08/26/2002 at 01:00 AM EDT
On "Nellyville," the title track of his 3-million-selling album, Nelly raps about a mythical burg where everyone owns "40 acres and a pool." Sounds cushy, but on the way up Nelly—who now owns seven cars and a lakefront manse near where he grew up in St. Louis—just wanted to rescue his mother from working at fast-food joints. When the man born Cornell Haynes Jr. made it, "I called her and said, 'You don't have to work anymore.' "
Neither does he. Nellyville, the rapper's follow-up to his 2000 debut record, Country Grammar, sold 716,000 copies in its first week—a record for a black artist. Fans include 'N Sync and Missouri Gov. Bob Holden. "I love his music," says Holden, who defends Nelly's racy lyrics. "The same things were said about Elvis Presley."
After his mom, Rhoda Mack, 46, and Cornell Sr., 51, an ex-Air Force sergeant, split in 1983, Nelly hit the streets, dealing some things that he says were "not quite legal." Forming the rap act St. Lunatics (his half brother and fellow member Lavell Webb is doing 10 years in prison for robbery), Nelly landed a record deal with Universal Records in 2000. He also has Vokál, a sportswear line sold at hip-hop boutiques and Macy's. When not touring, Nelly, who stars in the September action movie Snipes, hangs with kids Chanel, 6, and Tre, 3. No, he won't say who their mom is, and the mayor of Nellyville isn't looking for a first lady. "I have 9 million ladies to keep happy," he insists. "That's a big job."