Monday, July 13, 2009
#46 Song of the Decade- "Hot in Herre"
#46 Nelly- "Hot in Herre"
On 2002's "Excuse Me Miss," Jay-Z rapped, "Only dudes sellin' units? Em, Pimp Juice, and us." Pimp Juice refers, of course, to Nelly, and, though he was just as popular for most of the decade, he will not be remembered in the same fond breaths as those other two. And in some ways, that makes him more interesting than either one.
See, Nelly is a pop-rapper, and his career is pretty much over by now because of the weird space pop-rap occupies in music. One problem is that there can be only one King of Pop-Rap at a time. Nelly can't get onto the radio because Flo-Rida's on every station. (Or maybe because he posed with a belly ring for an album cover.) Before Nelly was the king of pop-rap, it was Will Smith and before him it was Puff Daddy and before him it was Coolio. And you can go back until you get to Will Smith the first time around.
Rap's relationship with popularity is as fraught with contradictions as its relationship with wealth. It is supposedly a music created by and for the disenfranchised, giving voice to those without one, but most mainstream hip-hop songs decry poverty. We've gone from a more innocent "If it doesn't make dollars, then it doesn't make sense" to the ungrateful and spiteful "If you're not getting money, you physically make me sick, and I have no interest in being around you." Why this doesn't alienate more listeners I have no idea. I've kind of stopped questioning Black America.
But I understand White America a bit better, and that's what's in play when discussing Nelly. The other contradictory element of hip-hop culture is that most of its energy is focused on the hunger to blow up and become rich, famous, etc. But when an artist actually does that, his credibility is almost always questioned. Though he didn't exactly scream integrity, he was, for whatever reason, embraced by everyone.
"I'm really hoping no one misinterprets this shirt, Jermaine."
Part of the reason for this embrace, besides an irresistible sing-songy flow and a general playfulness, (Witness the ridiculous Sherman Helmsley-assisted video for "Batter Up." [Did Ali just bunt a home run?]) is his tie to St. Louis. When Nelly burst onto the scene, a renaissance of west coast rap had just ended, the Dirty South was at its apex, and New York had never really left the party. Although he was closest to the Cash Money sound, Nelly's special brand of regionalism was an antidote to it all. He wasn't sponsored by any already prominent rapper, and he was quite literally from Middle America--and proud of it. St. Louis hip-hop had no history or style, so he invented it. He was an approachable alternative to everything else out there. He wore a band-aid for solidarity with his brothers in jail, but he also was in a video with Joe Perry. He made a song about Air Force Ones but also dueted with Tim McGraw. This ability to be everything to everyone (Notice a theme for what worked in this decade?) made him a bit of a huckster, which he's paying for now, but it also created some great singles.
Even if hip-hop heads hide their Nelly CDs now, "Hot in Herre" will still be played at weddings in twenty years. It's one of the few rap songs that my mom is aware of. From the first three recognizable notes, people are ready to dance, which is pretty much the only reason the song exists. If you have a six-pack of Smirnoff Ice and a CD with "Hot in Herre" and "Back That Azz Up," you can get a White girl pregnant. Just saying. Don't keep those two things in the same place if you don't know what you're doing.
That lush production, beginning with that unforgettable intro, stands as one of the more memorable beats during the Neptunes' unbelievable run. Their electric piano reins in a lot of gravitas for what is, in essence, a pretty superficial idea. Suggesting that girls should disrobe to alleviate their discomfort with heat would be less classy if each verse wasn't capped with such a glossy, less-is-more bass fill. The held chords of the electric piano trade with really skittery cowbell and hi-hat, which create a weird tempo that keeps feet moving but still sounds sexy.
The lyrics are dumb, of course. For instance, Nelly claims in the second verse: "I'm just kiddin' like Jason." For about a year after the song came out, I was puzzled by the line because I didn't know who this heretofore-unreferenced Jason was. He's not a character in the song or anything. Is Nelly talking about Friday the 13th Jason? He kills people; he doesn't seem to kid about anything. At some point it clicked that Nelly was punning on the name of Jason Kidd, except it's not really a pun because it doesn't make sense. Jason Kidd doesn't have the reputation of a prankster, so we're to assume he goes around personifying himself, which is pretty much what every person ever can't help but do. And if someone else is "Kidd-ing," he's acting like Jason Kidd, which is--yeah--the most literal comparison one could possibly make. The line might as well have been, "I'm just Wodehousing like P.G." or "I'm just Dennehying like Brian."
I know. You're not supposed to think about it that much. It's just pop-rap.