A few years ago, I worked for a company where one of my tasks was to monitor the nation's African-American newspapers (no, it wasn't the CIA). By far, my favorite publication to read was the St. Louis Whirl-Examiner, a weekly broadsheet that covered local crime in what might charitably be called a highly unconventional manner. Although based on actual police reports, the Whirl's stories blended fact and fancy in a way they don't teach in J school. An account of a murder, for instance, might be written from the point of view of the deceased victim. Quotes like '''Tis no secret, I'm a raping fool, I even did it when I was in school'' would be attributed to sexual transgressors. And, taking investigative journalism to new extremes, a case in which a man was accused of committing unnatural acts with a dog spawned a first-person account of the incident from the dog's perspective. Believe me, The Onion's crew has nothing on the editorial staff of the Whirl-Examiner.
St. Louis resident Nelly, who rose to prominence on the heels of the catchy 2000 single ''Country Grammar,'' from his debut album of the same name, is a product of the environment where the unlawful activities the Whirl-Examiner chronicles take place. His hometown is a veritable hotbed of crime, and Nelly makes no bones about having had a tough life. Yet compared with rappers on the East and West coasts, he's practically a choirboy (maybe the paper should consider lionizing this local lad made good in an editorial). Sure, he tosses around the F- and N-words recklessly, but name me a hip-hop artist (other than Will Smith) who doesn't. Nelly uses music as a means to rise above St. Louis' mean streets -- even if he does have to resort to utopian fantasy. On the title track of Nellyville, his second CD, he offers up an idealized vision of his city: ''Imagine blocks and blocks of no cocaine with no gunplay...40 acres and a mule?/F--- that/Nellyville: 40 acres and a pool.''
Nelly's music moves forward in funk-rooted blips and starts, embellished with high vocal whoops, asides, and exclamations that function as hooks. He works with a variety of producers (including young St. Louis native Jason ''Jay E'' Epperson and, on ''Hot in Herre,'' the Neptunes), rapping with an easy confidence and a steady, steamrolling flow. ''Country Grammar 2'' is sort of a ''Country Grammar'' knockoff (duh), but the album as a whole is so solid, he needn't have bothered with such obvious nostalgic pandering.
There is a plethora of neat surprises on tap too. ''Hot in Herre'' (guess you're supposed to roll that extra r) is built on the Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers' go-go classic ''Bustin' Loose.'' ''The Gank,'' which recounts a tale of heartbreak -- the protagonist's sweetheart splits with his weed stash -- starts out with some rock guitar and winds down with a jazzy six-string solo that sounds like George Benson after a Hendrix binge. ''Pimp Juice'' harks back to the era of blaxploitation-movie soundtracks, complete with chicken-scratching wah-wah guitar. ''I got my fade, everybody had braids/Now they switching to fades and I'm thinking about braids,'' raps Nelly, neatly encapsulating his ''I'm gonna do my thing regardless of trends'' philosophy.
''Splurge,'' a song about enjoying the perks that come with success, finds Nelly proclaiming, ''They label me a role model 'coz I appeal to teens.'' As if to prove (or bolster) that teen appeal, he enlists the aid of 'N Sync pretty boy Justin Timberlake on ''Work It,'' actually one of the weaker tracks here. ''Air Force Ones,'' with guest appearances by members of Nelly's crew, the St. Lunatics, concerns -- of all things -- buying new sneakers. With lyrics like ''Give me two pair/I need two pair,'' it may be hip-hop's most obsessive ode to footwear since Run-DMC's ''My Adidas.''
On ''Hate Me Now,'' Nelly offers some words of advice to his rivals: ''If what you got ain't hot, then check your flame/If what you're spittin' ain't hittin', then check your aim.'' On the evidence of ''Nellyville,'' our man seems to be in control of his flame and on top of his game as he takes aim at the pop charts once again. If you like your rap loose and funny, Nelly's the man for you. Hell, this album may well be the most entertaining thing to come out of St. Louis since the Whirl-Examiner.