Nelly is one of the most loved and loathed rappers in America. For his lady fans, the multi-platinum-selling star ticks all the right boxes: there's the unnerving sexiness, courtesy of the bulging tattoos and the well-earned torso he frequently flaunts. Then there's his songs, some deliciously poppy and others tailor made for the strip-club, like smash hit "Hot in Herre".
His detractors, however, often cling to the fact that his collaborations with country stars (Tim McGraw), pop pin-ups (Justin, Britney and Christina) and a penchant for singing is practically a crime against credibility. Even Hip-hop old-timer KRS-One went so far as to claim in 2002 that Nelly's "whole rap style sounds like an N-Sync commercial". Add to that his 2004 beef with the women of Spelman college, who raised hell after he released a video showing him swiping a credit card through a woman's backside, and you have both the popularity and publicity to be a household name.
But the 30-year-old says he's simply in the business of entertainment – a line of employment that has so far seen him enjoy multi-platinum-selling albums, a number of global hits, including four UK number ones, Grammy, MTV and Billboard success, a Hollywood film role in The Longest Yard, and the growth of two clothing companies (one is the successful Apple Bottoms jeans, with a name that references a woman's, er, apple-shaped bottom).
He's now on his fifth album, Brass Knuckles, which offers an aggressive punch of energetic party anthems and hip-hop stompers, featuring a glittering cast of cameos from the likes of Usher, TI, LL Cool J, Akon, Public Enemy's Chuck D and rumoured girlfriend Ashanti.
"It's crazy because I've got fans that are probably eight-year-olds, and I've got fans that are 80," he announces, suddenly. "And that's what I try to explain to people when some of the controversy comes about, when they say 'yo, look how he treats women', and 'he does this or he does that'. It's like, wait a minute. I do things for kids, but I'm an adult. It's called adult entertainment. We can't be mad at the little boy who finds his father's Playboy magazine. Now, I'm going to try to take my precautions, and not let my son find it, but if he finds it, it's not going to kill him. I just have to explain to him, this is for adults and this is for the youth, you feel what I'm saying?" Could an eight-year-old listen to his new album, with song titles like "Who Fucks With Me"? He smiles. "You would have to get the edited version."
His own daughter never saw the controversial "Tip Drill" music video , he insists and feels people are continuing to point the finger at hip-hop for the ills of society. "It's easy to blame hip-hop," he says. "How can you blame hip-hop for problems that are already here? If it wasn't for hip-hop we wouldn't be taking notice of these problems; we would probably think as a society as a whole, these problems don't exist!"
Spend time in the company of Nelly, and it's clear he's a businessman first, superstar second. He talks a good talk, occasionally delivering his case like a Pentecostal preacher, and wrapping it up in the kind of passionate charm that makes him all the more believable. He's well-versed when challenged on the sexualised nature of his tracks or his unapologetic love for pop, and practically bristles at the suggestion that rappers should be role models. "We mislead the kids that way by saying that!" he cries. "Role models should be someone that's in your life on a daily basis, someone that's prevalent in your life, that you can see not just on television. The only thing that kids see is that person's success. That's it."
But considering the flack he's received over the years, would he ever consider changing his image? "No!" he scoffs. "If I did that, what would I be telling the kids? To let society dictate you as a person? Sex sells. But I can't let society dictate to me as an artist. That's not what an artist does. What would we be if Prince wasn't the nasty Prince first? You have to allow people to grow"
Born Cornell Haynes Jr in Austin, Texas, the rapper is cagey about his upbringing. He moved around lot, even living in Spain while his father was in the military. By the time he was ready for school, he moved to St Louis, Missouri where he was reportedly kicked out four of the eight schools he attended for bad behaviour. His parents divorced when he was nine years old, and he lived with various family members. "I felt like I'd lived that," he says dismissively of his childhood. "It was deep for me. I'm a Scorpio. We tend to keep a lot to ourselves."
As a talented baseball player and keen rap fan, he later moved to the more suburban area of University City where he met high school friends Kyjuan Ali and Murphy Lee and they would form part of his St Lunatics crew, who debuted locally with the single "Gimme What Ya Got" in 1996 – a mild burner that can still be dug up on YouTube. The brief acclaim from the single was enough for Nelly to venture out on his own, and he signed a solo deal with Univeral Records at the age of 19, but stayed loyal to his crew by bringing them along for the ride. His single "Country Grammar", a whimsical sing-along with a nursery-rhyme hook, knocked Eminem off the top of the charts in 2000 and the album of the same name debuted at number three, before eventually climbing up to the top. This was followed by his hugely successful second album Nellyville, and its anthemic lead single "Hot in Herre" in 2002, which picked up a Grammy for Best Male Rap Solo Performance. His third and fourth albums, Sweat/Suit, were released simultaneously in 2004, a gimmick that earned him more chart-topping singles. But Nelly kept a low profile in 2005 after Jackie Donahue, his half-sister, died from leukaemia. The rapper had helped launch the campaign to find a bone marrow donor and raise awareness.
Nelly says he doesn't get as much kudos for his charity work, which also includes managing his 4Sho4Kids foundation for children. "Some people don't know that we found donors for seven people," he says, shaking his head. "Through our bone marrow drives... we were able to help seven lives. This is the rapper, the misogynist, the kid that doesn't respect women and wants to swipe credit cards and he's the worst person on the planet. But there's seven people who love this guy to death. And that's probably more lives than everybody who's judging me, who didn't even try."
That said, Nelly has grown accustomed to the naysayers and with his success, he says he's undoubtedly a target. "I think it's so unfair that we as artists have to watch what we say and do." But he says the negativity only makes him stronger. "It fuels me," he admits. "I don't feel it's a problem or I'm really concerned about it because it's not. I use everything as motivation."
He suddenly gets back into business mode, reeling off his future plans to front a hip-hop band called Cornell and Them because "it's hip-hop's job to show the youth other forms of music". As for his new album, he's convinced of its success. "I'm back, it's going down, there's no time to play!" he declares, with all the bravado he can muster. "There's about to be a problem!" You just gotta love him.
'Brass Knuckles' is out on 18 August on Universal