Nelly’s Confusion

Is the rapper a preacher or a party animal? Don’t ask him.

St. Louis rapper Nelly’s 2000 debut is one of the benchmark hip-hop albums of the past decade—and not just because it sold more than 8 million copies. Country Grammar also managed to convincingly sell the Gucci-and-booty lifestyle while gently satirizing it. Tracks like “Ride Wit Me” and the title song, with their low-rent production value and lusty shout-outs, were sublimely disposable jams, no more menacing than a drive-by wink. Nelly’s tartly adenoidal, occasionally melodious rapping voice sounded like no other mainstream rapper, either, and that allowed him to carve out his own radio beachhead for months on end.

Now comes Nellyville, an album that every Top 40 programmer in America will tell you is the second-most anticipated release of the year, next to The Eminem Show. For most critics, Nelly and Eminem exist on vastly different artistic plains, with Enimem playing Gogol to Nelly’s Alfred E. Neuman. But don’t write Nellyville off as lightweight: This is a deeply conflicted album from a man who can’t decide whether to play the big-pimping party animal or the preacher. ­So he does both.

Nelly tips us off to his virtuous side with the title track, the rapper’s blueprint for urban America. But instead of Colt 45s and kind weed, it’s “blocks and blocks of no cocaine, blocks of no gunplay” and “no lotteries, no pick threes or pick twos.” Instead of 40 acres and a mule, it’s now “40 acres and a pool.” Instead of glorifying a culture of federal handouts and state-sponsored gambling, Nelly espouses an expansive vision of urban self-sufficiency that’s all too rare in hip-hop.

As an inner-city kid made good, Nelly is ambivalent about flaunting his great fortune. It would have been easy for him to fall into that classic hip-hop sophomore booby trap of flashing his mega-karat rocks while dissing player haters. Instead, he’s more than a little defensive about his newfound riches. On “ Splurge,” his high-end goodies are a just reward: “I’m feeling good about myself/ So I splurge a little, hey.” It’s almost like a contrite shrug of the shoulders. Elsewhere in the song, in a self-affirmation worthy of Deepak Chopra, Nelly even admits to being a little vulnerable: “I’m doing human things/ ‘Cause only humans change.” On “The Gank,” he doesn’t objectify his girl, he nearly worships her; Nelly pines for a lost love like he’s channeling Billy Joel.

Of course, Nelly knows that, without the requisite quota of bile, the big sales just won’t materialize. But despite tracks like “ Pimp Juice“—which sound like Nelly’s lobbying hard for a parental advisory sticker—this isn’t merely another triumph of the crude. Nelly knows how to deliver his braggadocio with panache. There’s only a handful of expletives across Nellyville’s 19 tracks and virtually no graphic shock tactics. The hit single ”Hot in Herre,” a crackling bit of funk produced by the hitmaking production duo the Neptunes, is a benign come-on that never spills over into the truly misogynistic.

Nelly wants it both ways—to deliver a dose of moral uplift and still come off like he’s King of the Nighttime World. If nothing else, it’s a savvy career move that helps him snag the mall rats without offending their parents. But it’s hard to walk that line for long without losing your street cred. He’s like the good student who starts smoking cigarettes during recess to fit in with the cool kids. In a hip-hop culture that looks upon do-gooders as unsuitable for consumption, Nelly is caught in a vexing bind. He may not knock Eminem off his sales perch, but you can’t help thinking that Nelly has taken a step forward—even if he’s still trying to figure out which way to go.