Actually, if you think about it, Nelly’s six or seven year run was longer than probably should have been expected. The St. Louis rapper’s career was more or less based on a gimmick-Nelly pretty much spilt the difference between your average singer and your average rapper…and make no mistake, he was pretty average at both. The failure of his current album “Brass Knuckles” and his label’s yearlong campaign to turn shit into sunshine to no avail should put the cap on the career of one of the biggest selling pop rappers in recent history.
Make no mistake, Nelly was a superstar from the moment he appeared on the scene in the summer of 1999. At a time when Midwest rappers from Bone Thugs n Harmony to Eminem were making waves, the rapper was in the right place geographically, and his sing-song flow had massive amounts of pop (and youth) appeal. Despite the occasionally sexually explicit lyric, he was the MC that was playable to a street audience as well as the Nickelodeon set.
Where his first album, “Country Grammar”, turned him into a superstar, “Nellyville”, the 2001 followup, turned him into a phenomenon. The album sold almost 3/4 of a million copies in its’ first week and spun off a pair of Grammy-winning singles with the Neptunes produced “Hot in Herre” (which helped to introduce Nelly’s midwestern slurring slang to a mass audience) and the Kelly Rowland duet “Dilemma”, which was way more of an R&B song than a rap song. Both songs topped the chart, and for a brief moment, Nelly was a very close second to Eminem when it came to hip-hop popularity. Despite the chiding he received from a good chunk of the hip-hop intelligentsia (most notably KRS-ONE), it didn’t seem like anything could stop Nelly’s run. Even his side projects sold, as evidenced by the Gold selling success of offshoots like St. Lunatics and Murphy Lee. All that, plus he managed to set off Kelly Rowland’s post-Destiny’s Child solo career and helped Justin Timberlake obtain his ghetto pass by featuring him on the song “Work It”.
Nelly was so on top of the world that for his next project, he did something no other rapper had dared-he released two albums on the same day. “Sweat” and “Suit” were both multi-platinum successes although even combined they couldn’t reach the 7-million sales of “Nellyville”. Never the most critically adored of artists, these two albums just seemed like an exercise in excess, with enough filler that the good songs could easily have been combined into one album-which his label eventually did with the Gold-selling “Sweatsuit”, which itself spawned a #1 single with “Grillz”.
Anticipation should have been high for a new Nelly album when word began surfacing of one in the summer of 2007. However, intended first single “Wadsyaname” flopped. As did “Party People”, which featured Fergie. As did “Stepped on My J’z”, a feeble-minded attempt to recapture the hit status of the older Nelly single “Air Force Ones”. As did “Body On Me”, which featured Nelly’s hush-hush girlfriend Ashanti in an attempt to capture some of that Beyonce/Jay-Z magic. The album was bumped numerous times. Originally scheduled for release in late summer 2007, it didn’t hit stores until mid-September 2008, as Universal feverishly attempted to stem the tide of an impending flop.
It didn’t work.
“Brass Knuckles” entered the Billboard 200 at a week #3 with only about 85,000 units sold. In other words, it sold less than 15% of what “Nellyville” sold in its’ first week only seven years ago. This week, it tumbles down to #19, pretty much closing the door on this album’s campaign.
It’s hard to say exactly what went wrong. It’s very easy to see any of the singles released becoming a hit, especially when Nelly’s sing-song style of hip-hop has caught on with artists ranging from Akon to 50 Cent. However, one thing folks don’t realize is that gimmicks don’t last forever. Nelly, while having teen appeal, has never exactly been respected for lyrical skill (his weak-minded responses to disses from KRS-ONE immediately come to mind), and the love of the pop audience is fickle. Nelly probably should’ve done more to shore up his standing with hip-hop’s core audience. There’s also the fact that three years is a long time for anyone to wait to put out an album, especially in this market. Kanye West is about to release his fourth album since 2005. T.I and Jay-Z, among hip-hop’s elite, average about an album a year. This is definitely a case of out of sight, out of mind.
Nelly, somewhat thankfully, has a clothing line to fall back on, especially since it seems that his days as a hitmaker are over. It’s probably never wise to count anyone out, but changing tastes and the overall downturn in record sales (keep in mind also that “Nellyville”‘s two most popular singles were never available commercially in their heyday) indicate that the one time king of pop rap may have to hang up his crown.