Reviewed on this page:
Country Grammar - Free City -
Heavy Starch - Nellyville -
Da Skool Boy Presents Murphy's Law - Sweat -
Suit - Brass Knuckles
It took a while, but St. Lunatics finally put St. Louis on the hip hop map when member Nelly scored a solo deal and promptly became the surprise sales phenomenon of 2000. The Lunatics have an easy-going, good-time approach, and Nelly's singsong (sol-mi, for those of you singsonging along at home) delivery is charmingly contagious. Producer Jay "Jay-E" Epperson put together most of the tracks on their early records - though he seems to have fallen by the wayside recently - and his uncluttered, unsubtle, undeniably engaging use of synth and guitar fit right in with the group's keep-it-simple esthetic. After Nelly's rise to superstardom, he participated in some questionable collaborations, put out some inconsistent product, and got involved in a rather silly dispute with KRS-One, but at his best he's hugely entertaining and even at his worst he's charismatic.
Who's The Boss (Nelly & The St. Lunatics: rec. 1996-9, rel. 2006)
A collection of early tracks released well after Nelly and his comrades hit it big. Back in these days, nobody really had their style worked out - nobody's words are memorable, and Nelly barely does the sing-song thing at all - so there's nothing remarkable about the rapping. Producer Jason Epperson, though, does put a nice keyboard hook on "Gimme What U Got" and a nasty guitar loop on "Check The Rhyme." Most tracks are by Epperson, the rest by City Spud.
As pre-fame cash-ins go, it's a little better than the Commodores', not quite as good as the Gap Band's, and at least more authentic than Hendrix's.
Country Grammar (Nelly: 2000)
Though Nelly's a member of St. Lunatics, somehow his solo album came out before their debut, and it became a huge success because of wonderfully catchy tunes like "Ride Wit Me" and "Batter Up" (which features fellow Lunatics Murphy Lee and Ali, and is based on a clever reuse of the Jeffersons theme). Nearly all produced by Jason "Jay E" Epperson, and his combination of spare
drum programming, insidious keyboard hooks, and the odd sampled guitar is nothing new, but it crackles with energy: never drab or repetitive.
He seems to be working with a limited bag of tricks, though: several songs here shares choruses with tracks from Free City: "Steal The Show" = "Let Me In Now," for example.
And though Nelly's sing-song delivery is hypnotic and compelling, much of his rhyming is simplistic (the hilarious "Ride Wit Me" excepted) and his single-minded boasting about sexual conquests gets dull real fast. So despite Epperson's talent and the superlative singles, on balance the record doesn't live up to expectations.
Guests include all the other Lunatics including City Spud, Lil' Wayne, and The Teamsters; a couple of segues feature comic Cedric The Entertainer.
Free City (St. Lunatics: 2001)
To paraphrase Mick, it's only hip hop, but I like it. This debut from the St. Louis crew isn't profound or innovative, doesn't communicate any particular insights about inner city poverty in particular
or life in general, but it's sure fun to listen to. Nearly all the tracks were produced by Epperson, and he has a real knack
for building catchy tracks that blend cotton candy melodies with hard-hitting bass and percussion, and just a couple of samples
("Love You So" incorporates Gladys Knight's "I Feel A Song In My Heart"; "Summer In The City" uses the melody of
the Lovin' Spoonful song). He also has a welcome fondness for ornate harpisichord lines ("S.T.L.," "Boom
D Boom"). The lyrics are nothing special, but the four rappers - Nelly, Ali, Murphy Lee and Kyjuan (City Spud had been incarcerated, to which the album title alludes) - each have different deliveries,
keeping things interesting.
There's not as much variety as you'd like from a 70-minute disc, though - I wish they'd cut repetitive numbers like "This Is The Life" and
"Let Me In Now" - and there are four extremely unpleasant spoken interludes
featuring Little Rock and Donneash Ferguson as an irritating, argumentative couple (the "Mad Baby Daddy Skits").
The only guests are Brian McKnight (vocals on "Groovin Tonight"), Penelope and Cardan.
Heavy Starch (Ali: 2002)
The second Lunatic to drop a solo album, Ali doesn't have anywhere
near enough personality to carry one, with an ordinary delivery, a weak sense of humor, inane subject matter ("Serious," "Boughetto")
and a bad case of misogyny ("Bitch," "Crucial").
The parade of guests - Kandi, Ray Ray, Toya, and the rest of the Lunatics, among others - does help a bit.
As usual, Jason "Jay E" Epperson produced most of the tracks, and he generally avoids the formula that dominated
his earlier productions, instead relying on weird synth sounds (the flanged hook in "Collection Plate," the buzzing lead line of "St. Louis
Alumni). "Wiggle Wiggle" is an exception, more of the same sing-song Southern Bounce; "Walk Away," featuring Nelly and Ms. Toi, uses
Epperson's trademark harpsichord, but complements it with prominent electric guitar. Trouble is, without his usual formula he can't come up
with any memorable, catchy tunes - nothing here is half as good as "S.T.L." or "Ride Wit Me" - so maybe he would've been better off falling
into a rut.
Other producers include Waiel "Wally" Yaghnam ("I Got This," based on looped sitar and tabla, is about as good as the record gets), Tar Boy and Trife.
Nellyville (Nelly: 2002)
Perhaps sensing a limited formula, Nelly pushed himself on this followup, coming up with sharper rhymes and a much broader musical palette.
Epperson and his snappy keyboard hooks ("On The Grind" with King Jacob; "Oh Nelly") are back for half the tunes, while the rest are spread out: The Neptunes
whipped up one of their catchiest tracks, the ubiquitous single "Hot In Herre"; The Trackboyz contributed the dull sneaker commercial
"Air Force Ones." Three songs come from Waiel "Wally" Yaghnam, all based on guitar licks from TJ Oster: "#1," "The Gank"
and the insidious title track.
Nelly drops his party-hearty routine just once, on the love song "Dilemma" with a lame vocal
hook courtesy of Kelly Rowland... that too became a hit single.
Again, Cedric The Entertainer appears on several segues; other guests include the St. Lunatics,
Justin Timberlake ("Work It"), Freeway and Beanie Sigel.
Murphy Lee, Da Skool Boy Presents Murphy's Law (2003)
A solo project in theory, though every track but one ("Granpa Gametight") has at least one guest. Lee doesn't project
much individuality - just another rapper with a high net worth and a sex drive to match - but with a bunch of good tunes and other voices in the mix,
it doesn't matter much. The Lunatics' usual beatmaster Jay Epperson produced six tracks, including the excellent "This Goes Out," with a
Funkadelic-style heavy guitar hook from TJ Oster. Yaghnam provided four, the best of which is "So X-treme."
Jermaine Dupri's contributions are both losers: the irritating "Wat Da Hook Gon Be" and "Murphy Lee," based on a
sample of "Mercy Mercy Me." Jazze Pha's "Luv Me Baby," featuring Sleepy Brown, and
Mannie Fresh's "Hold Up," featuring Nelly, are both standouts. But the second half of the record bogs down in third-rate material ("I Better Go"), aside
from "Shake Your Tailfeather" with Nelly and P. Diddy, a hit from the Bad Boys 2 soundtrack.
Sweat (Nelly: 2004)
A collection of party anthems, but it's often unoriginal and boring, with too many tracks either built on familiar hooks ("American Dream"), recycling played-out themes without a fresh perspective ("Another One" indeed), or both ("Down In Da Water"). The simplistic singles were "Flap Your Wings" with Pharrell Williams
and "Superfly"-sampling "Tilt Ya Head Back" with
Christina Aguilera. "Playa" with Mobb Deep and Missy Elliott, produced by The Alchemist, doesn't have much going for it either, though in this context the 80s sample ("Magnetic Dance #2" by Lee Ryda) is a breath of fresh air.
Nelly does score some points for sampling John Tesh on the opening "Heart Of A Champion," an
affecting plea for understanding mixed with his usual braggadocio, and his dynamic presence brings some entertainment value to even the drabbest material ("Spida Man").
Epperson produced two tracks, "Grand Hang Out" and "Boy" (a rerun of "On The Grind"); the long list of producers includes
Jazzy Pha (the catchy if obvious "Na-Nana-Na"), Jayson Bridges ("Another One") and Doe ("River Don't Runnn").
Suit (Nelly: 2004)
I don't know what's weirder, that the resolutely unromantic Nelly released a whole CD of slow jams, or that it makes better listening than his simultaneously released collection of dance grooves.
The format pushes him into different territory, like the tender song to his son, "Die For You"
and the moody lost love meditation "Over And Over" (with vocals from country star Tim McGraw, though the tune is straight-up R&B). The single "My Place" is carried by Jaheim's affecting vocal refrain, though Nelly does his best to undercut the song's theme with his usual coarseness.
Some of the same guests
from Sweat reappear - Pharrell Williams ("Play It Off"), Jazzy Pha ("Pretty Toes"),
Snoop Dogg ("She Doesn't
Know My Name," which also features dramatic emoting from Ron Isley).
The low point is probably "N Dey Say," which is based on the same Spandau Ballet sample as P.M. Dawn's "Set Adrift On Memory Bliss."
Sweatsuit (Nelly: 2006)
A compilation of the better tracks from Sweat and Suit, plus three new tracks including the hit single "Grillz."
Kinfolk (Ali & Gipp: 2007)
Ali formed an alliance with Gipp from Goodie Mob. Nelly, Kjuan and Murphy Lee all turn up somewhere or other, along with Cee-Lo, Three 6 Mafia and others.
Brass Knuckles (Nelly: 2008)
Four years is an eternity in the business, so Nelly studded his comeback with big-name talent from oldtimers (LL Cool J; Chuck D.) to upstarts (T.I.; Akon).
Nelly does make room for his fellow Lunatics on a couple of tracks ("Lie"; "Chill"), and his nursery rhyme flow is as infectious (albeit shallow) as ever ("Hold Up"; "Stepped On My J'z").
The producers are fresh faces, mostly - Wyshmaster (three cuts including the dramatic opener "U Ain't Him" with Rick Ross); Ron Feemster ("L.A."); G. Koop - and they serve up a collection of midtempo grinds based on layered keyboards, not far from Epperson's blueprint if not as wide-ranging.
Polow Da Don contributed several tracks, including two of the best: "One And Only," where Nelly for once manages to sound convincing on a love song, and "Party People," a straight-up dance track featuring Fergie.
We may not miss Nelly when he's not around, which is why taking so much time off was ill-advised - see also Eminem - but he can sure be fun when he is.
5.0 (Nelly: 2010)
Stop the insanity.