ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - Ten years into a successful career, rapper Nelly is all about giving back to his hometown community and to the fans who helped make him famous.
Since his debut album, "Country Grammar," in 2000, the 36-year-old hip-hop star has sold more than 20 million records, has had nearly a dozen Top 10 singles (including this year's "Just a Dream") and was rated the No. 3 artist of the decade by Billboard magazine behind Eminem and Usher. His sixth album, "5.0," debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 chart in late November.
The record, his first in two years, hasn't sold as well as some of his other discs, but that has been true of many artists recently as digital downloads weakened CD sales.
The album's mix of rap and R&B has not gone over as well with critics, either, and some have even labeled Nelly an "underdog," in moving into arenas outside his home arena of hip-hop. The description puzzles Nelly.
"My music is all about growth," he told Reuters as he entered his 5th annual Black & White Ball in St. Louis this past Sunday. "I've got a lot of great things coming. And to me, ten years of doing anything is a blessing."
"5.0" includes collaborations with Diddy, T.I., Chris Brown and a reunion with Kelly Rowland, who worked with Nelly on the Grammy-winning "Dilemma" in 2002. And while Nelly was coy about his future music plans, he said he is more than satisfied with the progress of his career so far, calling it "phenomenal."
The gentle rapper was all smiles as he made this way through the posh crowd at the Black & White Ball. He wasn't interested in basking in his music accomplishments. He was keen to talk about helping others and continuing his personal push to improve St. Louis' reputation among U.S. cities.
"With the Black & White Ball I wanted to start something to celebrate St. Louis," he told Reuters. "Nice dinner, nice evening, nice time, nice night of music and entertainment. It's a chance to give back. I thought that was a hot thing to do."
But The Black & White Ball isn't the only thing Nelly, whose real name is Cornell Haynes Jr., does to "give back."
He runs the non-profit 4Sho4Kids Foundation, whose work is dedicated to his sister Jackie Donahue, who died in 2005 from leukemia. His Jes Us 4 Jackie fundraising campaign aims to educate African-Americans and other minorities about the need for bone marrow transplants and donors.
This Christmas, he is promoting the teenage not-for-profit group, DoSomething.org and their "Tackle Hunger" campaign, which encourages teens to take actions that will fight hunger in their own communities.
"We try to feed as many hungry kids in this country as possible. I know we do a lot to help people outside this country, but we have so many kids inside this country that need our help as well," he said.
Where his St. Louis is concerned, Nelly still caters to the hometown fans who, for years, championed him. This past summer, he put on a free concert, and he has filled-in as a DJ on local radio. Moreover, he defends the metropolis against its reputation as one of America's most dangerous cities.
"The numbers are a little misleading," he said. "It's all about how you stack that up and what you compare it to. You can make anything as dangerous as possible, but I think overall we have crime like everybody else -- but I don't see it as being any more dangerous than anywhere else."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte