ST. LOUIS — Nelly reigns atop Billboard’s pop songs chart for the fifth time with his new song, “Just a Dream.” The melodic single follows previous chart-toppers “Over and Over,” “Hot in Herre,” “Dilemma” and “Shake Ya Tailfeather.”
But Nelly’s perch doesn’t bring him peace.
More than a decade into his career as an unlikely hip-hop phenomenon, Nelly still feels that he has to prove himself.
His debut album in 2000, “Country Grammar,” sold more than 9 million copies, making it one of the most successful rap debuts of all time. His single “Over and Over” with Tim McGraw made him the first rapper with a Top 10 hit on the country chart. The “Sweat” and “Suit” albums in 2004 gave him the distinction of being the first solo artist and the first hip-hop artist to debut at Nos. 1 and 2 in the same week with simultaneous releases.
He has won three Grammy Awards, American Music Awards, and trophies from MTV, Billboard, BET and more.
But to Nelly, none of this seems to have been enough for people in the industry to give him his due.
“It’s a weird feeling. For some reason, people want to overlook the things I’ve accomplished from 1999 to now,” Nelly said by telephone from New York, where he was promoting his new CD “5.0,” released Tuesday.
“We busted our asses, just to have people overlook it and downplay it. After so much success in the beginning, they wait for you to not succeed.”
Part of what irks Nelly is the sting he felt when he didn’t make the cut on BET’s recent list of Top 10 Rappers of the 21st century. Eminem topped the list, which also includes 50 Cent, Drake, T.I., Kanye West, Jadakiss and Rick Ross.
Most of the industry experts who voted dismissed Nelly’s contributions.
“I thought I didn’t have anything to prove,” Nelly says. “I thought the numbers would speak for themselves. Everything is right there.”
Nelly says he probably came the farthest from anyone on the list. Until he came along, no other rapper from St. Louis had a worldwide platform. Eminem got on top thanks to his connection to Dr. Dre; 50 Cent was aided by Eminem; and Lil Wayne and Kanye West sprung from popular hip-hop collectives.
“Everybody worked hard, but I didn’t come from a multiplatinum group. I didn’t have that foundation. We got tossed into the deep end of the pool and told to swim,” he says of himself and his St. Lunatics crew, which includes Murphy Lee, Ali, Kyjuan and City Spud.
Nelly also felt his exclusion was a major insult to his city.
“You can’t sit up there and tell us we didn’t stand up together for ‘Country Grammar,’” he says. “We got talent here. Don’t denounce the things we accomplished.”
St. Louis hip-hop expert Bgyrl, founder of stlhiphop.com, agrees.
“I was surprised Nelly didn’t make BET’s list, considering his success and accomplishments for the period in question superceded many who made the list,” she said.
Nelly also is contending with the fact that “5.0” is following 2008’s “Brass Knuckles.” That CD, which included the Fergie-assisted single “Party People,” failed to live up to his usual blockbuster standards, although it did sell enough copies to go gold.
“With ‘Brass Knuckles,’ the music changed so much from what it was,” Nelly says. “The record didn’t do Nelly numbers, but I love that album. There’s great songs on there, but people didn’t give it a chance, and said it didn’t have this and it didn’t have that.”
That may not be the case with “5.0.” For the album, Nelly stockpiled an array of hip-hop, R&B, pop and dance songs over the course of 12 tracks (15 on the deluxe album version).
In addition to “Just a Dream,” the CD includes “Move That Body” featuring T-Pain and Akon.
Some will call “5.0” Nelly’s most commercial-leaning CD. Staci Static, assistant program director and music director for urban radio station WHHL-FM, says that with “5.0,” Nelly is fully realized as a crossover artist.
“I don’t mind at all, with the dance and club and top 40 direction,” she says. “I root for him.”
But that crossover status has kept Nelly’s new tunes out of the rotation at the R&B and hip-hop station.
“We haven’t found a single yet that puts him with his St. Louis urban audience,” says Static, for whom Nelly filled in on the air during her maternity leave. “I like ‘Move That Body.’ I think he makes great workout music, and that goes along with the direction he’s in. I see a future like LL Cool J’s but even better, because he’s more attractive.”
Jeff McHugh, program director at pop music station KSLZ-FM, says he feels Nelly is as pop-oriented, mainstream and accessible as he has always been, and that “Just a Dream” is a “gigantic” record for the station.
“As soon as it was released, it went right to the top. We put it on pretty quickly, and the audience responded right away,” he says.
Part of the song’s appeal is that it shows a more vulnerable, realistic side to Nelly, McHugh says. “A lot of hip-hop is bragging,” he says, but on “Just a Dream,” Nelly’s saying “he should’ve brought her a ring, now she’s gone and his heart is broken.”
Nelly says he didn’t have a particular goal in mind with “5.0.”
“I didn’t want to overthink it like I tend to do sometimes,” he says.
He did insist that “Just a Dream” be the lead single.
“I’m more familiar with how to make songs successful now, and you’d be a dummy to make a record you don’t think will be played on the radio,” Nelly says. “And when you’re releasing that first joint off of an album, you want it to be as universal as possible, and I think that was the most universal song I had. And it didn’t sound like anything else.”
“Liv Tonight” featuring Keri Hilson may raise a few eyebrows for Nelly’s fans. It’s Nelly’s first all-out foray into high-energy dance music, not unlike what Usher went for with “DJ Got Us Falling in Love,” or nearly any Black Eyed Peas track.
“I don’t mind trying new things,” Nelly says. “It doesn’t bother me. At the end of the day, versatility is the key to longevity.”
“Gone” featuring Kelly Rowland, Nelly’s duet partner years ago on the smash “Dilemma,” will draw inevitable comparisons, and that’s OK with him.
“We can’t make ‘Dilemma’ over, and we would never try,” he says. “But it’s like we were making an extension of the story. We thought we could extend the story eight years later.”
Comeback looks like the perfect word to describe Nelly’s new music, considering the success so far, but he’s hesitant about calling it that.
“People are going to say what they’re going to say,” he says. “I don’t have a problem with it. But as an artist, you don’t see it as a comeback. But if it’s a comeback from not having a song that achieved as high as the last one, then I guess it is.
“But I’m just trying to do the best music I can.”
(Ranked high to low)
—“Country Grammar” (2000) 9 million copies sold, peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200
—“Nellyville” (2002) 6 million, No. 1
—“Suit” (2004) 3 million, No. 1
—“Sweat” (2004) 1 million, No. 2
—“Da Derrty Versions: The Reinvention” (2003) 1 million, No. 12
—“Sweatsuit” (2005) 500,000, No. 26
—“Brass Knuckles” (2008) 500,000, No. 3
(500,000 copies or more sold equals gold; 1 million or more equals platinum)
Source: Recording Industry Association of America