SOME PEOPLE CARRY THE WEIGHT OF the world. Others carry rolling papers and a bowling ball with an airbrushed painting of Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Mo. Nelly, the multiplatinum hip-hop star whose songbook can be fairly divided into two categories--songs about parties and songs about parties in which people get naked--is a bowling-ball kind of guy. Actually, he's a two-bowling-ball kind of guy. On a recent stay in New Mexico, where he was shooting scenes for an Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard, Nelly took along a strike ball, a spare ball, customized shoes, a wrist brace and a sweat rag. "I need all the equipment," he said, before ordering mozzarella sticks, French fries, ranch dressing and several ice-filled buckets of Corona from an alley waitress. "You never know when you'll get a chance to roll, and you should never waste a chance to have a good time."
For Nelly (Cornell Haynes Jr.), bowling is not an ironic thrill. He holds the house record, 257, at the Pin-Up Bowl in his native St. Louis, but more to the point, he knows no such thing as an ironic thrill. Ever since he became an instant gazillionaire thanks to his 2000 nursery-rhyme hit, Country Grammar, his life has been dedicated to the fulfillment of a Maxim-style populist fantasy: fun, all the time. He owns a massive house by a Missouri lake, a clothing line and a slice of an NBA team, and, if they kept charts on such things, he would easily be the No. 1 artist in the history of the exotic-dance industry. (Strippers love his stuff.) On two new albums--the rap-tilting Sweat and the R&B-tinged Suit, both released Sept. 14--Nelly reveals a bit more depth, but he still clings to his major themes: smoking pot, throwing parties, smoking more pot. Others have covered this territory before, but Nelly does it in such a warmhearted, jolly, singsong style that it's hard to begrudge him a single toke.
As you might expect from an advocate of licentious utopianism, Nelly is the world's least conflicted famous person. "What's wrong with being rich and famous?" he asks. "It's better than being broke and not known!" This he knows from experience. In his poor-and-anonymous days, Nelly, 29, supported himself with jobs that ranged from sorting packages on the graveyard shift at UPS to dressing buns at McDonald's. "It's not all smiles like you see on TV," he says. "The McDonald's I worked at used to have a heavy-ass lunch rush--a week's work in three hours. But when I was there, I discovered that I'm pretty good at working hard. If I had to, I could pull a 9-to-5 and then some. But I wanted to get rich, and that doesn't happen at McDonald's."