Nelly’s name may not always come up in rap G.O.A.T. chats, but the St. Louis native certainly deserves his place in the Hip-Hop history books. With a career that spans more than 10 years and 35 million records sold, Nelly can no longer be brushed off as a fluke. From Band Aids to Air Force One’s, the 35-year-old father of two has set more trends in hip-hop than often credited for. From his Apple Bottoms office in Manhattan, VIBE checked in with Cornell “Nelly” Haynes Jr. to get an update on just how far his Country Grammar has taken him. —Mikey Fresh
VIBE: 5.0 will mark your sixth album and 10 years in the game. Do you finally consider your self a hip-hop veteran?
Nelly: Well, I kind of consider myself a young veteran. A vet doesn’t necessarily mean in age but the extent of your knowledge of what it is that you’re into. That’s what makes you a real veteran.
Do you still feel like there’s more for you to prove in your music?
I wouldn’t say prove because I don’t know what’s really left… at least statistic wise, there isn’t much left for me to do. I don’t think people expect anything of me creatively, but just number-wise. That’s where my trouble lies. People don’t see my music but they see my numbers as to whether Nelly has succeeded or not. Like Nas, his next album might not sell the biggest of his career but they may rank it as his best album. But for me, if I don’t put up those numbers, they’re not even going to listen to my records.
I think that’s related to the fact that you sold 10 million coming out of the gate…
It’s a double-edged sword—you don’t want to knock yourself for having success. And you never want to make people think that you’re unappreciative of your success. That’s why I try to let people know I feel fortunate to have sold over 35 million records. Who does that and is still around to add to that number? No one!
There seems to be a lot of folks already counting you out…
I think the best thing for me is to be the underdog. When Country Grammar came out, nobody expected me to do it. But after I did sell all those records people expected me to sell me sell 10 million every time. Some people even look at Nellyville as a failure compared and Sweat Suit which sold 6 million. Who are you comparing me to? I’m outselling everybody. It’s kind of rough when you’re compared to yourself all the time. [laughs]
Did you ever think about switching your style up after catching flack for incorporating singing and melodies in your rhymes?
I didn’t give a rat’s ass. I was from St. Louis, and I was getting a shot, a major record deal… I had two kids, my moms, pops, Grandparents needed help. With my first album I was thinking if I make it, I can relieve the pressure from my whole family making ends meat—so I’m doing it. To make something when you had nothing, I wasn’t going to trip off it.
So it didn’t bother you that you weren’t being labeled as a “real MC”?
I didn’t understand what “he isn’t a real MC” meant. Should I not try to succeed and sell millions of albums? I thought 'doing you' and people accepting it validated what you were doing as 'real'. We did everything coming up from the battles, talent contests, and quote or unquote mixtape songs. I mean, I could get what people are saying about the music in a certain sense. But I’ve always kept it real with myself.
You really helped popularize the sing-song flow starting in 2000… I mean you could even say you fathered the style of a lot of rappers who came after you…
Listen, it's right there in front of you. If you retrace history and look at how rap music was before I got there and after—it’s clear. To me and the people around me, it was always evident.
But you never get the credit for it.
Look at “Ride With Me.” I rapped my own verses, sung own my own hook and sung my own bridge. That was one of the first rap records to have a bridge! Nobody was putting bridges on rap songs before that. I saw my blueprint being kind of dubbed over and some people don’t say it. Now every rapper now is trying to sing their own hooks. Nobody wanted to sing when I was coming out. Now everybody’s singing, I don’t know give a shit who it is. Everyone’s doing Nelly, but it’s cool and it’s a good thing. -p