Reasons why rapper Nelly is an artistic genius

NELLY
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We rarely recognize a great work of art when we see it for the first time. For instance, Moby Dick was published in 1851, but it took more than half a century for critics to realize that the novel is a literary masterpiece. In the same way, it’s taken me 21 years of my life to realize that I fucking love Nelly.

My love for him started with an ironic enjoyment of “Ride Wit Me”, but the more I thought about him, the more I realized that Nelly is severely under-appreciated. I discover so many new things — about Nelly, about the world, about myself — each time I listen to his radio hits. By now, I’ve come up with so many thinkpiece ideas on Nelly’s artistry that I couldn’t possibly have the time to write them all. Thus, I’ve decided to do what a real journalist would do: toss all these ideas into a blender and write one, sprawling, unorganized listacle. Here we go. Here are a bunch of reasons for why Nelly is a bit of a genius.

1. Nelly’s technical influence is massively underrated. He is the first artist to have perfected the sing-rapping technique, which is super popular in hip-hop these days. 808s-era Kanye West, Drake, Ty Dolla $ign, Fetty Wap, Kid Cudi — would we have any of these important artists without “Ride Wit Me”?

2. You could say that these artists were not thinking about Nelly. You might object and say that their sing-raps were direct responses to the auto-tuned club songs of T-Pain, who is also a sing-rapper — an especially controversial sing-rapper. Kanye’s autotuned R&B on 808s is a blatant reaction to T-Pain’s trashy club music. It makes sense because Kanye was T-Pain’s contemporary on the Billboard charts circa 2005. But Nelly’s first album, the landmark Country Grammar, predates “I’m Sprung” by five years.

3. So, without Kanye, we wouldn’t have had Drake, Fetty, Kid Cudi, and the list can go on. But we wouldn’t have post-808s Kanye without T-Pain, and we wouldn’t have T-Pain if Nelly never started sing-rapping. We can thank Nelly for songs such as “Blood on the Leaves,” “Marvin’s Room” and “Trap Queen”.

4. Fetty Wap seems to be a direct descendent of Nelly. “679” — that massive club beat is SUCH a Nelly beat. Also, Fetty Wap’s endearing camaraderie with Remy Boyz is reminiscent of Nelly’s camaraderie with St. Lunatics. Even though Fetty Wap and Nelly have both found massive pop success, they try to share their fame with their boys from back home.

5. In the middle of “Ride Wit Me”, which is ostensibly a party song, Nelly says something surprisingly profound: “It feels strange now — making money off my brain instead of ‘cain now.” Wow! You go Nelly. I’m glad that Nelly can take a breath from the freewheeling celebration of “Ride Wit Me” so that he can ponder and appreciate his success.

6. It reminds me of Jay-Z’s famous couplet: “If you had holes in your zapatos / you would celebrate the minute you was having dough.” But Nelly’s version is less preachy and more humble. Nelly is so much more approachable.

7. Oh, and can we all agree that “Ride Wit Me” is the most important road trip song of all time? Those first chords bottle up the splendor of a sunrise into three seconds. It makes me feel like I live in a world of hopes and possibilities. In the same way that “Ignition (Remix)” is essential to any good party, “Ride Wit Me” is essential to any good road trip. In fact, if you are ever in the car for more than half an hour, you just need to play “Ride Wit Me.” Trust me.

8. And I can go on about “Ride Wit Me,” which is arguably Nelly’s masterpiece, if not “Tip Drill” (more on “Tip Drill” later). “Ride Wit Me” is amazingly nuanced for a pop song.

9. First of all, Nelly is such a great guy. “Ride Wit Me”? It’s an invitation! Nelly wants to share his success with everyone.

10. The chorus goes, “Why must I live this way? (Ay! Must be the money!)” That line is so complex! You can read its ambiguous tone in so many ways. Nelly seems tinged with regret. He seems tired of a certain lifestyle of partying and excess. In a way, he is playing a reiteration of Jay Gatsby.

11. Then again, he could just be sarcastic. He sounds like he’s having a pretty good time. But, is there a sincere emotional crisis underneath that irony? Maybe he is using the sarcasm to bury a certain pain. Oh, so many ways to read this song! Before, on this list, I established that he’s humble. He is celebratory yet meditative. Now we can add “sarcastic” and “regretful”, maybe even nostalgic, to the list. Nelly contains multitudes.

12.  I could write a billion more things about “Ride Wit Me,” but I should probably shut up and move on. We have a lot of ground to cover.

13. He is probably the most famous hip-hop artist to ever emerge from St. Louis, Missouri. Nelly innovated hip-hop by introducing his unique, Missouri vernacular to the scene. In fact, you can tell he had this project in mind, because his first album is called Country Grammar. I’m always grateful to hear language in a way that I haven’t heard before, so I thank Nelly for teaching me what, exactly, a Missouri twang sounds like. He revolutionizes hip-hop with his regional dialect in the same way that important writers such as Mark Twain and Zora Neale Hurston write in certain dialects. These innovations in language are always celebrated in the study of literature. Why don’t we shower Nelly with the same acclaim? He challenges our sensibilities by writing poetry in a low-brow register, a “hick” type of language — kind of like Chaucer.

14. Every line of his is super dense with slang. I can’t tell if it’s slang specific to Missouri or just slang that was popular in the year 2000. Either way, I appreciate how bizarre and hard-to-understand his lines can be, as a result. “We 3-wheelin’ in a fo’ with the gold Ds” You’re going to need a lot of annotations just to understand what’s happening in one line. A fo’ is a ‘64 Chevy Impala. Gold Ds are gold Dayton rims. Apparently, people in the year 2000 liked to lift one of their wheels with hydraulics and ride with three wheels. See? I needed to solve so many riddles to just understand one sentence. You need someone to hold your hand as you read Nelly’s lyrics, almost like you’re reading Ulysses.

15. Just a side note, I love all of these internal off-rhymes in “Country Grammar”: “Smoking on dubs in clubs, blowing up like Cocoa Puffs / Sipping bub, getting perved and getting dubbed / Daps and hugs, mean mugs and shoulder shrugs.” He just keeps going!. It’s admirable. Also, the internal rhymes double as onomatopoeia. The sounds of the club come alive. It’s very fun to read. Once again, it reminds me of reading Ulysses out loud.

16. “Tip Drill” shocks me and amazes me because everything about it is so extremely gratuitous. It is the sound of ludicrous excess. It breaks pop conventions because there is no “verse” or “chorus” or “bridge.” It is literally the same hook — “tip drill!” repeated 66 times. So, it’s amazing and hilarious that Nelly decided that this song — out of all songs — needed to be over 6 minutes long. That’s an insane amount of time to be dancing to such a mind-numbing club hit. What’s even more impressive is that he keeps my attention the entire time. It is a 6-minute song that feels like a 3-minute song, and I’m left wanting more.

17. 6 minutes is not a length of time for a typical hip-hop club song — or any pop song, for that matter. Usually, when I think of songs over 6 minutes, I think of a rock anthem such as “November Rain” or a Bob Dylan ballad. In a way, Nelly’s “Tip Drill” synthesizes a high-brow, epic musical form with the low-brow hip-hop club song. Great art is often the result of a surprising synthesis of high-brow and low-brow genres. Think of Andy Warhol’s pop art movement, or the French New Wave’s obsession with trashy film noirs. Think of James Joyce’s fart jokes. Nelly has achieved the same, eye-opening type of synthesis in “Tip Drill.” It’s not just the length of time, either. There is a catchy-as-fuck guitar riff in the background, as if Nelly were inspired by rock epics.

(Here’s a Youtube video for “Tip Drill.” I’d link you to the actual music video, but it is extremely NSFW.)

18. The film critic Pauline Kael once said that “great movies are rarely perfect movies.” That’s how I feel about “Tip Drill.” There are so many reasons why it should be considered a  bad piece of art. Even its music video is utterly crass and tasteless. It is six minutes of naked women rubbing their butts against one another, and the premise is juvenile. But it is these flaws that show Nelly’s idiosyncratic genius. Nelly is smart enough to know that the lyrics are as dumb as they can be, yet he still went ahead with making “Tip Drill”, which turned out to be awesome. His bravado is strangely admirable. I am too timid of a person to go where Nelly has gone. This epic club song is the work of an ambitious madman who has no regard for logical boundaries. Then again, if it were at all logical, it wouldn’t be art.

Jason Chen is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].