The Missouri twang in Nelly’s voice made him stand out in a 2000s rap landscape dominated by the two coasts and, increasingly, the South. But the St. Louis MC (born Cornell Iral Haynes Jr. in Austin, Texas, in 1973) used that outlier status to his advantage both then and throughout a career that’s found him blurring borders between hip-hop and other genres. Nelly bounded into pop immediately with 2000’s Country Grammar, debuting his lilting, keyed-up melodic rhymes over boastful cuts like the title track, which converted a schoolyard clapping game into an instantly familiar, uniquely playful hook. He solidified his mainstream status on 2002’s Nellyville thanks to “Hot in Herre,” a funky, sweaty night-out essential blessed by the white-hot touch of The Neptunes. On the very same album, he confidently strode into R&B, holding his own in a romantic duet with Kelly Rowland at the height of Destiny’s Child’s power (“Dilemma”), and sounding surprisingly sweet while attempting to woo a woman away from her man. Nelly continued to court disparate but complementary sounds on Sweat and Suit, 2004’s two-album drop that separated party jams from smooth grooves. The latter produced the Tim McGraw-assisted “Over and Over,” a tastefully country-fied rumination on heart-wrenching breakups. He revisited western territory in later years, lending his amped energy to both Florida Georgia Line and Jimmie Allen early in their careers. With an insatiable curiosity and a penchant for hybridizing country, rap, and pop, Nelly helped blaze a trail for next-generation genre-hoppers like Lil Nas X, who would shatter norms himself.
BORNNovember 2, 1974