An ode to St. Louis’ finest

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An ode to St. Louis’ finest

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This past week Twitter has been passionately discussing which artist has had a bigger impact on hip-hop: Nelly or Drake. While this might seem at first like an apples and oranges comparison, the two have more than a few defining traits between them. Each are from cities rarely thought of as hip-hop meccas, each surpassed every expectation of their career, and each broke barriers in a different capacity. And while Drake certainly is one of the top faces of the scene today, there is no way he could be where he is without spearheads like Nelly. Ahead of his sold out show on Friday with the St. Louis Symphony, we look back to the impact that the St. Louis native has had on hip-hop in his nearly two decade career.

Nelly spearheaded Midwest rap of the early 2000s, a genre that received no national attention at the turn of the century. Everyone in the music community was still mourning the losses of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac, and while two of the most prominent artists of the 90s were gone, the coasts still dominated rap. All eyes were on New York and Los Angeles, while the new “budding city” for the genre was Atlanta, where artists such as OutKast and The Ying-Yang Twins were breaking into the national scene. If one were to mention St. Louis in the hip-hop landscape, there would be a passing glance before moving to a more “serious” city. This all changed June 27, 2000, the day when Nelly released his debut album “Country Grammar.”

On the album, Nelly creates a signature sound in which he fuses laid-back, funk-fueled beats with a voice that demands attention through his quick yet booming delivery. In typical St. Louis fashion, the cover art is Nelly at the Arch, and everywhere from the Galleria to University City is name dropped throughout the album. While these small references might not mean much to those not from St. Louis, the infectious songs that Nelly made did. Hip-hop heads across the country immediately took notice, and the album ruled the Billboard chart during the Summer and Autumn of 2000. 17 years later, the album has sold over 10 million albums, a feat achieved by fewer than 100 artists.

“Country Grammar” was just the beginning of Nelly’s reign. “Nellyville,” released two years later, contained some of his most recognizable works and solidified his position in hip-hop royalty.  Containing his most recognizable song of his whole discography, “Hot In Here,” the album was full of the certified bangers fans expected from Nelly. The most important track of the album musically-wise, though, is “Dilemma,” which featured Kelly Rowland. It brought Nelly into largely uncharted territory, with a soft-sounding track detailing an unattainable relationship. When Drake raps about his feelings and relationships, it is expected, but for Nelly to do this was incredibly bold. The move ultimately paid off, and the song sat atop the Billboard charts for months.

The success of “Dilemma” must have been the green light for Nelly to pursue more “experimental” creations. Labeling his next album as containing a “grown up and sexy vibe”, his double album “Sweat/Suit,” is where Nelly spread his wings and broke barriers while doing so. Rapping a narrative about a homeless man on “N Dey Say,” and consistently using beats that sounded far from conventional were not even the most radical decisions of the album. That came courtesy of “Over and Over,” a collaboration with Tim McGraw, the country music superstar. Though by every standard this song should have failed miserably, it has an infectious melody and became a huge hit. Far and away, the song is the most successful “unconventional” single in hip-hop history.

After the double album release of “Sweat/Suit,” Nelly never seemed to reclaim the top of the scene that he held for five years. He has released a string of solid albums since then, and has hit the top 10 of the Billboard charts as recently as 2015, and yet often is left out of the conversation of hip-hop’s greatest. Maybe it is because there was no great fight between him and another artist. Or because he is indeed from St. Louis, a place that has not produced an artist nearly on the level of Nelly since his rise. Whatever the case, he should be listed right next to the Kanye’s and Jay-Z’s of the world.

SLU senior and hip-hop expert Dean Wilson summed it up best when he stated, “Nelly forever altered the state of pop music by showing it was possible that hip-hop could be consumed by such a wide audience. You don’t have the mainstream success of Drake, Fetty, or Migos without the influence of THE St. Lunatic.” So next time you listen to Drake pour out his feelings on a track, remember that would never have been possible without Nelly.