Against all expectations, the two biggest rappers of the 21st century come from America's left-for-dead center. The Midwest, the one region of the country that produced almost no hip-hop stars in the last century, now offers up both Detroit's Eminem and St. Louis's Nelly.
In part, these very different entertainers got big by playing opposing versions of a role fit to order for Middle American schlemiels: a rude-talking, low-pants-hanging, hip-hop Everyman. To put it crudely, Eminem plays the evil version, and his early albums present the Motor City as the decrepit and ruthless urban cesspool from which his contagion springs. Nelly, on the other hand, turns the Everyman into something much weirder -- a friendly neighborhood thug. On his hugely successful 2000 debut, Country Grammar, he depicts St. Louis as a playa's playground, one where the jittery bounce of the Dirty South meets the singsong harmonizing of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, the only other Midwestern rap crew to make a significant Soundscan blip.
In the real world, actually, St. Louis is for Nelly what white skin is for Eminem -- a factor he first had to overcome before he could use it to his advantage. But on Nelly's current multiplatinum CD, Nellyville, the 23-year-old rapper doesn't confront any of his debts and resentments the way Eminem does on The Eminem Show. Instead, he just smooths out Country Grammar's quirky flavor and mutes its gangsta spiel, turning his rough-and-tumble playground into an appealing materialist utopia fit for broad popular consumption. "Welcome to Nellyville," he raps with his high, half-sung lilt. "Forty acres and a mule? Fuck that! In Nellyville, 40 acres and a pool." It's just an affable put-on, of course, but everyone knows life on the Mississippi has never rolled as easy as it looks.
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