All photos by William Coutts
Nellyville was the first CD that I ever bought. “Ride Wit Me” was the first song I successfully etched into my brain. “Hot In Herre” soundtracked every E-number powered skid across a year six disco floor (and every shotgun on a crowded staircase at a sixth form party). Basically, Nelly is my boy. So, when I found out that he was in London for the first time in five years, could I make it? Damn right! I’d be on the next flight! Payin’ cash, first class, sittin’ next to Vanna White!
We meet at the Sanderson hotel, which is filled with a who’s who of mid 00s Pepsi chart monoliths. Sean Paul is here. I’m told Tinie Tempah and Fuse ODG are sitting in the lobby, and 2Chainz is on the floor above.
I meet Nelly in the biggest hotel suite I’ve been in, in my life, checking my phone, hoping it has enough battery left to take a selfie with him. I’ve also scouted out the toilets for a complimentary bottle of shampoo and conditioner.
When he arrives, Nelly is tired as fuck. He’s jetlagged from his flight that landed the night before, the subsequent club appearance, and the following ten hour press day, of which we’re in the final slot. I start to fear that this an imperfect opportunity to make a new best friend. But he’s still a gentleman: polite and reserved as he introduces himself to us.
Nelly is the undisputed king of singles-orientated hip-hop. He’s the shiny card in a deck full of douchebag purveyors of nights that are gonna be a good night. His amalgam of infectious hooks and Missourian tinged flow produced some of the best pop songs of The Neptunes era. And, in some ways produced the blueprint for post-ringtone rap. As Nelly tells me – “Who’s not doing Nelly now? You know what I’m saying. Who’s not singing and rapping, and singing their own hooks, and writing their own bridges?”
It is literally impossible to hate “Dilemma”. It’s a forgotten treat, like thinking you’ve finished your can of coke, and finding another mouthful inside. But it’s so different to “Country Grammar”, or this year’s “Hey Porsche”, which was so great that I couldn’t wait to get out of bed in the morning just to listen to it. Nelly just makes good, guilt-free pop music. He tells me: “If you understand Nelly, none of my songs sound the same. “Country Grammar” doesn’t sound like “E.I”. “E.I” doesn’t sound like “Ride Wit Me”. “Ride Wit Me” doesn’t sound like “Batter Up”. “Batter Up” doesn’t sound like “Hot In Herre”. “Hot In Herre” doesn’t sound like “Dilemma”. You know what I’m saying? “Just A Dream” was a pop record, and a little different. Every record I’ve ever had, every number one, they all sound different. Sometimes you hear people saying…this doesn’t sound like you. But what sounds like me?”
And he’s right. There’s no divisive sound to Nelly’s music. He’s worked with everyone from The Neptunes, to 2Chainz, to Taylor Swift. I ask him where he feels he sits within the hip hop world, to which he replies: “I don’t know yet.” I ask him how Nelly would want Nelly to be remembered, and again, he doesn’t have an answer. He looks sad, almost depleted from years spent grinding through press days and smash hit singles. I tell him that people will be sobbing along to “Dilemma” on classic stations twenty years from now, and he agrees, “Hopefully that carries on into how people remember me. People will go back and be like, yo, dude has some joints.”
Nelly has got a new album out, called M.O and he’s also featured on Miley Cyrus’ BANGERZ. I hadn’t listened to either and I didn’t have any questions to ask. But I had heard about his new fitness venture called Celebrity Sweat, and I wanted to learn to get hench like Nelly. So I brought some dumbbells along with me.
Nelly was unimpressed. “First of all, these have no weight in them! What the hell is this?! I don’t know what this is! Is this a paperweight?”
Nelly, please. I had to carry these on the tube, please don’t think I’m a pussy. I’m just a fly guy trying to get on a rap video skit flex.
“Well, first of all, you could work the forearms. But I’d probably have to do a hundred of these to get some burn. I’ll do this for the next ten minutes and eventually it’ll start hurting.”
We put the weights down, and I start to think about rap skits. The weights have produced the first smile that I’ve seen from Nelly since he walked into the room. I tell him that the best part of mid 2000 hip-hop was the rap skit, and ask if he could create a rap skit that encapsulates his life, what song, and what scenario would he choose?
“I think… I don’t know. I don’t want to say it’s easier for you to think about that, because music is a part of your life in the sense that it helps you get through. But as artists, it’s an embodiment of what we do for a living. It’s different, you know what I’m saying? It would take me a minute because I’d have to think back to when music wasn’t my life, and then pick a song from that time before I got into music.”
He’d probably have to go for a nap on the sofa just to think about it. It’s sad to think that, since starting in music, Nelly’s perception of enjoying music has changed.
We end with my final question.
What’s the worst dilemma you’ve had to deal with?
“Oh! The worst one recently is probably… I’ve had a few female dilemmas lately.”
Is that a question every journalist always asks you?
“No. No one has ever asked me that question. You’re the first!”
Cool. Can I take like a thousand selfies with you now?
Follow Ryan on Twitter @RyanBassil
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