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Aug 19

NELLY ft KELLY ROWLAND – “Dilemma”

Popular25 comments • 2,345 views

#939, 26th October 2002

Nelly spent some of the year before his second LP dropped in a beef with the perennially grumpy KRS-One. The feud was not a dignified one. KRS-One called out pop-rap in general, Nelly took it personally, spent a summer trying to goad KRS into a response, finally succeeded (“You the first old man to get a rappers pension / No hits since the cordless mic invention”) and was rewarded by KRS-One calling for a ‘boycott’ of Nellyville.

At the centre of the beef was a familiar question: how distinctive are pop stars? For KRS, not calling out pop rappers by name was part of the point – they were, are, and always will be a communal mass of easily switchable sell-outs. Nelly, understandably, begged to differ – his personal brand, style and talent were the reason people loved him.

There’s truth on both sides – which is probably why Nelly took a certain degree of offence. Nelly’s talent isn’t in question, but what he has a talent for is smooth, catchy, radio-ready tracks. He’s often tacky (calling his energy drink brand “Pimp Juice”) but never edgy. His rapidfire flows come across as local-boy swagger, not battle-ready virtuosity. His best song – “Hot In Herre” – is also his funniest, a cartoon horndog anthem.

All of which makes him the perfect rapper to sell a slow-jam like “Dilemma”, which is smoothness personified, a seducer’s bubblebath: you can listen to it four or five times in a row and it’ll remain pleasingly soft-focus, that chiming “I… I…. I….” hook the most distinct impression. I like it far more than I did at the time, when I was impatient for more novelty and “Dilemma” seemed a gauzy distraction from pushing things forward.

In collective memory it’s gone down as a duet, but I think the “featuring” credit reflects it better – Nelly is the only player with agency here, and for all the excellence of Kelly Rowland’s contribution all she’s really asked to do is simper (and, famously, find innovative uses for Excel). But that’s sort of the point – the song’s called “Dilemma” but there’s no real tension, never a sense that Nelly (or Kelly) has a choice to make. It’s a loverman’s fantasy, where everything flows his way – less a romantic duet, more the flip of “It Wasn’t Me”.

Selling fantasies like that has always been one of the things pop does well. For the likes of KRS-One, it’s the only thing pop does. He’s wrong, but what’s changed is that for the first time rap is the most obvious and commercial vehicle to sell those fantasies, and stars like Nelly have stepped forward to do it.

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Comments

  1. 1
    AMZ1981 on 17 Aug 2019 #

    This was massive, winding up the fourth biggest seller of 2002 behind Will, Gareth and Enrique. I’ve talked a few times about records I want to like more than I do but with Dilemma I have the opposite problem; namely I actually want to dislike it more than I do. In its second week two fantastic records entered the charts (5 and 11 respectively) Electrical Storm by U2 and The Zephyr Song by RHCP and both then and now I consider these songs to be worth twenty of R&B warbling.

    Except Kelly Rowland’s hook which cut through playlists of the time remains an ear worm and it’s nobody’s fault this wasn’t and isn’t my thing.

    In its second week Dilemma blocked Like I Love You by Justin Timberlake from the summit as he launched his solo career on his way to becoming one of the biggest stars of the 2000s. I think we meet him eventually but that record was everywhere so it might surprise some people that we don’t get to discuss it.

  2. 2
    Lee Saunders on 17 Aug 2019 #

    I was going to give this a 5 or 6 before I relistened for this entry and found myself in agreement with Tom’s 7, which confirms to me its another example of a ubiquitous song I enjoy more when I’m choosing to listen to it. I don’t have a lot to say about it really, besides to say Hot in Herre* would have been my preferred Nelly number one. The fake record crackle in the intro of Dilemma makes me think of Shaggy’s Oh Carolina, of all things.

    As #1 says this kept Justin Timberlake’s also still-ubiquitous Like I Love You at No. 2, and perhaps a sign of the longevity of both tracks is that, while oddly missing the cut for Now 53, they both appeared very high in the track list of Now 54 six months later (CD1 tracks 2 and 3).

    I second the love for Electrical Storm, likely the last U2 single I’d give a 9 to. I believe The Best of 1990-2000 was the first non-various artists compilation I ever owned.

    *Later covered by Tiga and a then unknown Jake Shears a year hence, which – despite missing the top 40 completely – made it onto a few hits compilations (Now 55 one of them).

  3. 3
    Tommy Mack on 17 Aug 2019 #

    Nelly is one of a handful of chart-toppers I’ve seen live* when FT’s own Kat Stevens got free tickets for his Wembley Arena show. He closed the show with this (Kelly on tape, not in-person sadly) It was a pretty good gig as I recall, much more of a straight-up hip hop show than the showbiz extravaganza his pop star status led me to expect. My other abiding memories are of how long his (American) football top was (more of a smock than a shirt) and of the audience being mainly very tough looking pre-teen girls.

    That was about a year after Dilemma came out though. I remember it playing all year though I’m not sure I knew the title before now. At the time it was the object definition of a 6 for me: perfectly agreeable but nothing I was ever that fussed about. Nowadays I’d probably run to a 7. Hot in Herre would have been an 8. Love the synths’ evocation of sweaty claustrophobic club heat.

    I remember the beef with KRS1. At the time I think I nominally sided with KRS since he was in my view, a serious heavy dude andd Nelly was just a daft pop star with a plaster on his cheek but even back then I had no gripe with Nelly and danced to Hot In Herre in many student nightclubs.

    October 2002, I was back in London for my final year at Imperial and about to unleash my own music. In fact I think The Shakes might have played our first gig the day this hit #1. Despite the none-more-2002 name, we were, dare I say, really rather good. A wiry collision of Dead Kennedys and, er, Wire. We got offered a deal after six or seven gigs but managed to blow it – more on that later.

  4. 4
    Alex Spacey on 17 Aug 2019 #

    Hello! Long-time Popular lurker here who’s wanted to add a comment for a while now – I was originally considering commenting on the previous entry but I left it a bit late so I thought now would be the right time to make an appearance. I don’t mind admitting that I’m possibly one of the youngest commenters here (I was 6 when this particular #1 was released), but feel free to correct me on this. But as I just said, I was 6 when this was #1 so I’m afraid I have no recollection of the KRS-One dispute.

    That being said, I still remember this song and vaguely liking it back then, even though I couldn’t name its artist or its title. Looking back on it and listening to it again (particularly in the context of vintage Radio 1 chart shows on Mixcloud), it definitely holds up, particularly Kelly Rowland’s hook more so than Nelly’s verses (although I do find his “East Coast, I know you shakin’ right” bridge somewhat endearing). So, at least a 7 from me I reckon. Although I must agree with the previous commenters in saying that Hot in Herre is better; easily an 8 from me. Anyhow, hope this wasn’t too bad for my first comment and I look forward to commenting on more entries!

  5. 5
    Mark M on 17 Aug 2019 #

    I have fond but vague memories of this – when I summoned it up in my mind, I realised I only remembered Kelly’s parts and the shout-outs coda – ‘East Coast, I know you shakin’ right’ etc (there must be a term for those things, but what is it?). Listening to the whole thing again, though, it broadly matches up with what I thought it was – it’s also a 7 for me.

    It’s probably my favourite Nelly moment – Hot In Herre I tend to group with the Thong Song as Carry On R&Bing, and I’m not big on that.

    I don’t remember the KRS-One beef, but it seems entirely in keeping with his tedious self-appointment as the guardian of hip-hop values. Occasionally Spotify chucks a Boogie Down Productions track my way, and I’m always slightly surprised by how exciting and vital they are, because Mr Parker became such a massive bore later on.

  6. 6
    James BC on 17 Aug 2019 #

    Kelly is phenomenal on this track – a revelation coming from someone who was (and still is) considered a distant second to Beyonce. Tom might be right that she isn’t given that much to do, but she turns her bit part into the key to the track in a way not seen since [checks notes!] Pato Banton on Baby Come Back.

    She’s got warmth, playfulness and a heart-tugging sincerity here, all of which for me rather show up Beyonce as not quite the complete performer she’s made out to be, since they’re qualities that tend to get squeezed out by B’s super-focused megastardom. I would put Dilemma, the first Kelly solo single Stole, and also the less remembered Train on a Track far above anything Beyonce did until, like, six years afterwards.

    Nelly’s pretty good too. Was he the first rapper to sort-of sing most of his lines? If so, hugely influential.

  7. 7
    Tommy Mack on 18 Aug 2019 #

    #6: “Was he the first rapper to sort-of sing most of his lines?” Bone-Thugz ‘N Harmony maybe?

  8. 8
    ES on 18 Aug 2019 #

    First time commenter and inspired by Alex #4 doing the same above.

    It’s weird what songs you associate as a “summer song”, some have that feel and some don’t. Realising this hit just as the cold was biting in the UK is so foreign to me.

    Living in New Zealand this takes me back to the summer of 2002/03. Coca-Cola was running a promotion from about November where you had a 1 in 6 chance of winning another bottle free when you purchases a 600ml Coke bottle (or Sprite, Fanta etc). I reckon I had more soft drink that summer than I ever have had before and ever had since. It felt like I won everytime, although I know that wasn’t the case. I was just about to start high school as well in the February of 2003. The nerves of going to a high school where only a handful of my friends from my previous school where going filled the summer air for me as well. (An all boys one too! Where my female intermediate crush obviously wouldn’t be going) And along those things was Nelly and Kelly. It felt like it soundtracked every day of that summer. In my memory, I have it as the king of that summer alongside The Ketchup Girls (number 10 for ten weeks in NZ – another song that is – to me – undeniably summer, you can almost here the sizzle of the hot sand). Looking at the NZ charts, Dilemma never hit #1 (peak of #2 – beaten by The Tide Is High in November).

    I’ve always had a lot of sentimentality towards Dilemma, right from the opening crackle to the drop and through the song. Nelly and Kelly bounce well off each other, of course the key to any good duet but magnified here. The hook is irresistible. The “You don’t know what you mean to me” almost feels chant like. It’s asking to be sung along with.

    Hot In Herre is absolutely the better song and gets more replay value these days. A score of 7 feels right for the song, but I’d nudge it a bit higher on a personal note – it doesn’t know what it means to me.

  9. 9
    will on 18 Aug 2019 #

    Loads to love about Nelly – his name, the brilliant Hot In Herre, the almost as good Ride Wit Me, his signature elastoplast.. This isn’t bad either. These days virtually every record in the Top 10 includes a feature, but to me this record is a masterclass in how to do it well: both artists compliment and make space for each other; a proper duet rather than a strategy to hit as many playlists as possible.

  10. 10
    Tommy Mack on 18 Aug 2019 #

    On KRS-One: I’ve always thought that sort of anger and piety is great on record where it can be deployed either in the abstract or against deserving targets but it starts to grate when you realise someone’s like that in real life all the time. “Hang on, you’re as angry about Nelly as you are about police brutality?”

    An aside: Return Of The Boom Bap was a long-standing favourite of mine but the first time I heard him was his rubbish cameo on REM’s rubbish Radio Song. Took me a long time to warm to him after that!

  11. 11
    ThePensmith on 19 Aug 2019 #

    I did originally post this over on the Patreon not realising the comments sections on both were unrelated, so this is more for completeness. Duly noted for next time!

    An interesting one to revisit this. Firstly because of Nelly, who’d been coming up on the rails for a while at this point. He’d had a handful of top 10 hits here, and his single before this was, as Tom pointed out, ‘Hot In Herre’, which had made the top 5 in June, even if its chorus line of ‘It’s getting hot in here/So take off all your clothes’ was to become the mating call of a thousand undesirable males in low grade nightclubs flashing their pasty pigeon chests for many a year after.

    Secondly because this is our first solo Destiny’s Child encounter on Popular – of which Kelly makes up 28.5% of these. They’d announced a year’s break to focus on solo projects following the conclusion of touring for the ‘Survivor’ album. Michelle had gone first with her gospel album ‘Heart to Yours’ – which although not a commercial success here in the UK did win her a MOBO award for Best Gospel Act.

    Kelly’s bunnied bandmate was then meant to release her album next, but then ‘Dilemma’ happened. Or rather, US radio got hold of it despite it not being slated for single release, and much like ‘It Wasn’t Me’ a year previously, it blew up in a big way, and that transferred to here in the UK as well. The 200,000 copies this shifted in week one – and the fact it was the year’s fourth biggest seller as #1 highlighted – undoubtedly marked the point that Nelly crossed over to the mainstream, and certainly the point Kelly marked herself out as a solo artist.

    I think the combination of Nelly and Kelly – even without the satisfying synergy of saying their names together – was a winner. They offered a nice contrast, her sweet mewing versus his Southern drawling. ‘Dilemma’ was very laidback yet melodic, with a memorable chorus, perfect for as the nights drew in, and the video had a nice autumnal feel to it that fitted the story of the song too (and also gifted the internet for years to come with the meme of the shot from the video where Kelly appears to be pissed off at her boyfriend not responding to a text written on Microsoft Excel. 00s problems, etc).

    We meet Nelly twice – maybe three times? I’m not sure – more but he never topped this in my eyes. Subsequently for Kelly, her first solo album ‘Simply Deep’ came out here the following February – along with her unbunnied solo debut proper in ‘Stole’, a touching pop rock number themed around the numerous high school shootings across the States that had made headline news – and the album went to number one here and for that very brief moment in time, she looked like she was going to be the one to have the lasting solo career away from Destiny’s Child. We do meet her once more, again as a guest vocalist, six Popular years from now. But for me she’s always been my favourite member/solo artist from DC. Reasons of which I’ll discuss further when we meet the first B****** bunny. A solid 8 from me overall.

    A couple of interesting newcomers not already mentioned during the fortnight this was at the top: ‘Nu Flow’, the debut release from Big Brovaz, a kind of family friendly So Solid Crew, debuted at #3 in its first week, and like ‘Dilemma’ was still on the chart when the new year hit. It started a year long run of top 10 hits for them which came to a crashing halt when one of their members – Flawless – was arrested for trying to smuggle jazz salt through customs at Heathrow.

    On its second week came another solo debut, this time for *NSYNC’s Justin Timberlake, with the Neptunes produced ‘Like I Love You’ at #2. We have to wait a while to discuss him properly on Popular but this was certainly a debut that was announcing the arrival of a superstar as opposed to ‘Yet another boyband member gone solo’. I think I might have mentioned this elsewhere but Trevor Nelson on his Radio 1 show was certainly instrumental in helping his ‘Justified’ album crossover to the level of success it eventually attained here because he was raving about it loads on his show as I recall. Blue were also new at #3 in its second week with ‘One Love’, the first single off their second album but we don’t have long to wait before we discuss it’s follow up so I’ll save further comment for then.

  12. 12
    AMZ1981 on 19 Aug 2019 #

    Curiously the best known Destiny’s Child member (I won’t name her even though I believe the bunnying rule only refers to the song, not the artist) had released her debut solo single back in June and it was a relative bomb. I say that because when it came out I was convinced it had instant number one written all over it (solo debut by the lead singer of one of the biggest groups in the world with a blockbuster film tie in to boot) and yet it limped to number seven in a dead chart with a dance track I’ve completely forgotten existed and an Elton John rehash outselling it. It also made little impression in America according to Wikipedia.

  13. 13
    ThePensmith on 19 Aug 2019 #

    Duplicate comment – my apologies.

  14. 14
    ThePensmith on 19 Aug 2019 #

    #12 – ah yes, ‘Work It Out’. Although I remember it being a relatively bigger deal here in the UK than it probably was Stateside. Even so it did lack the spectacle that her bunnied follow-up had and seemed to be pushed as more of a ‘soft’ release. I also forget as well that she was on a single between that one and the next with her future hubby Jay-Z, ’03 Bonnie and Clyde’ (were they actually an item at this point or not? I forget).

  15. 15
    Mark M on 19 Aug 2019 #

    Re: 6 & 7 – I’ll second BTnH. Also, the Pharcyde went in for a fair bit of that (eg, Runnin – esp Slim Kid Tre on the middle verse), and to some extent Snoop (although listening again to Nuthin but a G Thang – video maybe best not watched in an office – I’m wondering if someone – Nate Dogg? – is helping out on the melodic ‘Death Row is the label that pays me’ bits?)

  16. 16
    Mark M on 19 Aug 2019 #

    Ugh, that Pharcyde link doesn’t work and I can’t edit the comment. Let’s try that again:
    Runnin

  17. 17
    Shiny Dave, logged out on 20 Aug 2019 #

    As the framing of this around the KRS-One critique illustrates nicely, this is a pop song that happens to be mostly rapped, representative of a pop-rap culture that someone like KRS-One considered sacrilegious to the idea of rap as the socially-conscious sound of disenchanted black America. Wonder what he made of the 2003 bunny where those two visions of rap collide head-on…

    But yes, we’ve seen pop-rap on Popular more than a few times before, and an equivalent US project would have offered up more, but the idea of essentially a speech-sung romantic ballad tearing up pop radio everywhere, including pretty small-c conservative radio stations covering fairly rural areas of Britain like the one I lived in, and becoming the biggest hit single of late 2002? That was new. (Yes, LL Cool J had a slow-jam 90s #1, but that was a backdoor fluke with an utterly forgotten bad cover version. The only non-Cowell record that outsold “Dilemma” all year was “Hero,” and it might well have shared more of an audience with that than it did “Hot In Herre.”)

    The biggest hit love song of the half-year – maybe the biggest hit song of the half-year period – being THIS? Must have felt like the final confirmation that hip-hop was the basic grammar of pop in the 21st century, as of course it still is. My first thought on relistening to “Dilemma” (and I’ve done it a lot, enough that Tom’s 7 is the least I can give it and it might be more) was how much it fits in to today’s pop soundscape.

    Or does it? I can’t, offhand, think of any pop-rap slow jams like this in recent years. A look through the 2010s rapper/singer bunnies – and the fact there’s so many confirms how much hip-hop and rap had now become an utterly entrenched foundation of pop culture – reveals mostly party anthems, and very often the pop singer/rapper guest spot combo a lá “Never Be The Same Again.” The “Dilemma” combination of rapped verses and sung choruses was also a common formula, but again mostly for party tracks – one Miami man produced a ton of them, some of which are in our future, all of which I want to dislike 305% more than I do.

    So “Dilemma” strikes me now as something that sounds like the 21st century’s arrival, and is, but actually differs in slightly strange ways from what most of the early 21st century would actually look like. Which makes it actually incredibly fitting that it’s perhaps best remembered for the video’s infamously botched product placement for the Nokia Communicator, because that too was the 21st century’s arrival differing in slightly strange ways from what most of the early 21st century would look like; we’d expected the mobile phone as office device via keyboard phones, for a while that did indeed look to be locked in, but the 2010s looked completely different. And more – they looked completely different in much the same ways we might have imagined in the 90s, with the iPhone in 2007 and the revolutionary capacitive touchscreen, a technology straight out of a Star Trek holodeck. Similarly, the domination of pop-rap in the 2010s was actually, more often, closer in style to Will Smith’s party-rap or 90s Eurodance than this.

  18. 18
    James BC on 21 Aug 2019 #

    Yes, Work It Out was an Austin Powers tie-in so possible to be explained away as not the real first solo single. I thought it was terrible anyway, a singer and band in search of a song basically.

  19. 19
    AMZ1981 on 21 Aug 2019 #

    #18 The previous Austin Powers song (Beautiful Stranger by Madonna – also a stand alone single) had been a pretty big hit and the fan base for Beyonce was there. The fact it was otherwise a quiet week for new releases suggested people expected it to do better than it did. Anyway, for whatever reason it may have been one step back commercially from Destiny’s Child but her next single (bunnied) was at least two steps forward.

  20. 20
    James BC on 22 Aug 2019 #

    Good call on Bone Thugs ‘n’ Harmony – listening to them for the first time (somehow) it’s pretty clear where Nelly’s style comes from.

    Previously I’d always assumed it was a Caribbean influence, coming from the sing-rapping style of Shaggy, Chaka Demus and the rest. You learn something every day.

  21. 21
    Tommy Mack on 22 Aug 2019 #

    James @ #20: with Snoop I always got the sense of a Jamaican influence on his rapping and music. With Bone Thugz I’m less sure (I’m less familiar with their music anyway TBF)

  22. 22
    Mark M on 22 Aug 2019 #

    Re17: Hmmm, I can think of a reasonable number of full* rapper/singer collabs in recentish years that aren’t in the party anthem category, at least a couple of which are concerned with love. (*By which I mean involving more than the rapper doing an intro, or the ‘sleazy dude turning up to be lechy where a middle eight might normally be’ formula that Fifth Harmony were so attached to.)

    Dilemma came out a few months after the first hit for the duo who are in some ways the Tammi & Marvin or Tammy & George (or maybe, considering the croak vs pure voice contrast, Lee & Nancy or Serge & Jane) of this micro genre. Weirdly, they have a bunny – as a trio with a troubling mate – that I don’t remember at all.

  23. 23
    Jonathan K on 22 Aug 2019 #

    One of a few R&B-ish hits from around this time where I was sure I’d heard the hook before but couldn’t place where from… eventually looked it up & realised it’s a reworking of Patti Labelle’s “Love, Need & Want You” with glossier modern production.

    I was going to mention the same duo as Mark M, they define the micro-genre for me even though their songs weren’t actually much cop.

  24. 24
    Mark M on 24 Aug 2019 #

    Re:12, 14 & 18: Well, I like Work It Out – the Neptunes had a good line in very skeletal funk with echoes of James Brown at his most minimal: Mystikal’s Shake Ya Ass being probably the definitive example, but Work It Out being an enjoyable variant.

  25. 25
    katstevens on 24 Aug 2019 #

    At the time, I liked Hot In Herre a great deal, but couldn’t stand this syrupy plinky plonk. I think I went for a wee during it at the Wembley gig.

    I got the tickets through work (the label that did Nelly’s UK distribution). My colleagues were weirdly unenthused about going, esp after a very frazzled PR woman rushed into our office that afternoon to ask where she might find an ounce of weed in time for soundcheck.

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