Nelly: Nellyville

"It might blow up, but it won't go pop," De La Soul once famously vowed, making explicit rap music's long-simmering distrust of widespread mainstream success. As memorable as it might be, that pledge inevitably feels somewhat disingenuous, since De La Soul itself remained vital largely due to its willingness to embrace its pop and dance-floor instincts. Hip-hop has long held contradictory ideas about the validity and desirability of mainstream fame, as evidenced by the backlash that greeted the success of Nelly, who came out of St. Louis to achieve the sort of sales more associated with boy bands than rookie rappers. To purists, Nelly's crimes against hip-hop are many: He's young and photogenic; he hasn't paid his dues; his songs appeal to women, teens, and kids; his lyrics and hooks are nursery-rhyme simple; and, perhaps most egregiously, he isn't above collaborating with 'N Sync. Granted, he's made it easy for haters to discredit him as the latest link in a chain that includes Hammer and Vanilla Ice, but dismissing Nelly means overlooking his considerable strengths. At his best, he embodies pop-rap's populist instincts: Infectious, good-time singles like "E.I.," "Country Grammar (Hot Shit)," and "Ride Wit Me" invite everybody to sing along and join the party, whether they're white or black, from the streets or from the suburbs. "Hot In Herre," the Neptunes-produced smash off the rapper's second album Nellyville, boasts similarly universal appeal. At first listen, the song sounds disposable, like the sort of throwaway track The Neptunes could concoct in its sleep. But it burrows its way into the subconscious with almost sadistic force, until it becomes impossible to resist. Like the rest of Nelly's oeuvre, Nellyville is primarily concerned with the joys of being young, rich, and famous. Picking up where its gazillion-selling precessor left off, the disc sticks to the script, parceling out a few big-name guest producers and singers, but largely keeping it within Nelly's St. Lunatics family. The rapper spends much of Nellyville indulging his hedonistic passions, but the criticism seems to be getting to him. On "Splurge," he raps, "I feel about good about myself, so I splurge a little," but he sounds unmistakably defensive. "Roc The Mic (Remix)," meanwhile, finds Nelly firing back some clever shots at KRS-One, ridiculing him as an old man who "should get a rapper's pension." The undeniably pop "Dilemma" navigates the fine line separating sweet from saccharine, but "Work It" makes the tragic mistake of enlisting 'N Sync's Justin Timberlake, who sounds like an unpromising high-schooler doing a Bee Gees impersonation. Thankfully, "Work It" marks the only glaring misstep on Nellyville, which is otherwise good-natured and breezy enough to make the hostility directed Nelly's way seem churlish.

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