Cornell Haynes, Jr., commonly referred to as Nelly, released “Hot in Herre” in 2002 as the first single off of his semi-eponymous album Nellyville. No one could get enough of this song when it came out, and it remains a guilty pleasure of mine to this day. Before “Hot in Herre” the pop establishment regarded Nelly largely as a novelty rapper. He devoted the majority of his œuvre to popularizing Saint Louis, MO slang, a dialect based on drawling rhotics. One can see this trend in the title of today’s song. It isn’t hot in “here,” it’s hot in “herre.” Later the two-hit wonder Chingy would ride this trend to death with “Right Thurr.” After Nelly released the single it went straight to number one, and “Hot in Herre” is easily still one of the greatest club records of all time. It extols partying, dancing, and stripping. What more could one ask of a dance song for today’s youth?
I chose this song for a second reason beyond chronicaling the marginally laughable career of Nelly. “Hot in Herre” is the perfect exemplar of early 2000s rap because the Virginia Beach, VA producing duo of Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams, better known as the Neptunes, provided Nelly with their signature sound. The Neptunes revolutionized early aughts music, blurring the lines of pop and rap by infusing both with a version of austere, spacey funk. Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Luv U (Give It 2 Me),” Britney Spear’s “I’m a Slave 4 U,” and Mystikal’s “Shake It Fast,” benefit from what is referred to as “the Neptunes sound.” (They also poplarized a degredation of orthographical norms, it seems.) Hugo and Pharrell took crude hip-hop beats to the next level. With a better understanding of melody and up-tempo drums the dup produced more crossover hits than early rap could have dreamed. Pharrell also took the time to work with rappers’ lyrics and even act as a guest vocalist on tracks. Eventually Neptunes’ tracks developed sparser beats composed of less than five elements. (See: Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot.”)
The main hook of “Hot in Herre” comes from Chuck Brown’s 1979 song “Bustin’ Loose.” Nelly makes reference to this with the lyric, “‘Cause I feel like bustin’ loose/and I feel like touching you.” How nice. The Neptunes enmeshed the hook with their trademark sound through spaced-out synthesizers.
One can judge how effective a popular dance song is by how quickly it takes for the artist to yield to its chorus, and how engrossing said chorus is. While not quite “Turn My Swagg On,” “Hot in Herre” is all chorus. The introduction runs thirty seconds, Nelly spends about thirty seconds discussing his desire to dance, and then it’s straight to the chorus:
Mr. Haynes: It’s getting hot in herre, so take off all your clothes
Anonymous Woman: I am getting too hot, I wanna take my clothes off
Here it is not clear whether Nelly is persuasive, or if he’s just arriving at a forgone conclusion given the heat of the club. After the chorus premieres, nothing Cornell, Jr. has to say is really important. He makes a few good points about the uselessness of being at a bar without bottle service, and of the purposelessness of fame when not instrumentalized for fornication with clothing models. Thus his exhortions run another thirty seconds until the next chorus. Followed by a nonsensical sketch about having a basement salon for ecdysiasts at his friend’s house, Nelly beats a path to the chorus to avoid people realizing how terrible of a rapper he actually is.
For a second time in a minute we are treated to an extended chorus containing details of what Nelly enjoys as expressed by heavy breathing. The song ends a sweaty three minutes after it began. It seems “Hot in Herre” is less a showcase of Nelly’s talents (save his humor) than it is for the Neptune’s skill in building a song around an artist. The production team transforms pop-rap inanity into danceability by hemming in the artist via an irresistible call-and-response chorus. This is why the Neptunes still have work and Nelly doesn’t.
-Michael E. van Landingham