In 2013, Nelly did literally everything he could to recapture at least a portion of the fame he used to have earlier this century. He did country songs; he appeared on the Miley Cyrus album; he was in a Cheerio commercial; he did a song with Nicki Minaj; he did it all. And being that most of you probably have no idea Nelly even put out a new album in 2013, you know how that went for him. Now, here he is in 2014, exercising the only option available to him as an imploding star of the pop culture universe: he’s starring in his own reality show, the cross-brandedly titled Nellyville.
Like Snoop Dogg, The Game, Reverend Run, and TI before him, Nellyville’s entire existence is predicated on the apparently shocking revelation that rappers can have fully functional family lives, and maybe even be good dads. “I can’t believe (rapper) has kids and a wife, it’s almost like being a rapper is just like having any other job, really,” the producers of these shows seem to think you’ll exclaim to your friends. “I am going to watch at least another 15 episodes of this!”
With Nellyville, it takes only to the first commercial break to realize that this is not going to be remotely close to what you thought it was: an in-depth, revealing look at the private life of a rapper who until now has kept every detail of his personal life close to his Vokal tanktop. This is not going to be a show that confronts what it’s like to be in the afterglow of pop megastardom, or a show that gets into the politics of appearing on Florida Georgia Line songs. In the show’s first 42 minutes, you watch Nelly’s niece—who he has custody of—and his 20-year-old daughter talk for the second time about who they are and aren’t dating. You watch his nephew talk about his nascent “rap” “career” and hang out at a computer in a studio. You watch Nelly blankly eating a steak with his girlfriend. You watch Nelly’s family bowl. And slowly but surely, every hope within you that watching the eight ordered episodes of Nellyville will provide you with anything other than eight hours of ignoring the atrocities of your everyday life are summarily extinguished. Nellyville is so dry, so unrevealing, so…nothing, that livetweeting a hatewatch isn’t even worth it.
But then again, could it have been any other way? It’s Nelly we’re talking about. Unlike his early aughts competition--Jay-Z and Eminem—who put parts of their story, their personal lives, their worries, their dreams into their songs, Nelly has gone to great pains to keep himself out of his music. All we know about him is that he can make a room hotter, he likes Air Force Ones, he knows Joe Perry’s phone number, and he enjoys Will Smith-Martin Lawrence buddy action comedies. What else do you really know? Just baseline Wikipedia facts: he played minor league baseball, his brother City Spud is in jail, he starred in an Adam Sandler movie everyone seems to have forgotten. And that’s about it.
Nelly is so good at keeping his private life and public life separate, I had no idea Nelly even had kids until this show was announced, and I spent most of last year professionally considering him for this website. Nelly mentioned his sister here and there in magazine profiles—that she needed a bone marrow transplant, that she had died—but until the show you also didn’t know he had custody of her kids, and that her kids hadn’t really spent anytime processing her death (a preview for rest of the season has a tear-filled trip to the cemetery). The major surprise, therefore, of Nellyville is that Nelly is actually 40-years-old; like Macaulay Culkin or the Olsen Twins, he feels like he’s trapped in the Jurassic Park amber of youth. That Nelly could have a 20-year-old daughter feels impossible, but then you remember he’s been famous for close to 15 years. I imagine it’s a feeling similar to the one that my parents get every time a new musician they liked as teens dies.
A large part of the first episode of Nellyville is centered around Nelly’s relationship with Shantel Jackson—an ex of the boxer Floyd Mayweather—which only serves to remind you about the most “public” relationship Nelly ever had: his multiple year relationship with Ashanti, which neither one of them publicly confirmed or denied until after they broke up for good. They never stepped out publicly in a significant way, and certainly not in a reality show—watch this interview from last year, and catch all the awkward subtext-- so expecting Nelly to be open about his relationship with Jackson on a cable TV show turns out as well as you’d expect: mostly he and Jackson look at each other blankly and hug a lot when they’re on camera.
But ultimately, the failures of Nellyville aren’t necessarily Nelly’s; it’s that somehow, after millions of records sold, the only creative venue we’ve left open for him is as a reality TV star. He can certainly continue to make money on the nostalgia concert circuit—especially since mainstream ironic nostalgia for the ‘00s is about ready to hit for real—but the only new art he can expect to really profit from is as the generic Father Knows Best character of a show that’s primary focus seems to be turning his kids into minor stars with social media followers in the four digits. Nelly’s primary allure was never that he was an inherently interesting person who said and did interesting things, he proved, as Ta-Nehisi Coates said in a Vibe cover story, “you don’t need to be sensational to be a sensation.” Unfortunately for him, doing the same in TV doesn’t seem possible.