I hated Nelly when “Country Grammar” first dropped. But to be fair, I pretty much hated everything in the year 2000. Let’s just say I was in a surly period of my life, and leave it at that. This ire certainly applied to pretty much everything one would hear on top 40 during the year 2000, back when the radio and the monoculture were still enough of a thing that you couldn’t avoid them even if you tried, which I did. In just a few years, this would no longer be the case. You would easily be able to tune everything out and live in your own world, if you wanted to. But back then you were going to have a shared culture-wide experience whether you asked for it or not.
Like Al Gore jokes and rumors about something called Napster, “Country Grammar (Hot Shit)” (I do apologize for mis-titling it earlier) was rather inescapable throughout the entire year, and I grumbled every time I heard it at a party or just walking down the street. Because I was in college at the time, constantly taking in new (or new to my white ass) information and desperate to let people know I was taking in new information, I would always gladly tell anyone who would listen how Nelly wasn’t “Real Hip-Hop” in the way Outkast, Jurassic 5 and A Tribe Called Quest were. I had a subscription to a few music magazines, you see, and that qualified me to be an arbitrator of such things.
But if I hated Nelly, my friend Adam really hated him. I was a fairly recent transplant to the great state of Missouri. Adam was born and raised in St. Louis, two hours from the town we lived in then, and he took great umbrage to Nelly’s attempts to rep the Lou. (“No one fucking calls it ‘The Lou.’ We’re not a fucking toilet.”–Adam) As someone who grew up in Orlando, Florida and at the time period was constantly having to apologize for (takes a deep breath) the Backstreet Boys, Creed, Matchbox 20, N’Sync, Limp Bizkit (Jacksonville is close enough), O-Town–and probably a few other bands I’m forgetting–I could feel his pain. (Poptimism wasn’t a thing in 2000 and revisionist history has its limits. Don’t give me that look.) The only thing worse than having a crappy musical act represent your state is having a crappy musical act represent your state and there being no good, fairly recent musical acts to point to as a counter-example. (I know what you’re thinking, but as far as Missouri and Florida go, neither Tech N9ne nor Against Me! would gather much steam until at least 2001.)
Nelly’s debut album Country Grammar was an inescapable monster, source of one windows-down speaker rattling nursery-rhyme after another. Listening to “E.I.” and “Batter Up” and all the rest now, they all sound so innocent and carefree. They were practically their own Kidz Bops remakes. It was 2000, and we were going to make it rain forever. The days of wine and shimmy shimmy cocoa what would never end, Nelly promised.
“Ride wit Me” finally broke me. While Nelly was an unrepentant pop cornball and more of a singer with hip-hop cadences than a proper rapper, his nimble, bob-and-weave verses on “Ride Wit Me” are an understated marvel that will worm their way into your head whether you like it or not. Plus, the chorus is just one of those awesomely stupid things that is fun to shout, and sometimes that’s enough. I know from experience.
It was the Spring of 2001, and my mood (for various reasons) had lifted considerably. I remember one particularly gorgeous day, I was walking down the street when I saw my wonderful friend Adam. I stopped, threw my arms out and said “Hey! Must be the money!” He stopped in his tracks, gave me a face that indicated I’d just farted in his soul, and flicked me off. So, of course, every single time I had an opportunity to quote “Ride Wit Me” at him, I did. The rest of my friend circle quickly joined in. (“You want a beer? Anything for the money!”) I’m surprised he didn’t stop calling us to come over. (Us: As soon as we heard his voice on the phone: “Heeeeeeeeyyyyyy.”)
We thought we were doing it ironically, but at some point, it became clear we liked this stupid song and all of its empty flash, even if we feared that if we admitted it out loud, our copies of Stankonia would be seized by the feds. If we’d gone to school together even a few years later, we probably would have missed out on this bonding experience. The current versions of Nelly, be they Wiz Khalifa or Mac Miller or whomever, are much easier to tune out now. You can live your entire life with a carefully curated world-feed and never have to be bothered by pop trifles you find annoying and beneath you. You probably discover a lot more stuff you’ll truly love that way. But sometimes the worst shit makes for the best memories.