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Nelly on life, love and new album

By Denise Quan, CNN
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Nelly comes back with 'Just a Dream'
  • Nelly is back with his first album since 2008
  • The rapper has sold 9 million albums worldwide since coming on the scene in 2000
  • Nelly says the death of his sister in 2005 caused him to re-evaluate things

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West Hollywood, California (CNN) -- Nelly recently celebrated a birthday. We know this because a photo of him hit the Web wearing nothing but a birthday suit -- with a birthday cake strategically placed in front of him.

The 36-year-old hip-hop star cracks up. "You saw that, huh? It was a fun night. It was a fun birthday."

These days, Nelly has much to celebrate -- not the least of which is what many have dubbed a comeback with his new studio album, "5.0." It's his first CD since 2008's "Brass Knuckles."

"It didn't do as well as the ones that preceded it, but if you look at today's numbers, it did pretty good. I almost sold 800,000. Today, 800,000 is almost double platinum. But yeah, it didn't do well for Nelly's numbers, no."

Since rising out of the streets of St. Louis, Missouri, in the summer of 2000 with his debut disc, "Country Grammar," he's sold 9 million albums worldwide. With hits such as "Hot in Herre" and "Dilemma," he brought an infectious, sing-songy pop sensibility to urban music. His current single, "Just a Dream," is all over the radio. It's a sweet but melancholy tale of pining for a lost love.

"It's about loving something, losing something and wanting to love it again," he explains. "It could be your career, it could be what you do for a living. It could be something, someone."

CNN spoke with Nelly in West Hollywood the day before his album's release. He revealed his thoughts on marriage, adoption and Kanye West.

CNN: Who are you singing about in "Just a Dream"?

Nelly: I definitely wanted to make the track as universal as possible, and I think the song has that appeal.

CNN: Are you single now?

Nelly: [Laughs] I'm not married. I'm not married, I'll say that.

CNN: Dodging the question.

Nelly: Have we all loved and lost before? I think we all have. I mean, whether you've been a kid with a crush, a grown man, a grown woman -- I think we've all been there before.

CNN: Who have you had a crush on?

Nelly: I had a crush on my sixth-grade science teacher. Ms. Walker. She was fine. [Laughs]

CNN: Did she know that?

Nelly: She probably did because I was a fresh little boy back then.

CNN: You reunite with Kelly Rowland on the album for the song "Gone." [The two enjoyed a massive hit in 2002 with "Dilemma."] Have you kept in contact over the years?

Nelly: She's like a little sister to me, and I love to see her -- especially with the success she's been having with the dance music. It's been amazing, y'all. You really got to go and see her get down in London. It's like Kelly-mania.

CNN: Was there ever a time when you thought, "I'm kind of over this business"?

Nelly: I thought a lot about things when my sister passed in '05. [Jackie Donahue died from leukemia after Nelly's Jes Us 4 Jackie Foundation was unable to find a bone marrow donor for her.]

When you lose someone, I think you re-evaluate everything. We didn't spend a lot of time together as kids due to the fact that we had different mothers, but as we got older, our relationship became stronger. She did everything for me. She was my sister; she was my stylist; she took care of everything family-wise. She took care of me, so when I lost her, it was just like, "Wow, you know. Where do you go from there?" It was rough.

CNN: You really took a beating with the press in 2003 with the music video for "Tip Drill." People interpreted it as being misogynistic.

Nelly: Yeah, that was a little crazy, because I felt like people were judging my whole career off of one video, and not looking at the things that I actually did. I felt like they were judging me on a five-minute video. I agree that some people may not agree with the video, and that's their own judgment, but that was made for adults and an adult program that came on at 3 in the morning. I just think it could have been handled better.

CNN: Do you think you would have done things differently had you known the fallout that was going to happen?

Nelly: To say that is to say that I felt like I did something wrong. And I don't feel like I did something wrong. I just feel like people took it the wrong way.

CNN: Overall, you've handled yourself really well in the press. That said, do you look at people like Kanye -- who puts his foot in his mouth sometimes -- and say, "What are you saying?"

Nelly: I look at Kanye as good, because he keeps you conscious. He keeps us conscious. He keeps the world conscious. He says a lot of times what people feel, but are afraid to say, and if we don't have people saying those things, where would we be? He makes us think -- regardless of whether you like it or not.

CNN: Sometimes he'll do something to make a point, then maybe he'll go too far.

Nelly: Yeah, I agree. He does go too far sometimes; he does go too far. You kind of cringe sometimes like, "Aaargh!"

CNN: When he said, "George Bush doesn't like black people," there were people who thought, "Good for you for getting that out there." Then there were others who thought, "Maybe you shouldn't have picked a telethon."

Nelly: When was he ever going to get that big of a stage to make that statement? And I agree, maybe that wasn't the time or the place, but he did it. Some people gasped, and some people were appalled -- but the thing is, we talked about it, and it made us think, and it made us take a closer look at George Bush.

CNN: You seem to know what's going to come out of your mouth before it hits the air. Do you ever say, "I wish I'd had the guts to say that"?

Nelly: Me and Kanye -- we grew up different, even thought we're both Midwest kids. He grew up in Chicago. Chicago's one of the roughest cities in the country. I grew up in St. Louis, one of the roughest cities in this country. We both was mama's boys. But we see things different. I ain't got no problems with that. That's him. That's what creativity is. That's what allows him to be an artist.

CNN: Do you want to get married and have kids?

Nelly: Eventually, yes. I have two kids -- my daughter and my son. And my sister, when she passed, I have her two as well. So I like to say I have four. I want to be "The Brady Bunch." I want to adopt as well. I see adoption as one of the greatest things that anybody can do to welcome someone else into a better situation.

CNN: Would you adopt a kid from St. Louis, or go to China and adopt a kid?

Nelly: I'm open. I love the multiracial families. I think that's like the bomb, you know what I'm sayin'? ... I'm not settling with adopting one. I want as many as the house, and me, and whoever I marry can deal with.

CNN: What are you looking for in terms of a partner?

Nelly: You can't really have a checklist. You have to love their faults. The little things that you thought were cute yesterday? They may not be as cute today. [Chuckles] I think the one thing you should do is take your time. I think we don't take our time enough.

CNN: You talk about a checklist -- so where is a comeback on that checklist?

Nelly: I didn't have that on there! [Shrugs] It's all good.