January 16, 2016 by NowhereButPop
More so than any other genre of music, hip-hop and rap have always been the most geographically divided. Rappers have always been intent on representing where they came from and each geographic region has its own legion of rappers ready to go to war to defend their home. Beyond that, each area has its own specific and unique sound. The G-funk, dance-inspired sounds of West Coast rappers like Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre is nothing like the boom-bap, free flowing rhythm of East Coast rappers like Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas. Once the Dirty South rose up, hip-hop acts like Ludacris and Outkast brought an experiment soul and bombastic element to rap music, infusing it with a country twang. Even now, Canada is getting into the game with the mass popularity of Drake. Once upon a time, St. Louis was home to its own burgeoning hip-hop scene as well.
There’s always been schisms in the sonic and geographical makeup of hip-hop. Each area has always cultivated its own sound with its own legion of rappers who propagate that sound. The East, West, and South are here to stay; they’ve been imbedded in mainstream music over the past 25 years, and each brings something different to the table. Mid-Western hip-hop however had a fairly brief eight or nine year stay as a mainstay in popular music. The most prolific mid-western rapper to go mainstream was Nelly, who with his debut album Country Grammar introduced mainstream America to what the St. Louis hip-hop scene had to offer.
Much in the same way that Dr. Dre’s The Chronic served as an introduction to Snoop Dogg, Country Grammar is equal parts a Nelly album as it is a Nelly & Co. album. Unlike The Chronic, where the songs featuring Snoop Dogg were better than the ones without him, the opposite holds true of Country Grammar. In fact, Country Grammar is at its best when Nelly goes it alone. The sole exception however is “Ride Wit Me” featuring City Spud (who recorded his lines while in jail). More than any other song on the album save for the title track, “Ride Wit Me” benefits the most from Nelly and Spud’s distinct mid-western accents. The way that Nelly’s lyrics roll over the repeating guitar riff, and smash their words together, combined with Spud’s super-easy delivery made “Ride Wit Me” the top club anthem of the new millennium.
Five tracks on Country Grammar feature either all the St. Lunatics, or a few members, and these tracks become the weakest offering on the album. The St. Lunatics, friends of Nelly from St. Louis just aren’t as entertaining, charismatic, or talented as Nelly, so much so that they actually take away from the songs they’re featured on. Murphy Lee and Ali don’t sound like rappers; they just sound like friends of Nelly who were invited into the recording sessions. “Batter Up” and “Thicky Thick Girl” in particular prove that the rest of the St. Lunatics are merely riding Nelly’s coattails to success. Even Nelly’s collaboration with a barely recognizable Lil Wayne falls flat as it sounds like a duller “Country Grammar”. Whereas a rapper like Nicki Minaj functions best as a featured artist, Nelly, by contrast, is at his best when he’s not sharing the spotlight and inviting less talented friends of his to appear on his albums.
It’s only when Nelly goes solo that Country Grammar really shines. The title track, “Country Grammar” has so much confidence in its Midwestern drawl that it proves to be the album’s most infectious song. The album’s opening track “St. Louie” is the perfect introduction to the Midwestern rap scene and Nelly’s world. It’s a world where “some got jobs and some sell yea’” and “others just smoke and fuck all day”. “St. Louis” is a track that sends us into the unknown realm of Midwestern hip-hop where listeners don’t know what to expect. For a genre of music dominated by the two coasts, Nelly does a perfect job of illustrating the culture, people and lifestyle of this new region bursting onto the scene. According to Nelly, the rise of the St. Louis hip-hop scene “ain’t no joke to us, just the North, South, East, West coast and us”.
On other tracks like “Utha Side”, “Tho Dem Wrappas”, and “Greed, Hate, Envy”, Nelly imparts on listeners everything that he’s learned on his way from dealing drugs to making hit singles. Whether they be tales of escape, recollections of Midwestern struggles, or the perils of trying to make it, everything seems foreign and slightly alien in the land of Missouri. The hidden gem of Country Grammar though, proves to be its penultimate track “Luven Me”, a cross between a thank-you ode and an apology track to everyone who supported Nelly through all of his exploits. It has a soothing and mellow soul to it that provides a sensitivity not seen anywhere else on the album. From apologizing to his mother for stealing from her, selling drugs in her garage, and wrecking her cars, to thanking his girlfriend for her love and support, “Luven Me” offers the rarest glimpse of sentimentality from a rapper who spent the previous hour rapping about dealing drugs and the lunatic denizens of his hometown.
Like every rap album recorded in the early-to-mid 2000s, Country Grammar is not only a product of its time, it’s incredibly dated. It’s stymied by pointless interludes that offer nothing to the album, it’s beset by a bothersome amount of collaborations, and it preoccupies itself with being tough and aggressive. With that said, Country Grammar features some of the best and most memorable songs that that era in hip-hop had to offer. “Country Grammar”, “Ride Wit Me”, and “Luven Me” in particular distinguish Nelly from the multitude of faceless rappers of the day. Where the album succeeds the most, is in introducing an unsuspecting audience to the inhabitants of this wacky and seemingly foreign city-state. No other rap album put St. Louis on the map as Country Grammar did, and that’s because no other album could have been as accessible to the rest of the country. Although it wasn’t really meant to last, for a brief time, St. Louis was the capital of the hip-hop world thanks to Nelly.