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Few musicians were as popular as Nelly at the beginning of the decade. His debut, Country Grammar, came out of nowhere in 2000 to sell more than 9 million copies, popularizing the St. Louis sing-songy rap sound in the process. His 2002 follow-up, Nellyville, featuring the then-annoyingly ubiquitous "Hot in Herre," was also gargantuan, propelling Nelly to hip-hop and fashion-icon status. (He even acted in movies like The Longest Yard and bought a share of the Charlotte Bobcats basketball team.) But despite some scattered hits on his 2004 double albums Sweat and Suit, Nelly had fallen out of fashion by the middle of the decade, replaced by rappers with harder sounds (50 Cent) or more substantive lyrics (Kanye West). Expectations are not high for his latest CD, Brass Knuckles, which was delayed for about a year after its first singles failed to catch fire. Though Brass Knuckles features solid pop rap to spare — not to mention nearly every relevant rapper in the game today — St. Louis has all but fallen off of the hip-hop map, and Nelly has had to reinvent himself. Still, his creative mind should not be taken for granted, and his ability to get a crowd fired up will most likely be stronger than ever given that he has so much to prove all over again.

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