Cornell Haynes Jnr., 2 November 1974, Austin, Texas, USA. Haynes had an itinerant childhood, moving to Spain at one point before ending up in the ghettos of St. Louis, Missouri. A talented baseball player, Haynes opted instead to form the St. Lunatics rap crew with high school friends Kyjuan (b. Robert Cleveland), City Spud (b. Lavell Webb), Big Lee (b. Ali Jones), Murphy Lee (b. Tohri Harper), and Slow Down (b. Corey Edwards). The St. Lunatics enjoyed a local underground hit in 1996 with Gimme What Ya Got, but despite this success they failed to persuade any major labels to offer them a recording contract.
In 1999, Nelly opted to pursue a solo career and was signed to Universal Records. The regional popularity of his singles translated into national success when Country Grammar, his debut collection, took over from Eminem at the top of the US album chart and stayed there for several weeks. Suddenly, all the talk was of new Midwestern talent to rival the southern stars of labels such as Cash Crew Records and No Limit Records. While Jason Eppersons electro-funk backing tracks owed an obvious debt to Timbalands syncopated beats, Nellys rhyming style offered an interesting new angle with a smooth flow tailor made for the crossover urban R&B market. The lyrics deviated little from the modern rap blueprint, encompassing crime (Greed, Hate, Envy), sex (Thicky Thick Girl) and macho posturing (Batter Up), but the big radio-friendly hooks on tracks such as Country Grammar (Hot Shit), Ride Wit Me, and St. Louie offered the real clue to Nellys unexpected popularity.
The St. Lunatics crew released their debut album the following June, enjoying a commercial success on the back of Nellys popularity. The rapper returned to the US charts in his own right in June 2002 with the chart-topping hit single Hot In Herre. The attendant Nellyville debuted at number 1 in the album charts the following month, while the album track Dilemma (a duet with Destinys Child singer Kelly Rowland) nestled in behind Hot In Herre at the top of the singles chart. Air Force Ones also reached the Top 5 at the end of the year. The following autumn, Nelly teamed up with P. Diddy and Murphy Lee to record the chart-topping Shake Ya Tailfeather, featured on the soundtrack of the movie Bad Boys II.
By now Nelly was overseeing a merchandising empire including two clothing ranges and the unappetisingly titled Pimp Juice energy drink, in addition to maintaining his music and acting careers. A strangely characterless figure, he had become equally well known in the media for sporting a sticking plaster on his cheek (allegedly to show solidarity with the imprisoned City Spud) than for his rapping abilities. Nevertheless, by the time he released two separate albums on the same day in September 2004 Nelly had established himself as one of the most successful rap artists of the new millennium. The up-tempo Sweat was the better of the two, with guest producers the Neptunes on particularly fine form for Flap Your Wings, while other stand-out tracks included Na-Nana-Na, River Dont Runnn and the wonderfully dirty Tilt Ya Head Back (featuring Christina Aguilera). The companion piece Suit was a less engaging collection of R&B ballads distinguished only by the sultry My Place and an unlikely but effective collaboration with country star Tim McGraw on Over And Over. The media on both sides of the Atlantic made great play of the fact that Nelly was no longer wearing the sticking plaster on his cheek. The following years Sweatsuit compiled the best moments from each album, and added four new tracks. One of these, Grillz (featuring Paul Wall, Ali and Big Gipp), went to the top of the US singles chart in early 2006.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.