Hip-hop star is good-natured bad boy of rap

— Despite his sexual party-boy image, the heart of hip-hop star Nelly seems to be as golden as his teeth.

While hypnotizing the nation with carnal lyrics like "It's getting hot in here ... So take off all your clothes," the unmarried father of a 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son is more interested in having fun than rapping about violence and guns.

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Rap musician Nelly, born Cornell Haynes Jr., is credited with offering a laid-back alternative to the sometimes tense East Coast and West Coast rap styles. In addition to a pencil-thin Errol Flynn mustache, he frequently sports a do-rag topped with a baseball cap.

"It's the most happiest times in my life, so to speak, you know? Of course I'm going to party and kick it. What am I supposed to do � get mad and go shoot somebody?" Nelly asked, flashing a crooked smile punctuated with gold-plated teeth. "No, I ain't got nothing to be mad about."

The 24-year-old is also making his debut as an actor, playing a conniving gangland rapper embroiled in mystery and murder amid the music industry in the neo-noir thriller "Snipes."

Apart from profession, the character has little in common with the real Nelly, who prefers the hip-hop themes of lovely ladies, parties and all-around good times to hard-core gangsta rap's violence and bitterness.

He was cast in the role of Prolifik rapper in "Snipes" in 2000, when his professional music career was just beginning. Nelly had a hip-hop swagger that few actors could imitate, said Rich Murray, the movie's co-writer and director.

"He had that kind of charisma and confidence that definitely helped him in playing the role," Murray said.

Murray wasn't surprised when Nelly's career took off. "His music is feel-good music," he said. "Any artist who makes you feel good, people gravitate toward that."

Leaving the dark behind

Nelly � born Cornell Haynes Jr. � is credited with offering a laid-back alternative to the sometimes tense East Coast and West Coast rap styles. Besides a pencil-thin mustache, he frequently sports a do-rag topped with a baseball cap and his signature brand of Vokal clothing. Onstage, he wears a bandage on one cheek to show support for a friend imprisoned for robbery.

He was raised in inner-city St. Louis and rarely had a stable home life, with divorced parents who often couldn't support him on their own. He said he turned to petty crime when his dreams of playing professional baseball began to fade.

"I moved around a lot as a kid, staying with one parent after the next and sometimes neither one of the parents," he said. "It was tough, but I wouldn't trade it because it made me stronger like that and take responsibility for myself."

He and a group of friends formed the hip-hop group St. Lunatics, which had some local rap hits in the St. Louis area that caught the attention of Universal Records, which signed them with Nelly as the frontman.

"Childhood was crazy, but there's people out there who had it worser than me," he said. "And there's people out there who had it better than me. I'm just working with what I got."

Although Nelly said he understands why some rappers choose to focus on the drug use, murder and general thuggery of the street, he wants his music to offer an escape from those things.

"I've been there. I've lived that. My past was dark enough for me," he said.

Helping his hometown

Nelly's latest album, "Nellyville," is named after his fantasy of the perfect world.

"It's not a game, it's a beautiful thang/Imagine blocks and blocks of no cocaine, blocks with no gunplay/Ain't nobody shot, so ain't no news that day," goes a lyric in the title track.

The follow-up to his 2000 debut "Country Grammar," which sold more than 8 million copies, "Nellyville" has held on at the top of the charts throughout the summer and sold nearly 3 million copies since June.

Detractors complain that Nelly debases women as sex objects, glorifies drinking and uses foul language. He also brags of marijuana use, although his songs are more concerned with "bling-bling" (the street term for showing off your material wealth) than bongs.

His single "Hot in Herre" urges the overheated to strip to their bare skin, and "Dilemma" has him pondering an affair with a woman even though "she got a man and a son." Both were No. 1 hits, and for a time "Dilemma" was in the top spot while "Hot in Herre" was No. 2 � a rarity for any musician.

Some Missouri legislators began objecting to his saucy lyrics last February, when Nelly and the St. Lunatics were honored by Gov. Bob Holden for promising to play basketball with high schools that showed increased participation in standardized state tests.

Despite his critics, many St. Louis residents � including Mayor Francis Slay � have voiced support for Nelly. Some say his music, which often refers to the city, is good for tourism and promoting the local music scene, while others applaud his efforts to promote education.

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