Since 2000, Nelly has been on one of the hottest streaks in pop music10 Top 30 pop singles, including eight Top 10s and three Number Ones. All these records are based on variations of the same rhythmic hook, that stuttering playground chant he introduced on "Country Grammar" and perfected on "Hot in Herre." Even today, when he's trying to bust out of the hip-hop pigeonhole by crooning R&B with Jaheim on "My Place" or by singing pop with Tim McGraw on "Over and Over," that same "duh-dit-dit-ba-di-doh" phrase, that same tricked-up pattern is the foundation.
It's tempting to fault Nelly for running a formula into the ground. To do so, though, would be to miss one of the best pop-music stories of the decade. For this St. Louis rapper has given us the most infectious, most versatile rhythmic phrase since the Diddley Beat, that bomp-a-bomp-a-bomp...bomp-bomp riff that forms the backbone of records from Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love" and The Who's "Magic Bus" to Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" and George Michael's "Faith."
Cornell "Nelly" Haynes didn't invent the Nelly Beat any more than Ellas "Bo Diddley" McDaniel invented the Diddley Beat. The Diddley Beat is based on drum patterns in Ghana that survived among Southern African Americans in "hambone" slapping games and children's chants. In similar fashion, Nelly grabbed his signature lick from a playground nursery rhyme for "Country Grammar."
"In St. Louis, we have kids outside till one or two in the morning whipping around with their bikes," he told me back in 2000. "So when we come out there, sitting on the porch, we hear everything they're saying and singing. Once I heard these little girls playing patty-cake, going, 'down, down, baby,' and that always stuck in my head. When my man Jay E [Jason Epperson] played those beats for me, I immediately thought of that song."
In the macho world of hip-hop, building your first single around a little girls' hand-clapping game may not be the best way to keep things "hard." But that's what was so liberating about "Country Grammar"its disregard of macho peer pressure. There's a generous, youthful optimism that's as contagious as the beat and the tune. And that same upbeat generosity has fueled every single Nelly has released since.
"I'm not thinking about someone saying, 'Oh, why did he use a kid's song?'" Nelly added. "I'm not thinking about how it looks. I'm thinking, 'This is hot; I'm going to use it.' I don't care about the rest of it. I'm not trying to please anyone other than my own people in the Loo. I'm going to use words that are the way we talk down here."
Syncopated street-corner chants have been transformed into some of the greatest singles in pop history: "Yakety Yak," "Wooly Bully," "Iko Iko," "The Name Game," "Mickey's Monkey," "Ya Ya" and "Shimmy, Shimmy, Ko-Ko-Bop" (the latter quoted on "Country Grammar" and recycled on Marah's recent recording, "Freedom Park"). This is the tradition that Nelly belongs to.
He released two CDs of new music this year, but instead of packaging them as a double set, he put them out as two separate albumsSweat and Suit, both of which are still in the Top 20 this month. As these sartorial titles imply, Sweat is meant to be the streetwise hip-hop project and Suit the uptown pop-crossover project, with more singing mixed in with the rapping. But there's less difference between the two than Nelly intended, and that's because his signature patty-cake beat can be heard on nearly every track.
"Flap Your Wings," a Top 20 hip-hop single from Sweat, was produced by The Neptunes, but they stuck close to the template created by Nelly's first producer, Jay E. In its bare-bones minimalism, the record's sound is pure hip-hop. Over a drum-machine loop and a synth riff, Nelly and Pharrell Williams rap about getting laid and getting paid, but they do so in the hypnotic sing-song of the playground. As a result, the number is less about macho domination and more about the child-like pursuit of instant gratification.
By contrast, "My Place" a Top Five pop hit from Suit, is a blatant attempt to create a classic R&B love song. A synthesizer imitates a string chart and a gospel piano; the lyrics are a reassuring pledge of love, and Jaheim is recruited to recreate Teddy Pendergrass' "Come Go With Me." But as hard as he tries to sound like 1970s Philly soul, Nelly can't help sounding like 2000s St. Louis; his sophisticated, lover-man plea to his woman still comes out as a "duh-dit-dit-ba-di-doh" schoolyard rhyme. And that's what makes the song a fresh creation rather than a recycled imitation.
"Over and Over," a Top 10 pop single from Suit, is also a crossover love song, but this time the target is not '70s soul but contemporary country-pop. Nelly wrote the lyrics as a sequel to Bruce Robison's "Angry All the Time." "It's a shame," Nelly sings, "that we've got to spend our time being mad about the same things over and over again." He also gets Tim McGraw, the singer of "Angry All the Time," to add some heat to this cool ballad of regret. But even here, even in the midst of this adult-contemporary crooning, the rapper recalls the details of his crumbling affair in the jittery Nelly Beat.
Which just proves how versatile that riff is. The stuttering, sing-song pattern can put the ache in romantic soul, the anxiety in universal pop and the twitch in hormonal hip-hop. On his two new albums, Nelly's flexible formula accommodates collaborations with guests as different as Snoop Dogg, Ron Isley, Mase, Christina Aguilera, Fat Joe, Missy Elliott, the Lincoln University Vocal Ensemble and the great Anthony Hamilton. The Nelly Beat is far from exhausted and is likely to inspire more classic singles in the coming years.
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