelly had veered off, scoring a hit with “Tipsy.”

Another beef with Nelly arose in 2005, when a touchy Chingy, through some paranoid mental gymnastics, somehow assumed that Nelly's "Another One" was a diss directed at him. Two more local rappers, Ebony Eyez and Huey, scored only minor hits and it appeared that the craze for all things St. Louis was ending. Meanwhile, Nelly turned back to acting, appearing in The Longest Yard with Adam Sandler. Evidence of rap’s worsening future came in 2006, when for the first time in five years, there were no rap albums in the year’s biggest sellers. Nelly continued to focus on other interests. Whereas rap’s time seemed to be passing, baseball is still bafflingly popular and that year Nelly joined The Richmond Braves in Virginia.

Nelly returned to music rapping on Ali & Gipp's Kinfolk. Rap sales continued to plummet, falling more than any other popular music. For Nelly’s next work, he attempted to collaborate with Bruce Springsteen but that partnership didn’t prove forthcoming. After four years of not releasing any solo material, Nelly returned with Brass Knuckles (2008 Universal). It continued with his formula of featuring big pop stars, this time around including Fergie, Ashanti, R. Kelly, Akon and Snoop Dogg, among others, as well as former rap heavyweights LL Cool J and Chuck D. As polished as his grotesquely muscled torso on the cover, it proved too vapid to appeal to virtually anyone and was his first record to not go Platinum.

After a couple of regular appearances on CSI:NY, Nelly seemed to return to back to earth, closely aligning himself with Atlanta’s Goodie Mob and introducing the re-formed band at one of his shows. City Spud was released from prison and the reunited group began working on City Free. Meanwhile, Nelly announced he’s completed a solo album, tentatively titled Nelly 5.0. So far, its release has been pushed back indefinitely. Some have theorized it was due to the murder of his cousin Nichael Johnson, who was shot to death in his Normandy, Missouri home in April. Nelly’s also said to be working on a project with TI and another with Pharrell, Akon and T-Pain. He's also still seeking to work with The Boss.

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