Hip-hop should have a special award for artists who put their city on the mainstream map. Trophies could go to Common, who helped invent the North Coast with his proverbs of 1990s Chicago, and to Master P, who gave us the South with his No Limit, NoLa material. Memphis got big behind Three 6 Mafia. Atlanta has a trickier story, but certainly OutKast deserve some sort of ribbon. And St. Louis? That came courtesy of one Cornell Haynes, whose 2000 breakthrough, Country Grammar, had two images on its cover: Nelly and the Gateway Arch.
In many ways, Nelly's St. Louis has been the easiest of all these new, not-New York, not-L.A. locations to adopt. Country Grammar and follow-up Nellyville veered surprisingly far into pop territory, with playful -- in fact, playground -- rhymes and colorful, well-rounded instrumental schemes. As an MC, Nelly operates out of a wisecracking tenor perch, laying the charm on thick. (Who else could get away with the lyrics of "Hot in Herre?") This helps him do approachable without going cheap.
The artist's latest effort, Brass Knuckles, blurs the rap and pop boundary still further. Just looking at the list of collaborators -- T.I., Snoop Dogg, Fergie, Pharrell, Usher… -- one realizes there will be no way to predict its tone. And sure enough, Knuckles is a mix of everything: slick R&B, slurry block rhyming, high-gloss club pop. About the only thing that stays constant is the scale: Nelly doesn't do small productions, and every track here is a blockbuster.
The first thing that strikes the listener is how eclectic even just the rap side is. The record features hip-hop moves from three decades and at least that many cities. "Hold Up" stars T.I. and LL Cool J, with the two ladykillers dropping their own twists into a hiccupping St. Lou beatscape. But we quickly move west, hearing a g-funk touched ode to L.A. courtesy of Snoop and Nate. Soon after, it's New York time, as the legendary Chuck D does empowerment over vintage soul strains on "Self-Esteem" -- the surprise winner of the album.
So you can get serious here if you want to. Of course, you can also get romantic, via the satin tones of Akon/Ashanti duet "Body On Me." Or you can get, well… whatever Fergie is. Her "Party People" is as fierce and gyration-happy as ever.
The point here is choice, which for the bighearted man of the Midwest, is just a matter of being a good host.
By Jake Blaine