Rules of ‘Grammar’ have changed for Nelly

[16 September 2008]

By Kevin C. Johnson

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

Nelly is never going to have another “Country Grammar.”

He knows it, and he’s OK with that as he stares down the Tuesday release of his latest CD, “Brass Knuckles.”

“Country Grammar,” his 2000 debut CD, was not only a musical milestone for St. Louis, but a national phenomenon, selling more than 9 million copies.

Nelly says it’s wrong for anyone to expect him to duplicate that success.

“Michael Jackson killed his career with ‘Thriller,’”” says the buff rapper, interviewed this summer in the cigar room of his Skybox restaurant in St. Louis. “He made the ultimate album and that left him with nowhere to go but down. He’s been chasing ‘Thriller’ his whole life.

“There’s no way in hell I’m going to chase ‘Country Grammar.’ That would drive me crazy.”

Much has changed since “Country Grammar,” and even since Nelly released his pair of hit CDs, “Sweat” and “Suit,” in 2004.

During Nelly’s heyday, buying full CDs was the norm; now, fans can download handpicked songs. Rappers Lil Wayne, T.I. and Kanye West are standing in the brightest spotlights now.

The yearlong delay of Nelly’s CD hasn’t helped and made some wonder whether it was in trouble. And the singles “Stepped on My J’s” and “Party People” have stalled. (The verdict is still out on “Body on Me.”)

“I think I’ll be OK,” he says, looking forward to “Brass Knuckles.”

The CD, which was recorded in Atlanta, Los Angeles and St. Louis, includes songs with that “boom,” as he calls it, including “Party People” featuring Fergie, “U Ain’t Him” featuring Rick Ross, and “Hold Up” featuring LL Cool J and T.I.

“Self Esteem” features rap legend Chuck D. Nelly calls it “very inspirational, one of my favorite songs I’ve ever done.”

Other songs include the smoothed-out tracks “One and Only,” “Body on Me” and “Long Night,” featuring Usher.

In the interview, Nelly talked about “Brass Knuckles,” his relationship with Ashanti, hip-hop, steroids and more.

Q: Why did it take so long to make “Brass Knuckles”?

A: I applaud those who can make an album every year, but I’m not one of those people. It takes months to make an album, months to promote it, then months to go on tour, and then you gotta go back to the studio. But you ain’t done nothing. What are you going to the studio to really write about?

Q: Why so many delays with the CD?

A: When I’m finished, I’m never really finished. They gotta stay on me with deadlines, because I love to create. I’m always doing songs.

Q: What’s your feeling on your fan base today compared with what it was years ago?

A: Life moves on. The last time I did a record, someone who was a freshman in high school has graduated, and you don’t do the same things in college you did in high school. But I can only hope they’re still there, and I can hope I’ve gained new fans.

Q: A year ago you released a single called “Wasyaname” that started out big and fizzled fast. What happened?

A: It was never supposed to be on the album (it’s not on ‘Brass Knuckles’). I was going through some things businesswise where I felt I was owed money from previous albums that I wasn’t receiving. And they still wanted me to give music. Contractually, I have to give a single by a certain date, but I didn’t have to give an album and I didn’t have to promote the single.

Q: So was “Wasyaname” basically a throwaway?

A: It’s not a throwaway. But coming back after four years, “Wasyaname” wouldn’t have been the song I would come back to. I’m not ashamed of it. It’s just not a “Brass Knuckles” song. When you hear the album, you don’t hear songs like “Wasyaname.”

Q: “Body on Me” is the first time Ashanti has appeared on one of your albums. Why did it take so long?

A: It was never business for me and her. In order for us to have the relationship we have, you gotta keep that separate. You gotta let it happen when it happens and not force it.

Q: You’ve never actually declared who Ashanti is to you. Anything you want to say?

A: It’s not about declaring. Declaring to who? Everyone wants to know, to be in the mix. But if you’re not blind, I’m sure you can see. But move on, you know what I’m saying? And you can call it what you want to, that’s cool.

Q: Everyone has taken note of your body transformation. How did it happen?

A: You’re able to hold weight better as you get older. And as you get older you gotta work out more. Everyone doesn’t have to look like Nelly or 50 Cent or LL Cool J. It’s about being healthy and aware of what’s going on.

Q: What’s your exercise routine?

A: I work out five days a week for two to three hours, maybe more sometimes. I don’t do regular cardio with treadmills and bikes. I can’t really do the treads. I get bored. I do basketball, which lets me run, jump, stretch, lean and twist. It has everything. That’s the best workout. That and swimming.

Q: Some question whether your body has anything to do with steroids, especially after a controversy broke about several hip-hop stars allegedly using steroids.

A: The only people who say that is people who don’t work out. Anyone who goes to the gym knows that what Nelly is doing is nothing. I’m not saying I don’t hit the GNC, but it’s the GNC. Anyone can get it. Nelly’s not the only person that goes to GNC and gets the supplements and the muscle milk. It’s legal and it’s right there. But I must really look like something if people are saying that.

Q: What’s behind your opening the Skybox with Larry Hughes, Marshall Faulk and Darius Miles?

A: I always thought St. Louis never really had a sports bar that was a little hip, where I would want to go, something more youthful. I wanted to implement that feel with a more contemporary vibe. I’m gearing it toward the young sports fan, as opposed to the more traditional older guy sitting on the couch.

And it’s not a thing where it’s just my name out front. This is my spot. It’s not like they took my name and are just giving me a percentage of it. Every brick laid in this place is Nelly’s brick.

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