Nelly’s legacy now is seeing his bigger singles become commercial jingles. But 15 years ago, ‘Nellyville’ made him unstoppable.


What I may remember most about the summer of 2002, is Band-aids on faces EVERYWHERE. And it was mostly the fault of one man: Cornell Haynes.

When Austin-born but St. Louis-raised rapper Nelly dropped his debut studio album, ‘Country Grammar,’ in 2000, it was all about marrying country boy rap with semi-futuristic sound. It brought the Midwest to the forefront, and it did so almost seamlessly. The title track was embraced, as were its ensuing singles “E.I.” and the timeless “Ride Wit’ Me” (whose bridge borrowed from a classic DeBarge cut). ‘Country Grammar’ went triple-platinum three months after its release (and, for what it’s worth, officially went Diamond last year). It was the kind of beginning you hope for as an emerging artist.

But a great start brings with it greater expectations. The challenge Nelly found himself facing with his second album wasn’t just the so-called sophomore slump – it was exceeding still after he’d already excelled better than most.

“Think that’s cool – 40 acres and a mule? Fuck that! 40 acres and a pool!…”

You can’t say Nelly wasn’t prepared. The St. Louis emcee had mastered the art of sing-song hooks that were simple yet full of melody. And so he stuck to what had worked with him, save for two major additions. The first, was more collaborations with established stars. The second? The Neptunes.

Before you even get to The Neptunes, however, you start with Nelly’s star-power.

In 2001, Nelly was sought out to contribute to the soundtrack for the Denzel Washington flick ‘Training Day.’ The result was “#1,” the initial single for Nelly’s second-LP in progress. Armed with a spaghetti western-esque rock guitar and Nelly’s melody on the hook alongside grittier lyrics, “#1” never peaked the Billboard charts quite like the rapper’s previous singles. However, it did expose Nelly to a new audience (moviegoers) and it created the perfect anthem of sorts for Washington’s Alonzo Harris (“two is not a winner, and three, nobody remembers” is pretty hard to forget). The music video for “#1” also was the first sighting of that Band-aid on the left cheek, that soon became Nelly’s signature of sorts.

Nearly eight months would pass before fans and listeners got the next taste of what Nelly was coming up with his second album, outside of learning that it would be called ‘Nellyville.’ That’s because Nelly was busy working on what would become the biggest single of his career.

Nelly joined forces with The Neptunes, and in the first decade of the 2000s especially, Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams were almost guaranteed gold.

In April of 2002, Universal and Fo’ Reel Records set free “Hot in Herre,” its intentional misspelling of “here” a homage to the Midwest drawl (think, “hurr” for “hair” or “here” in the South) and its timing appropriate with summer fast approaching. The track took off immediately, with its hilarious yet clever punchlines, a smooth Go-Go sample (by way of Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers’ funktastic “Bustin’ Loose”), a smoother hook (assisted by uncredited vocals from Dani Stevenson), and its ensuing music video. “Hot in Herre” was an essential for house parties and pool parties alike in 2002. But it also became the rapper’s first-ever Billboard #1, topping both the U.S. and Canada charts. Ah, and for high school age boys (like myself at the time), “a girl with a pole in her basement” wasn’t something we entirely understood but definitely something we hoped to encounter in the future.

“Hot in Herre” would set the tone for the singles to come (the Kelly Rowland-featured “Dilemma,” “Air Force Ones,” and “Pimp Juice”). Each song that came after built on its success and spreading the reach of ‘Nellyville’ further and further.

On June 25, 2002, ‘Nellyville’ was released to retail outlets. It skyrocketed to the top of the Billboard charts, earning Nelly his second number one album in a much shorter time and on a much grander scale. Its first week alone, ‘Nellyville’ sold 715,000 copies, compared to ‘Grammar’ pushing 235,000 copies its opening week. His go-to producers Jason “Jay E” Epperson and Waiel “Wally” Yaghnam’s boardwork remained stellar, creating a cover-to-cover set of songs that never dragged over the course of its near 80-minute run time. Nelly even co-produced some of the tracks himself.

Features wise, Nelly brought along his St. Lunatics friends Murphy Lee, Ali, and Kyjuan. Cedric the Entertainer returned, this time joined by LaLa (now Anthony, then Vasquez) on the album’s skits, as a man seeking to gain a woman’s favor by finding her a copy of the album. Justin Timberlake (who was just starting to lay the ground for his solo career) appeared for pop-crossover purposes on “Work It.” King Jacob logged a solid feature on “On The Grind.” And Beanie Sigel and Freeway carried over their “Roc The Mic” cut into a remix for ‘Nellyville.’

‘Nellyville’ is best remembered for its singles than as a complete project… likely because it was so long (19 tracks, to be exact. Hi, VIEWS). As a result, some of its more stand-out cuts are often overlooked.

“Dem Boyz” used frantic keys and hard-knocking snares to set the stage for a solid posse cut that paid homage to Midwest. Its skits are still funny. Hearing Cedric The Entertainer ask the store clerk to “download” the album and “MP3 it” might call to mind Napster in its heyday, but these days in the streaming era, that’s not so unheard of anymore. And the closing skit has Cedric channeling N*SYNC’s “Gone” and LaLa struggling in her Gucci shoes. Fifteen years later, “Splurge” still deserves to be played with the windows down riding ’round in the summer time. The “once you scuff ’em, you f*ck up your whole night” line on “Air Force Ones” damn near prophesied the “Granddad’s Fight” episode of The Boondocks. And “Say Now” may be Nelly’s most conscious, yet underappreciated song. It’s a reflection on his hometown of St. Louis, on his upbringing, and his desire to put the city on despite his circumstances and friends-turned-foes.

“When you’re gettin’ started, everybody wanna help and get you off/ But turn around, first motherf*ckers wanna see you fall…”

What’s ‘Nellyville’s’ legacy today? It remains the rapper’s most successful LP to date: his hit-making ability persisted for at least six years after (“Shake Ya Tail Feather,” “Tip Drill,” and “Grillz” immediately come to mind). But as far as projects, he may not have created another with the same lasting impact (the ‘Suit’ album of Nelly’s double LP ‘Sweat/Suit,’ did get Nelly another #1 in 2004, however). Thanks to the power of memes and the Internet, we now know Kelly Rowland was texting Nelly via Microsoft Excel in the “Dilemma” video. Nellyville’s biggest single, “Hot in Herre,” is getting a new life this decade thanks to its use in commercials (similar to “Ride Wit Me” getting a “Must Be the Honey” remix by way of General Mills). Oh, and it turns out the Band-Aid wasn’t just a fashion statement. It was from a basketball injury, but Nelly kept it on to honor St. Lunatics member City Spud after he was sentenced to prison, insisting his friend was wrongfully accused.

Fifteen years ago, Nelly occupied his own world. But you can go back to ‘Nellyville’ even now and treat it like a time machine, when Forces, two-ways, puppy love, and 106 & Park were the only things that really mattered.