Label's roster brings down Nelly show


April 11, 2005


Nelly is a classic example of an artist who doesn't know his own strengths.

The St. Louis rapper sold more than 15 million copies of his 2000 debut "Country Grammar" and its 2002 follow-up "Nellyville," thanks to his ability to craft uplifting, virtually irresistible, mindless-in-the-best-way party jams.

Unfortunately, providing ideal grooves for your house party wasn't enough for the former Cornell Haynes Jr., who took off his trademark Band-Aid and overreached last fall by releasing two albums at once, the bouncy "Sweat" and the laid-back "Suit," neither of which lived up to the commercial or artistic expectations set by earlier discs.

Nelly, it seems, wants to be a "Serious Artiste." He would also like to be a hip-hop entrepreneur on the level of Jay-Z or P. Diddy, and to that end, he is tirelessly pushing the mediocre roster of his Derrty Ent record label.

Those two factors combined to drag down much of the rapper's show at the Arie Crown Theatre Friday night. The evening started with a pathetic revolving-door revue of a half-dozen Derrty Ent acts, including Prentiss Church, Taylor Made and would-be diva Keyshia Cole. Each artist was more generic, forgettable and inept than the last.

In a significant injustice, hip-hop veteran Fat Joe, more popular now than at any point in his career, was consigned to the second slot on the bill and given a mere 20 minutes to work his magic. Although he took the stage with about two dozen members of his Terror Squad posse, he held the spotlight throughout, proving that his charisma is even bigger than his sizable girth.

As the former Joseph Cartagena was joined by a star-struck local concert winner, his celebratory rendition of the smash hit "Lean Back" -- with its brilliantly silly chorus of Said my niggas don't dance / We just pull up the pants / And do the Roc-away / Now lean back -- provided the evening's gleeful highlight.

The penultimate slot before the headliner went to the much-buzzed, crunk-flavored Atlanta rapper T.I., whose second album recently went platinum. He has proclaimed himself "the king of the South," but the artist is strictly a generic gangsta, spewing all the usual sexist and violent cliches, and he seems to be succeeding more on the strength of his pretty-boy boxer good looks than his cookie-cutter music.

Finally, it was Nelly's turn to show us what he's made of, and he took the stage with great fanfare by descending an oversized staircase -- the night's only stage prop -- to the tune of the absurdly bombastic "Heart of a Champion."

The effect probably wasn't what Nelly was shooting for. He wanted us to think, "How cool is that?" Instead, I was left wondering, "Do you think he had to clear that sample with NBC and the NBA?"

From that point on, through much of the 75-minute set, the poppy rapper seemed lost among his own posse, including his St. Lunatics crew and a bevy of scantily clad dancers. Yes, he delivered many of the foolproof booty-shakin' hits -- including "Shake Ya Tailfeather," "Hot in Herre," "Where the Party At" and "Ride Wit Me" -- but he spent far too much time turning the mike over to his buddies, Murphy Lee and Ali.

Nelly also brought out Derrty Ent's Avery Storm for a duet on the soggy, overblown "In My Life." It stopped the party dead in its tracks when Storm, like every other artist on Nelly's label, not only couldn't sing, but couldn't even lip-sync.

Some critics have suggested Nelly may be distracted by the recent death of his sister, Jackie Donahue, from leukemia. But the rapper also has failed to realize that party-leading toastmaster is the role that suits him best.

The sooner Nelly abandons the notions of being a star-maker and a hip-hop auteur, the quicker he'll rise to the level of former glories.