SONIC REDUCER Turn down the grill, puleeze last week felt like a little time-traveling trip to Nellyville (Universal), a throwback to '02, as in "I'm getting too hot / I wanna take my clothes off." That snatch of "Hot in Herre," Country Grammar king Nelly's collabo with the Neptunes, could have been the recurring refrain throughout the 80-degree-plus Indian summer sizzle engulfing San Francisky. And frankly I prefer Nelly's get-nekkid vision of toasty times to the heat that seems to be driving the kids on my street to shoot each other up. Nightlife shouldn't mean a fight for your life, and who can blame the Mission District teens who want to get out of their suffocating family apartments? Still, you wonder drowsily, when roused at 4:45 a.m. to the sound of five gunshots and some murder-minded creep speeding off: why do the shooters have such ready access to firearms?
I say, let's cut the vengeance-minded, pistol-packing heat and up the glammed-up, sexy swelter instead. We can use a little more ye olde "Hot in Herre" and less hot-under-the-collar shoot-'em-ups. So the timing was perfect to check in with Nelly, a.k.a. Cornell Haynes Jr., about his latest album, Brass Knuckles (Derrty/Universal), on the verge of an intimate national tour alongside his chums St. Lunatics.
The finished product took a great deal of tweaking hence the multiple delays, says the soft-spoken rapper, fashion impresario, and collaborator with everyone from T.I. (Creatively, "he's a beast," swears Nelly) to Tim McGraw. Though Nelly's intent on trying out new sounds, fans seem to prefer the rapper's smoother R&B side, as exhibited by the popularity of his Suit disc over his hip-hoppier Sweat full-length (both Derrty/Universal, 2004). And the third single off Brass Knuckles, "Body on Me," which brings the St. Louis rapper together with Akon and rumored squeeze Ashanti, has done considerably better than his fun-loving, shout-along foray betwixt crunk and hyphy, "Stepped on My J'z" ("My ode to the joy of the sneaker," he says).
But all that doesn't mean the Charlotte Bobcats co-owner wants to skew toward safe choices amid industry uncertainty and his own tussles with Universal ("Definitely I was unhappy with the situation," Nelly says of the negotiations that led him to make the 2007 throwaway "Wadsyaname" single. "Sometimes I think the only leverage that entertainers have is the music."): after all, he did try to assemble a vocal threesome with Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson for Brass Knuckles as well as a bro-down with Bruce Springsteen.
"Don't be afraid of change," he tells me over the phone. "I think that's the thing that scares people the most. You can't tell fans what they should buy. You can't tell fans what they should like. It looks funny! 'Yo, don't buy that buy this. You're wrong!'<0x2009>" The still-budding thespian within Nelly will appear in the CSI: NY season opener rears its head as the rapper imagines a bullied fan. "'But, but, it's my money!'
"That's something you don't want to get into," he continues, reassuming his proper role. "You're always a student."
This time around, Nelly says, "I wanted to do things a little differently bring an energy to the album that I maybe haven't in a while as far as tempos and selection of people that I used." To support that he wants to spend this tour "just explaining the songs and explaining what went into the album."
Apparently there's more than a little of the down-home Midwesterner in the rapper, who continues to reside in his hometown of St. Louis. There, keeping it real and cool means knowing when to lay low.