Nelly on his chart profile: 'I’m still looked at as the underdog'
Despite selling more than 20 million albums in the U.S., having nearly a dozen top 10 singles, being ranked as the third top overall artist of the 2000-2009 decade by Billboard magazine behind Eminem and Usher and snagging a mantle's worth of Grammys, American Music Awards, Video Music Awards and BET Awards, he still feels looked upon as the underdog, and that perplexes him.
“I think it's because you’ve had so much success," he reasons, while noshing on fried shrimp in a private dining room at a West Hollywood hotel. "When you’ve had so much, people are tired of rooting for you to win."
It doesn't take long for the frustration to appear on his face.
"It boggles me. I’m still looked at as the underdog. I mean, how is it, a ... sells 30 million records and be looked at as the underdog? For some reason, I get it," he chuckles as he shakes his head. "It’s a mystery to me. I feel like no matter what I do, it’s going to be something.”
He knows part of that is due to the performance of his last album, 2008's “Brass Knuckles,” which delivered first-week sales that paled in comparison to the storied blockbuster success of his previous albums. That slide resulted in his latest release, “5.0,” being pegged as a "comeback."
The disc, which debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 for the week of Nov. 24 after selling a relatively few 63,000 copies, rides on the strength of his platinum single “Just a Dream.”
“It’s hard being compared to yourself. I ain’t never met a person that can beat themselves. For some strange reason, people hold me to myself. It’s just like, ‘Yeah, "Brass Knuckles" didn’t do Nelly numbers,’ but it damn near sold 800,000. If you look at 800,000, today’s top artists are selling that,” he says. “I sold 800,000 on my worst record. Some people wait on you to not succeed the way you did before to call it a failure, a brick, a flop, to call it what you want to call it. There’s nothing I can do with that.” [For the record: A representative for Universal Motown clarified that while the label shipped nearly 800,000 units of "Brass Knuckles," the rapper only sold 230,000 copies.]
Since his debut 10 years ago with “Country Grammar,” the rapper born Cornell Haynes Jr. has cemented his pop crossover status with radio- -- and club- -- friendly hooks propelled by his Midwestern twang and sing-songy flow. He's the first hip-hop artist to debut at nos. 1 and 2 in the same week after putting out "Sweat" and "Suit" on the same day in 2004, and his single "Over and Over" with Tim McGraw made him the first rapper with a hit on the country chart.
No stranger to success, he almost walked away from it all after the death of his sister, Jackie, in 2005 following a battle with leukemia.
“After you lose someone that close to you it makes you reevaluate things. You look at yourself in a different perspective, and music was one thing,” he said. “It made me want to stay home and spend more time with my family, my mom, my kids [he adopted Jackie's two children after she died]. There was so much she wanted to do. Trips she wanted to do, places she wanted to see. I don’t know if I could’ve lived through [what she did] and ever smile again.”
He continues the work he started through the charity in her honor, the Jes Us 4 Jackie Foundation, which works to find bone marrow donors. “We were able to find donors for seven people. It’s one of my proudest moments,” he beams. “But people would rather talk about [the controversial music video] ‘Tip Drill.’ ”
Over the last few years, he’s found his personal life becoming fodder for gossip blogs wanting to speculate on his long-rumored romance with R&B singer Ashanti (“We are friends and we'd like to say that until we’re ready to say anything else,” he says), but he’d rather focus his energy on the album.
“5.0” boasts an impressive lineup of collaborations, including with Diddy, T.I. and Chris Brown, but it’s the long-awaited reunion with Kelly Rowland -- the two crafted the Grammy winning “Dilemma” in 2002 -- that was his personal highlight. Though he staunchly warns that the track, "Gone," isn't "Dilemma Part II."
“We wanted to be good. No matter what we do, it’s gonna be compared to ‘Dilemma.’ But there’s no ... way we can strike gold like that again. Would you like to, yeah. Should you try, no, because you can only fail. We aren’t trying to top ‘Dilemma,’ ” he said.
Amid all his frustrations, he remains optimistic, even if the album’s second single, “Move That Body,” featuring Akon and T-Pain, hasn’t taken off the way “Just a Dream” did. He admits he is still trying to adjust to the way the industry has changed.
“It’s the game and that’s how it is. But outside of Eminem, outside of [Lil] Wayne, who in hip-hop is gonna sell 1 million in a week? Whatever I do [in sales] is gonna be a mark where I get a chance to see where Nelly is in today’s market without being hoodwinked about it. We don’t know what to expect on a Nelly record in 2010,” he says before pausing. “Me, personally, I hope I can sell another 800,000.”
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy
Photos: (Top) Nelly. Credit: Universal Motown Records
(Bottom) The rapper celebrates his 10th anniversary in the entertainment business with a party at HOME nightclub with friends, other rap artists and fans, July 23, in St. Louis. Credit: Katherine Bish / St. Louis Post-Dispatch / MCT