Cornell Haynes Jr. looks every inch a GQ man. Young, handsome and with millions in the bank thanks to his rap alter ego known as Nelly, Haynes is only one of a handful of men selected to appear in the fashion magazine's music issue, and it's easy to see why. For his photo shoot he's wearing two major articles of clothing: a sizzling leather blazer with no shirt and Australian sexpot Kylie Minogue, who's draped all over him. As the camera clicks and one of Nelly's hit plays in the background, Minogue begins moaning and rubbing Nelly's chest and head. In fact, she moans for a good 10 minutes. Finally, a voice on the side of the room breaks the mood. "Mama ain't gonna like this," says his baby sister, Jackie. She leans over to her brother's publicist, who sprints over to a GQ editor. The steamy picture taking stops. Nelly's people have a problem. They're worried that if he's photographed seductively with Minogue, his core audience of African-Americans will be none too pleased--not just because Minogue is white, but also because he's a respected rapper and she's the poster child for mindless MTV pop. "You just never know what people will think," says Nelly, 24. "You have to be careful."
In fact, Nelly may just be the most careful rapper alive. After all, you don't get to be the most successful mainstream hip-hop artist ever without tending to your audience very carefully. His latest album, "Nellyville," has sold more than 5 million copies, all on the back of happy-go-lucky songs that manage to be both catchy ("It's getting hot in here...") and edgy ("... so take off all your clothes"). It's not an easy act to balance, straddling hip-hop and pop, finding ways to stay edgy enough for the sistas swooning at the hair salon yet not too hard-core for the suburban kids. So far, Nelly has managed nicely. This month he'll get the ultimate mainstream play when he performs on "Saturday Night Live." He's even in negotiations to star in his own sitcom--shades of Will ("Fresh Prince") Smith. Except Smith never had two people murdered at a concert, as Nelly did last month near San Diego. "I hope people can see that I'm keeping it real and that I'm not making music for any particular group," he says. "If it happens to break down into particular groups, there's nothing I can do about it. I'm just making hip-hop."
Nelly actually began on the hard-core side of rap. That was back in St. Louis, where he pressed his own CDs and sold them out of his used car. "Gangsta rap was the hottest thing going then," he says. "Everyone was trying to be hard-core." But when one of the guys in his band the St. Lunatics went away to college, Nelly changed his tune. "That was the first time any of us had ever left St. Louis, and we got to see that there was a different world out there," he says. Out went the Ice Cube wanna-be sound. In came the more pop like music that would soon make him a superstar. "I was down with gangsta rap and N.W.A, but it just didn't take off for me," says Nelly. "Rapping about being mad at somebody or killing people--it just wasn't me. I've never been one to rap about hating people. I love my mother--she's a nice lady."
In many ways, Nelly is the reverse Eminem. Where Eminem is a white performer who crossed over into hip-hop's most hard-core division (and hates his mother), Nelly is a black performer who went mainstream without abandoning his roots. The question is, can it last? Does a black artist eventually have to choose one audience over the other? After all, African-American acts with longevity on the charts (Luther Vandross) or in the movies (Denzel Washington) have attributed their success to a lasting relationship with their black fans. Nelly is very aware that the kids who vote on his Teen People awards and show up to hear him on "Total Request Live" are mostly teens from the suburbs. "I think about that, but I can't let it impact the music I like to make," he says. "But at the same time, I realize that black people still love and support Michael Jackson no matter what he looks like. There's a certain amount of loyalty there that means something down the road if you plan on hanging around." In other words, hands off, Kylie Minogue.