15 Years Later: Nelly’s Debut Album ‘Country Grammar’ Has Staying Power
The Midwest may lack the abundance of rap talent that the East, West and South have produced over the past 30 years, but when an artist from the greater America hits nationally, it’s usually in a big way. A prime example would be St. Louis, Mo. native Nelly, who stands as one of the most successful rappers of all-time with millions in record sales.
Evolving from a relative unknown into a mogul, the 40-year-old rhymer, born Cornell Haynes, has put his hands in the fashion, sports and television industry and made himself a very wealthy man with mainstream appeal. Outside of his recent arrest for possession of meth and the controversy surrounding his “Tip Drill” video, he has steered clear of legal trouble and scrutiny and is considered one of the more likable figures in hip-hop.
But with the passage of time, many rap fans may have forgotten (or been too young to know) about the Nelly that first emerged on the scene in the early 2000s. While he may be known as the affable family man engaging in charitable contributions at this point, Nelly was as raw as they come. Once you look past the melodic flow and sing-song delivery, his actual lyrics had substance and were inspired by his years navigating the notoriously rough-and-tumble streets of St. Louis.
Gaining his record deal with Universal Records in 1999, after impressing executives with his demo, he immediately went to work on his debut album, Country Grammar, which was released on July 27, 2000, and quickly burned its way up the Billboard 200 chart. The project eventually topped the chart and held the pole position on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop charts for six consecutive weeks.
The 16-track album was well-received by critics across the board and lauded for its infectious hooks and Nelly’s melodic flow. It even ended up in album of the year conversations. And with good reason, as Country Grammar is packed with smash hits, as well as multiple album cuts that bolster its staying power.
One indication that Nelly’s debut was a big deal was the LP’s intro, which features superstar comedian and fellow Missouri rep Cedric the Entertainer leaving a message on the rapper’s voicemail giving him props. It’s not every day that a new artist gets a co-sign from a star on the level of Cedric the Entertainer that early in their career, but Nelly would prove to be far from your average new-jack and worthy of the gesture.
Country Grammar‘s opening song, “St. Louie,” features Nelly detailing a depiction of the gutter side of his hometown on the song’s hook, rapping, “You can find me in St. Louie / Where the gun play reigns all day / Some got jobs and some sell yay / Others just smoke and f— all day,” on top of an inviting beat provided by producer Jay E.
Nelly really gets into his groove on the standout track, “Greed, Hate, Envy.” On the song, he rides the beat with finesse and flexes his underrated lyrical chops as he runs down his entrepreneurial resume as a street pharmacist. “I opened up shop at 13 / Dimes, dubs, quarter sacks and o-z’s / From handheld, digital to triple beam / Now my pager’s an email flip screen,” he spits.
However, it was the title track, which was the kick-off single, that boosted Nelly into the spotlight and on the public’s radar. “Country Grammar (Hot S—)” was produced by Jay E. The song climbed to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot Rap Songs chart and dominated BET and MTV due to its accompanying music video. “Who said pretty boys can’t be wild n—-s?” he asks and pays homage to a few of the popping cities and states throughout the South and Midwest. Nelly made a huge first impression on the rap populist with this classic single.
The St. Louis rapper flips a nursery rhyme into a hook with talk of committing drive-bys with street-sweeping weaponry. “I’m going down, down, baby, your street, in a Range Rover / Street sweeper baby, cocked, ready to let it go / Shimmy, shimmy, cocoa what / Listen to it pound / Light it up and take a puff, pass it to me now,” he raps on the chorus.
Elsewhere, “Steal the Show” finds Nelly giving air-time to his St. Lunatics brethren with whom he proves to have an undeniable chemistry and plays the back while his crew catches wreck. Nelly’s brother, City Spud, who was incarcerated and witnessed much of his siblings success from behind bars, throws the first punch with an aggressive, yet smoothed out verse.
“I’m hot son, yo that’s why I carry hot guns / I’m on a beach in L.A. f—in’ fly misses / While you n—-s at the crib tryna’ find misses /Yo I’m getting head from the Mexican dime bitches / Them n—-s mad cause they riches ain’t like my riches,” he raps.
Murphy Lee also appears on the track with a standout verse of his own, while Ali and Kyjaun round out the cut. After Cedric pops up for another interlude, Country Grammar really gets going, leading us into a succession of hits, starting with “Ride Wit Me.” Powered by acoustic guitar riffs and drums, Nelly goes into full crooner mode on this outing, rapping, “Looking, tryna’ spot something real nice / Looking for a little shorty I know that surely I can take home” and sashaying all over the crisp production.
“Ride Wit Me,” the third single released from Country Grammar, achieved the rare feat of outperforming the lead and follow-up singles on an album, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 cementing Nelly as the hottest newcomer in rap and remains a classic today.
After getting taken on a twangy musical high, we’re slapped in the face with the pimped-out tune that is “E.I.” Released after “Country Grammar,” “E.I.” is a mid-tempo track more catered to the nightlife and goes well with a cup of your favorite alcoholic beverage. The single failed to match the success of its predecessor but was a heater in its own right and helped Nelly quiet any one-hit wonder talk.
Murphy Lee and Ali return on “Thicky Thick Girl” with sexual innuendo aimed at all the curvy beauties on the scene, whereas the Lil Wayne-assisted tune, “For My,” is dedicated to those holding down the streets and features a young Weezy spitting, “I represent them street, n—- / When they get hot, carry the heat n—-/ Sweep n—– off they feet, n—- / You living on the edge, leap n—— / That’s why my clique ride or die and roll deep, n—–/ Ain’t nothing sweet, n—-.”
Although “Tho Dem Wrappas” is reminiscent of a vintage Cash Money track, sonically and stylistically, Nelly delivers a serviceable offering, which can’t be said about “Wrap Sumden,” featuring the St. Lunatics, that comes off as the obligatory smokers song and slightly misses the mark.
Nelly continues to move Country Grammar‘s stock on up with the posse track, “Batter Up,” which hijacks the lyrics to the theme song of the classic TV show, The Jeffersons, and implements them into the hook for a celebratory ditty inspired by their newfound success. Released as the fourth single from the album, it failed to reach the higher rungs of the Billboard music charts, but was popular on various music video countdowns due to its baseball-themed visual.
Country Grammar reaches code red on the hardcore banger, “Never Let ‘Em C U Sweat,” which features forgotten rap duo the Teamsters, who both burn down the booth with some of the best verses on the entire album and give the project its lone taste of East Coast flavor.
Country Grammar ends on a high note with the sentimental offering, “Luven Me,” a tune dedicated to his mother and extended family that have helped him throughout the years. Getting personal over a sample of One Way’s 1984 hit, “Don’t Stop (Ever Loving Me),” the St. Louis rhymer proves that even a harmonic thug from the streets can have a heart every now and then.
By the end of 2001, Nelly was a bona fide rap superstar with an album that dominated a big chunk of two separate years and sold more than nine million copies, making Country Grammar one of the most successful rap albums of all-time. His sophomore album, Nellyville, would move 714,000 copies within its first week of release, marking the rapper’s ascension into legendary territory.
The collection features A-list producers such as Neptunes and Just Blaze. Producer Jay E, whom played an integral part to Nelly’s success and doesn’t get nearly enough props, also returned to the fold and produced the majority of the songs on it as well. Nellyville also saw a stark contrast in Nelly’s subject matter from Country Grammar, with the pop star opting for catchy club-bangers and love songs instead of the block boy testimonials that were prominent on his debut album.
Overall, Country Grammar remains one of the most unforgettable albums of the new millennium and marked the arrival of a rap legend. Fifteen years later, the album still sounds incredible.