The Glorious, Improbable Escape Of Nelly And The Columbus Symphony Orchestra

In a week of pain and loss, the Midwest rapper delivered a much-needed spectacle

I first heard the news from my friend Stephanie, tucked into a corner table at a diner in Columbus, Ohio, around the middle of last week. Stephanie is one of my most vital friends, the one who has a working knowledge of what mostly forgotten rap and R&B musicians from the years 1996 through 2006 are doing now. If Jagged Edge is playing a bowling alley, or if there is a LSG reunion, she knows well before I do. Even so, when she matter-of-factly told me, “Yeah, Nelly is playing with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra,” I found it entirely unbelievable. Yet I soon discovered that what Stephanie had told me was true, and that the concert was happening on my last night in town. I have never, in all of my years consuming live music, made a ticket purchase more quickly or confidently, barely even looking at or registering cost.

I visited my hometown last week in part on a small nostalgia tour, hanging out in old haunts and doing interviews about a book I wrote where there are people who are dead. On the news, there are people who are dead. On Twitter, there are people who are dead. On Facebook, and in screenshots, and through an Instagram filter with a scroll of text as the caption, people are dead. In a year of impossible weeks, last week felt the most immense, the most immovable. I check in with my friends, and they check in with me, and we mutter things that make no sense beyond the fact that we are alive and able to do so. I tell people I love them, and I tell people I’m proud of them, and I hug my friends from home an extra time that I would normally deem one time too many, and I talk with people about the death that I have written despite how small and distant it feels when compared to the all-encompassing, low hover of grief that has thickened the edges of another summer. I know that this, on the surface, is not about my guilt, or my unraveling in the face of the rage and hurt that we all unraveled in the face of last week. What I’m saying is that I found myself in need of the kind of show that most people would quizzically look upon before breaking into laughter, the kind of show that seemed so absurdly perfect, like it could only exist in this moment, after this week — art as spectacle, grand and risky enough to let me leave the sadness behind for two small hours.

The Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s Picnic With the Pops series is often a pretty tame event. It is hard to explain how major a role it plays for certain parts of the Columbus population — a summer staple for years, something that I spent many youthful summers insisting that I’d never be caught at. Suburbanites from the corners of the city make their way to Columbus Commons park, a long stretch of green grass in downtown Columbus capped by a massive stage at the front. The Columbus Symphony usually plays something smooth and relaxing to pair with the blankets and wine — tributes to David Bowie or U2, say. If they’re feeling really risky, Melissa Etheridge might show up and help kick up the volume for a night. But never, in the history of the series, has a rapper stood in front of that accomplished orchestra, leading them through songs that are, to say the least, outside of their natural range.

It makes sense for that rapper to be Nelly, who built a career off of his ear for hooks and melody. Before this, I had only seen Nelly one time, in St. Louis in early 2003. He played a small club despite, by almost any measure, being at the peak of his career. He was engaging and sharp, cramming all of the St. Lunatics on stage with him, playing through almost the entirety of his first two albums, and ending on “Midwest Swing” with the audience enthusiastically rapping the opening lines for him: “What, you think we live on a farm? / N***a, be for real.”

I loved Nelly then because so few of the people around me understood him. College friends from bigger cities around the country insisted that he couldn’t rap, or was all gimmick without substance. St. Louis Midwest is different from Ohio Midwest, but Nelly was the eternal answer to the question of Midwest relevance. He pushed back against the idea that the lower Midwest contained only Chicago and miles of farmland. He gave us his St. Louis, beyond the arch, and became huge. Nelly was important to me in this way, as someone from a forgotten city in a forgotten state. He sounded like few other people at the time, but so many now sound like him: melodic, drawing out the last syllable of every bar, singing despite not truly being able to sing. He sang in the way that someone we love might sing around the house despite not being able to carry a note, knowing we won’t ask them to stop.

I imagine being a rapper performing with an entire orchestra in front of a lawn largely full of older white people has to be, at the very least, initially alarming. By the time Nelly finally arrived on the stage, he was dressed up, but kind of in the way that one might dress up if their parents forced them to go to an overly fancy dinner when they just wanted to go to McDonald’s. It occurred to me, then, the absolute oddness of this whole thing. How would the orchestra master the songs? Did this 65-year-old cellist actually listen to the lyrics “I’m a sucker for cornrows and manicured toes” in order to master the instrumentals of “E.I.”? How many of the people here just found out who Nelly was this week? I thought, briefly, of spectacle — something that I am always thinking of, but especially so in a week of witness, with murder streamed through the internet, reactions to pain and trauma at a righteously high hum. Even previously understanding this show to be one of release for me after a long week, I couldn’t help but think of these things while watching Nelly awkwardly, but genuinely, thank the city and the orchestra for having him, four or five times in a row. It felt as if he was putting off the inevitable reality that he would, eventually, have to rap his songs with an orchestra behind him, and a set of unfamiliar fans in front of him.

The song “Country Grammar,” played by an orchestra, sounds exactly how you would imagine. The choice to put this song near the beginning, at the time, felt like one of those “let’s just get this shit over with” concert decisions. It was a jarring mess of various percussion, the odd string emerging during the chorus only to be consumed again by the too-loud drumming and the too-loud rapping of Nelly, looking around as if he was trying to stay afloat in the eye of a storm. In the lawn, younger attendees, the ones who knew all of the words, rapped along gleefully, while I watched a man who looked like my high school guidance counselor twist and then throw his limbs in various directions, none of which resembled the one that the beat was going in. It appeared, early on, that this would be a long and overwhelming night.

Few things give me more joy, as a concertgoer, than watching a musician figure their shit out on stage. Nelly, 17 years into his solo career, proved to be a sophisticated enough musician to get his legs under him as the show went on. After a few early misses that were fun but hard to endure from a musical standpoint, Nelly found himself. Like a man who finally put on his eyeglasses after feeling around on the floor for them over the past 30 minutes, the “NellyxColumbus Orchestra” show went from an experiment to an actual, fleshed-out experience. Nelly, for my ears, has always worked best when he isn’t pressing, when he finds a consistent musical pocket to rest in. His cadence is too brilliantly unpredictable to work in any other way. As the sun began to set and the orchestra rolled into “Ride Wit Me,” it sounded familiar, comfortable, less of a mess. As they settled, Nelly settled. He seemed more excited, jumping back to give the symphony director an endearing dap after they got through “Grillz” with incredible precision. Watching everyone on the stage was, in some ways, like watching a basketball player get hot after missing a few shots. During “The Fix,” the director was in full-on club mode, bouncing his shoulders as he aggressively waved his arms, the horn players stomping their feet in unison.

It is something, watching a vision come together against the odds. I think, more than anything, I needed to believe that this unlikely union could be pulled off. In a week of answering for art, or answering for life, or answering for both, I found myself first rooting for the spectacle and then rooting for the spectacular. I was rooting for Nelly, who first sweated because he was nervous, and then, I imagine, found himself sweating with the rush of excitement. As the night drew to a close — the park cloaked in darkness but for the lights kissing the top of the stage — Nelly and the orchestra, which by then felt like his orchestra, closed with a sparse version of “Dilemma.” It was mostly strings and backup singers, and a crowd swaying; Nelly hit the final note, singing but not really singing, as always. He walked offstage to an ovation, even from the orchestra, and came back for an encore that I do not recall, because I found myself still basking in what I had already deemed the perfect ending.

Surely, someone will speak of how it is dangerous to romanticize something as ridiculous as a rapper on the back end of his career, rapping songs with an orchestra, even in a city where it had never been done before — even in a city inside of a Midwestern state that people confuse for other cities inside of the same Midwestern state. I consider that — the danger of romanticizing — and still say that I have nothing but the romance I lay over all of the things I cannot take with me. I am afraid, perhaps as you are afraid, and I have doubts about all of the things that I thought would save me. There are hours, weeks, and days where I wish to collect nothing beyond the moments that begin as disasters and then somehow push their way to a kind of startling beauty. This, too, is “the work” that we often hear so much about when people are dying, and marching, and slapping the palms of their hands on a kitchen table to silence a racist family member. I am trying, if only for a moment, to get a brief glimpse of what rests on the other side of grief, if we are to believe another side exists. A collection of memories can be an archive to revisit when all else is unbearable. Nelly and an orchestra did not change the world. I looked at my phone upon leaving, and there was still everything that was there before I went into the show. That’s the reality of the world, and has been for as long as I’ve been here. And here I am still, standing in the midst of it all with a handful of things that maybe shouldn’t be beautiful, but they’re all I’ve got to get by. In these moments, they are the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

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