Like it or not, St. Louis is about to become Nellyville in the collective imagination of millions of young people across the country -- what the hell, the world. Once again, from Sedalia to Singapore, kids will be vibing to songs about Natural Bridge and Kingshighway, remembering the mythical intersection from Nelly's multiplatinum debut, Country Grammar, picturing some kind of thugged-out Valhalla. With his singsong, nursery-rhymed drug references and ghettolicious good looks, the twentysomething superstar came out of nowhere (i.e., here) to conquer the sales charts, the airwaves and the hearts of little girls and grown women. Sales-wise, the only hip-hop record this year that's likely to give Nellyville a run for its money is The Eminem Show, which hit the streets a few weeks earlier. Industry types will closely watch the two albums' sales -- both Country Grammar and The Marshall Mathers LP were released in 2000, and both have sold more than eight million copies -- but Nelly and Eminem aren't, strictly speaking, competitors. As Nelly told us at his ultrafancy listening party last week (held in a cavernous suite at the Ritz-Carlton), "I think we've both proved there's room for both of us. Em's Em. We share a lot of fans."
Well, duh. You can't sell eight million CDs without crossing over, but it's fair to say that Nelly's got the lion's share of the female listenership. 'N Sync fans, who dug Nelly's guest spot on the "Girlfriend" remix and want to hear Justin return the favor on Nellyville, are gonna pick up the Nelly album; Korn fans -- who, like Eminem, want to kill their parents -- are gonna buy the Eminem album.
Time will tell which demographic translates to more sales, but our money's on the ladies. Like his brilliant homey Chuck Berry, Nelly's a brown-eyed handsome man, eliciting sighs, squeals and swoons from little girls and grown women of all races. As he says in his guest verse on Beanie Sigel and Freeway's "Roc the Mic" remix, he's "candy-coated and thugged-out." In a nutshell, that phrase explains his star power: One second he's mugging on the Teen Choice Awards, chilling with his dirty Justin Timberlake, smiling politely at charity events; the next thing you know, he's getting little suburban girls to sing along to songs about sticky chronic and pimp juice and Nelly's new motto, "Never fuck the same ho." Who's more subversive: Eminem, who won't let you forget for one second how hard he is, how bad he is, how much he fucking hates your guts, or Nelly, who, like all great pop idols, sneaks in through the back door and struts out with your daughter?
There's no telling whether Nellyville will blow up like Country Grammar did, but let's face it: One hot song can move a million units, even if the rest of the album totally blows. Nellyville doesn't. In addition to the megasmash first single, "Hot in Herre," the CD's got at least a few bangin' tracks and no more filler than any standard-issue major-label rap album (including Eminem's). As for all the snooty headz who complain that his lyrics suck, well, this album won't convince them otherwise. The closest Nelly comes to conscious rap is in the title track, an infantile fantasy wherein everyone gets 40 acres and a pool, no teens get pregnant, nobody gets capped and the weather is subject to popular vote. Lyrical content ranges from the bling-bling to the bling-bling-bling, with occasional forays into sexual conquests, shoe-shopping with his crew (Nelly wears a size 12? No way!) and triumphant encounters with miscellaneous hatas. Nelly writes what he knows, and what he knows is that he's young and rich and pretty. He's not about to go all crybaby like you-know-who and bitch about what an ordeal it all is.
When we ask whether fame has a downside, he looks at us as if we're crazy. "My whole life has been hard," he says firmly. "I'm having a ball now. I've never been so happy. I don't knock what other rappers are doing, but I've lived it. I love all hip-hop. I don't pick sides. To have one, you have to have the other. The youth will choose sides anyway; why should I get involved in it?"
He grins disarmingly, a sudden flash of dimples and platinum-capped bicuspids. He was supposed to be on vacation this week, but he's not complaining about the endless stream of reporters, representing every publication from the Evening Whirl to the New York Times, who file in for their twenty minutes of face time. "You have to make sacrifices," he says. "So what if I get recognized at the airport? There was a time I would have killed to have that, and I don't never want to forget where I came from."