Will Nelly be worth it?

Posted on Apr 4 2014 - 9:08am by Jared Boyd

Nelly, pictured above, will be performing in the Grove tonight. Photo: Student Activity Association.

There were four knocks on my television. The man responsible for the clatter was standing on-screen, bearing down over the camera’s view, as if to reach out through the tube and tell the viewer, “This is one music video you may want to pay attention to.” He was shirtless, toned, smiling and donning a backwards, red baseball cap that I assumed had the Cardinals’ “STL” logo on the front, as he was standing under the St. Louis Gateway Arch.  Like many other fans of hip-hop in the early 2000s, this was my first glimpse of an artist known as Nelly.

“Country Grammar,” the first single from Nelly’s debut album of the same name, is a record most notable for lyrics that are very easy to grasp. The chorus repurposes the tune of “Down, Down, Baby,” a popular clapping game that anyone would quickly recognize from playgrounds across the English-speaking world.

It would be a sinister thought to consider that the composition of the song was an intentional attempt at replacing the words of an innocent, child-like ditty. However, not long after the song’s release, it became increasingly difficult to decipher which song to sing for children at my summer camp program.

Somehow, “Country Grammar” became so ingrained into our conscience that the “down in a roller coaster” became “your street in a Range Rover,” and the “I’ll never let you go,” became “cocked, ready to let it go.” Worst of all, “shimmy, shimmy cocoa puff” was converted into “light it up and take a puff,” right along to the claps that once punctuated verses appropriate for kids.

How could one man’s lyrics become responsible for numerous timeouts and scoldings from adults who couldn’t quite understand how mature themes snuck their way into the melodies on the lips of small boys and girls?

Whether or not the St. Louis-based rapper, whose real name is Cornell Haynes Jr., was aware of his impact on children in my neighborhood during the summer of 2000, it is certain that he is well aware of many of the other trends his prominence within popular culture has had on urban lifestyles.

Whether it be Air Force Ones, grills, bandages under eyelids, velour sweat suits, athletic headbands worn leisurely, Apple Bottom jeans, backward throwback jerseys to showcase the player’s name, rather than the team, or wool stocking caps that feature a baseball cap’s bill, Nelly has been involved.

None of that has anything to do with music, though.

Many fans of rap don’t look back on Nelly’s career as one that focused at all on lyrical depth. So, by the standards of many of today’s hip-hop aficionados, Nelly doesn’t qualify for the accolades that other mainstream rappers of his era, such as Ludacris and Eminem, enjoy.

Nelly’s knack for songwriting has been overshadowed by his success at transcending rap as a genre to reach audiences that many rhyme stars could never imagine.

Why is such a clever artist so commonly overlooked?

Take for instance “Hot in Herre,” the lead single from his sophomore effort, “Nellyville.” The busy beat, composed by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, lit dance floors, radio and television music video countdowns for much of 2002. The bars in each verse are varied between rapid-fire details of a wild night on the town and legato accented endings to words. Only Nelly could stress words enough to make “lose” rhyme with “Cancun.” Only Nelly could reference a former all-star point guard by telling the leading lady in his music video, “I’m just kiddin’ like Jason.”

Only Nelly could properly replace Jason Derulo, who cancelled after a death in his family, at the 2014 Ole Miss Spring Concert on the Grove Stage. There are very few artists better suited to appease the wide assortment of musical interests of the student body. Beneath his Midwest twang on a string of hits, the pop-rap prince has proven over and over again that he can indeed truly rap, while maintaining his status as a cultural chameleon, crooning country duets with Tim McGraw, or keeping the club out of control with Jennifer Lopez.

Nelly will perform in Oxford at 8:30 tonight, along with Fly Panda and Travis Porter, as an opportunity for attendees in the Grove to reconsider what many people cite as a guilty pleasure, rather than a example of unique artistry.

Apple Bottom jeans, backwards throwbacks and bandages under eyelids are welcome, but not required.


— Jared Boyd