The Number Ones

August 17, 2002

The Number Ones: Nelly’s “Dilemma” (Feat. Kelly Rowland)

Stayed at #1:

10 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Kelly Rowland got to #1 before Beyoncé. This was not the plan. I’ve never gotten the sense that the two longest-tenured members of Destiny’s Child were in competition with one another; even today, they seem like great friends. But Beyoncé had her sights set on global pop dominance ever since childhood. When her longtime sidekick suddenly teamed up with the biggest pop-rap sensation of the moment and jetted straight past her, I have to imagine that there was some awkwardness.

Nelly wanted to make the soft, puffy love-rap jam “Dilemma” with all three members of Destiny’s Child. When he found out that wouldn’t be possible, he singled out Kelly Rowland. Nelly had met Kelly on Total Request Live, and his sister was a big fan. Kelly was surprised when Nelly called her up and asked her for a collaboration, but she was down. “Dilemma” came out just as Nelly’s monster party jam “Hot In Herre” was just relaxing its hold on #1, and when “Dilemma” replaced “Hot In Herre” at the top of the charts, Nelly joined the Beatles, Boyz II Men, Puff Daddy, and Ja Rule on the very short list of artists who had gone back-to-back at #1.

“Dilemma” actually spent longer at #1 than “Hot In Herre.” That seems weird to me, but maybe I’m just responding to the contrasting energies of the two songs. For decades, the Billboard charts had a weird habit of elevating ballads over uptempo jams, but if you run the numbers now, “Dilemma” is still a bigger song than “Hot In Herre.” “Dilemma” has nearly twice as many Spotify streams. Last year, “Dilemma” became one of the first rap videos ever to rack up a billion views on YouTube. “Dilemma” also briefly upset the balance of power within Destiny’s Child. Beyoncé regained supremacy soon enough, but she still doesn’t have any singles that have held the #1 spot for longer than “Dilemma.”

“Dilemma” is softer, lighter, and fluffier than most blockbusters. The song speaks of huge, overwhelming emotions, but it never sounds huge or overwhelming. Instead, it’s small and breezy — a playground-crush song, not an everlasting-love song. Maybe that’s the secret. Maybe that’s why it’s endured. Every love song doesn’t have to be a dramatic, hair-ripping scream-it-from-the-mountaintop wailer. Maybe a song can capture more hearts if it’s more dialed-in. Or maybe millions were just charmed at the sight of Nelly and Kelly Rowland dancing together in the middle of a movie-lot suburban street.

Like “Hot In Herre” before it, “Dilemma” was a late addition to Nellyville, Nelly’s much-anticipated sophomore album. After the overwhelming surprise success of Nelly’s 2000 debut Country Grammar, the commercial pressure was on. Nelly’s A&R rep told him that the album needed a couple more songs, and those songs would become Nelly’s two biggest hits. “Dilemma” was the last song added to Nellyville. Nelly and his collaborators wrote and recorded “Dilemma” in a hurry, when the Nellyville CD was days away from being printed. Maybe that’s part of the song’s secret sauce, but “Dilemma” does not sound like a rapper working against a deadline. There’s no tension or urgency to the track whatsoever.

“Dilemma” producers Ryan Bowser and Antoine “Bam” Macon are St. Louis guys who’d known Nelly and the rest of the St. Lunatics since the ’90s. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, the two producers claim that they came up with the “Dilemma” melody while playing Tetris one night. (Playing Tetris as a duo seems like psycho behavior to me. That is a solitary activity. If I fuck up and put one of the long pieces end-up on top of something, I don’t want another person looking over my shoulder and pointing it out.) The producers built the track piece by piece — melody first, drums later. When Nelly heard the beat, he started writing the “Dilemma” lyrics on the spot, and he got the idea that he should put a female singer on the song.

While the two producers worked on the beat, Bam absentmindedly hummed the melody from former Number Ones artist Patti Labelle’s 1984 single “Love, Need And Want You.” (“Love, Need And Want You” was a #10 R&B hit, but it didn’t cross over to the Hot 100.) Nelly didn’t know the Patti LaBelle song, but he loved the melody, and he wanted to use it for “Dilemma.” The “Love, Need And Want You” bit on “Dilemma” is really just the bridge, but that was enough that “Love, Need And Want You” songwriters Kenny Gamble and Bunny Sigler got writing credits on “Dilemma.” When Kelly Rowland came in to record her part of the song, that Patti LaBelle bit was what scared her the most.

There’s no real dilemma in “Dilemma.” It’s a cheaters’ song, but nobody seems too torn up about the infidelity. A pretty girl moves up the block from Nelly, and they’re both into each other, but “she got a man and a son, though.” (I always missed the part about the son, who doesn’t figure into the “Dilemma” video and whose presence, you would think, would complicate things more.) This doesn’t bother Nelly. He might feel some slight guilt-pangs, but the attraction overwhelms everything else: “I never been the type to break up a happy home, but there’s something ’bout baby girl I just can’t leave alone.”

We never get to hear the girl’s internal monologue. Kelly Rowland plays the girl, and most of her lyrics are sweet nothings directed at Nelly: “Even when I’m with my boo, you know I’m crazy over you.” Nelly gets off on sneaking around. He likes the girl, and he also likes how it feels when she picks him up in her man’s two-seater. Nelly’s not looking for a relationship. He says that he respects her bond with her man, and she only tells him that she loves him when he turns around to leave. This couple probably isn’t built to last.

On paper, those “Dilemma” lyrics are at least a little bit skeezy, but they never sound that way. The “Dilemma” beat is warm and spacey and open, full of gooey chords and tinkly music-box melodies. The most enduring part of the whole song might be the little “awww” sound in the background. (It sounds like backup singers, but it’s really a preset from an old Roland synth module.) Nelly sings more than he raps; he never made much of a distinction between the two activities. There’s a pleasant, loping inside-voice quality to his delivery; it’s pretty similar to what he brought to his hit “Ride Wit Me.” (“Ride Wit Me” peaked at #3. It’s a 9.) Kelly Rowland sings her parts with that same understated sweetness. Nelly and Kelly might not be too believable as the song’s characters, but they do sound like they like each other. (They apparently never dated, though the song sparked rumors.)

In a lot of ways, “Dilemma” is similar to the Murder Inc. rapper/singer duets that clogged up the #1 spot in the months before Nelly set up shop there. Like those tracks, “Dilemma” is light and airy and insubstantial. Where Murder Inc. got juice out of the contrast between Ja Rule’s guttural bark and the sweetness of his duet partners, that’s never a factor on “Dilemma.” Nelly can’t sing the way that Kelly Rowland can, but both of them have a similar warmth of tone. In switching up his flow, Nelly sacrificed his greatest weapon, the go-for-broke enthusiasm that animates all of his best hits. “Dilemma” is one of the few Nelly hits where I can quote the man’s lyrics without putting an exclamation point at the end of every sentence. Nelly adjusts his style to the calm of “Dilemma,” but I honestly wish he wouldn’t. Nelly is a lot more fun when he’s pumping tracks full of adrenaline.

I got sick of “Dilemma” long before it finally fell out of the #1 spot. I’ve got a general anti-ballad bias, and I couldn’t understand why this styrofoam mash-note was getting so much play when there were so many better, freakier, more energized songs on the radio. Listening back now, I like “Dilemma” more than I did then. The track’s playfulness is understated, but it’s still there. It’s fun to hear two pretty people talking about being attracted to each other. But I’m pretty sure that “Dilemma” has endured mostly because it’s so easy to like the video.

The “Dilemma” video takes place in the fictional town of Nellyville. In the video’s reality, I don’t know whether the town supposed to be named after Nelly or whether it’s coincidental. Maybe Nelly living in Nellyville is just like being named Charlotte and living in Charlotte. (We know that Nelly’s character is named Nelly because Kelly sings the line “Nelly, I love you.”) Nellyville, which is really the Universal backlot, looks like a nice suburban area. Kelly Rowland and her family move onto Nelly’s block. Patti LaBelle plays Kelly’s mom. On the set, Patti told Kelly that she’d done a good job with her song, and Kelly was enormously gratified.

Kelly’s boyfriend is played by another St. Louis native: Larry Hughes, the Washington Wizards shooting guard. (I loved Larry Hughes. Once, playing NBA 2K, I decided that I was going to use Hughes to break Wilt Chamberlain’s single-game scoring record, and I pulled it off. Larry Hughes got 108 points in that game. I was playing it on the easy setting, though.) In the video, Nelly and Kelly are both into each other, and they keep seeing each other around town. At one point, Kelly attempts to text Nelly while using what’s clearly an Excel spreadsheet.

@xlninjadan

Kelly Rowland in Dilemma by Nelly is finally justified for using Excel on her Nokia flip phone! #exceltips #xlninjadan #nelly #nellyiloveyou #kellyrowland #excel Nelly Furtado Dilemma music video Excel funny

♬ original sound – Dan Strong

That probably didn’t work, but texting was still a new thing at the time. We were all just figuring it out. Another time, Kelly sees Nelly out with another girl at the movies. She’s with her own boyfriend, but she’s pissed. They’re all going to see a movie called Dilemma. I wonder if it’s any good.

The best part of the “Dilemma” video doesn’t have much to do with the plot. Future All Eyez On Me director Benny Boom films Nelly and Kelly Rowland standing in the middle of their street, dancing and canoodling. Maybe this is supposed to be a fantastical sequence; they don’t look like two people trying to keep an affair secret. But they’re just so damn cute together. Nelly is wearing a yellow shirt so huge that it practically comes down to his knees. Kelly’s got a Flintstones-ass brown leather halter situation, and her smile could power a whole city. Kelly was always a secret weapon in Destiny’s Child videos, and the “Dilemma” video uses her gawky charisma to its full potential. The two of them look so happy.

Between “Hot In Herre” and “Dilemma,” Nelly spent an insane 17 weeks at #1 — June to November, with a quick two-week break for another song in the middle of the “Dilemma” reign. By the time “Dilemma” fell out of the #1 spot for the second time, Nellyville was quadruple platinum. The album eventually sold seven million copies in the US — not quite as many as Country Grammar had moved, but nobody was mad. Nelly followed “Dilemma” with “Air Force Ones,” which features three of his St. Lunatics buddies. A posse cut about sneakers has no business being that catchy. (“Air Force Ones” peaked at #3. It’s an 8.) Two more Nellyville singles, including the Justin Timberlake team-up “Work It,” didn’t do so well on the charts, but Nelly wasn’t finished making hits. We’ll see him in this column again.

The success of “Dilemma” definitely messed up the plans for Destiny’s Child. After the Survivor album, the trio went on a quick hiatus so that all three of them could make solo albums. Beyoncé was supposed to release her debut before Kelly Rowland. Around the same time that the “Dilemma” single came out, Beyoncé made her big-screen debut as Foxxy Cleopatra in Austin Powers In Goldmember. The movie was a hit, but Beyoncé’s soundtrack contribution was not. The Neptunes-produced retro-funk jam “Work It Out” was Beyoncé’s first-ever solo single, and it missed the Hot 100 entirely. Good song, though.

The success of “Dilemma” forced Beyoncé’s father Mathew Knowles, who was managing all the Destiny’s Child members’ solo careers, to switch the plans up. Kelly Rowland’s debut album Simply Deep came out in October 2002. “Dilemma” was on the album, but Simply Deep was only a minor hit. Kelly’s first solo single, the soul-rock jam “Stole,” peaked at #27, and the album went gold but not platinum.

Pretty soon, Beyoncé linked up with another of the hottest male rappers of the moment, and she made a couple of hits of her own. Kelly Rowland did fine for herself, but she wasn’t outshining Beyoncé for long. Outside of “Dilemma,” Kelly never really found solo stardom after Destiny’s Child. She launched an acting career, landing a recurring sitcom role in The Hughleys and getting killed by Jason Vorhees in Freddy Vs. Jason. (This is where I feel compelled to mention that Freddy Vs. Jason was one of my favorite movies of 2003. Maybe that says less about the movie and more about where I was in my life. I haven’t rewatched it in years, and I don’t know how it holds up. But in the moment? That was my shit.)

In the past 20 years, Kelly Rowland has done a bit of acting, and she’s made a few more hits. Kelly hasn’t returned to the top 10, but she’s made it as far as #17 twice — as a guest on Trina’s 2005 song “Here We Go” and on her own 2011 Lil Wayne collab “Motivation.” Kelly reunited with Nelly on the 2011 sequel “Gone,” but that song missed the Hot 100. Since then, Kelly has been a judge on a bunch of reality shows, and she’s gotten married and had a couple of kids. Whenever I see her doing anything these days, her charm remains undiminished. If Kelly Rowland is bummed that she didn’t achieve the same legendary status as Beyoncé, she’s never shown it. Instead, she’s continued to beam happiness out into the world. Maybe she’s just an upbeat person. Or maybe she’s content in the knowledge that she got to #1 first.

GRADE: 6/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s DJ Assault’s 2003 “Dilemma” flip “I Say Uuuah,” which might be the sweetest-sounding Detroit ghetto-tech track that you’ll ever hear:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Many, many producers have sampled the sighing “awww” sound from the “Dilemma” beat. Here’s Schoolboy Q’s 2013 track “Yay Yay,” which turns that “awww” into something much more bloodthirsty:

(As lead artist, Schoolboy Q’s highest-charting single is the 2014 BJ The Chicago Kid collab “Studio,” which peaked at #38. As a guest, Schoolboy Q got to #15 on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ 2013 track “White Walls.”)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ciara’s clubby 2015 song “Lullaby,” which makes heavy use of a “Dilemma” sample:

(Ciara will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Bronx drill rapper B-Lovee’s 2022 track “Need You (Last Strike),” which samples the hell out of “Dilemma”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Flo Milli’s extremely fun 2022 song “On My Nerves,” the most recent song I’ve heard that uses the “awww” sound from “Dilemma” as part of its beat:

THE 10S: Cam’ron and Juelz Santana’s glowing, graceful everybody-gets-laid story-song “Hey Ma” peaked at #3 behind “Dilemma.” Its game is tight. It’s a 10.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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