I Drank a 15-Year-Old Can of Nelly's Pimp Juice and Time-Traveled to 2003
I used to down these as afterschool snacks when I was a teen, but drinking one as an adult felt like a one-way ticket directly into the void.
Illustration by Alina Petrichyn
It used to be taken for granted that musicians made music, actors acted, and chefs made food. But as the culture industry grew and celebrity branding became more of a thing, the lines began to dissipate, giving way to products like Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Uno Tequila and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop empire, which sells, among other absurd things, a $695 antipasti knife set. Alas, there was once a time when we could listen to music or read about celebs without being bombarded with advertisements for shit the artists are selling on the side. Those times weren’t necessarily better, but they were definitely simpler.
It hasn’t all been bad, though. One of my favorite trends from the long history of celebrity-endorsed products was the explosion of rapper-curated energy drinks that happened in the early aughts. For a brief moment, a few bucks allowed regular people like me to take part in the antics they heard on the radio and saw on MTV. It felt new and fresh, as if the consumerism that was starting to saturate popular music’s themes and lyrics was going to create some new plane upon which everyone could better relate to each other. The trend turned our local gas station into a cultural post of sorts, where my friends and I enjoyed these drinks recreationally and often. We felt cool as hell.
After releasing the brilliant one-two punch of Country Grammar (2000) and Nellyville (2002), Nelly was at the top of his game, well-poised to make the kind of epic branding jump that one would expect from a newly famous pop star in that era. His move was Pimp Juice, one of the first major energy drinks to be backed by a rapper, and it led an onslaught of beverages like Ice-T’s Liquid Ice, Lil Jon’s Crunk, 50 Cent’s Street King Energy Shot, Kanye West’s Guru Energy, and more. Marketed as “Hip-Hop’s #1 Energy Drink,” Pimp Juice was huge, especially in St. Louis, where Nelly had become a hometown hero. And with its claim to contain the recommended daily intake of numerous vitamins, Pimp Juice even seemed healthy. It was one of the premier non-carbonated energy drinks of 2003, and remains one of St. Louis’ greatest cultural achievements after Anheuser-Busch beer, Jon Hamm, and the ice cream cone.
Eventually, the fad died out, though, and we grew up. After-school energy drinks were downgraded to morning coffee, the radio replaced by podcasts and Apple Music playlists. We got further and further from those carefree days, our connection to the past almost exclusively curated by new Star Wars releases and Nintendo’s updates of the Mario and Zelda franchises.
One tangible shred of nostalgia remained for me, however, in the form of a single can of unopened Pimp Juice that, for some reason, my friend Zach saved. For years it sat in his refrigerator alongside trendy beers, fresh produce, and rotating takeout leftovers, a sad monument to “the good old days.” It almost became a mascot of sorts—I’d acknowledge it every time I went to his house to play video games or watch movies; each time I would take something from his fridge, I’d joke about selling the Pimp Juice or throwing it away. One day, when I was in a particularly maudlin mental space, I was overcome by a massive wave of sentimentality upon seeing the can, and it all clicked for me. I realized that the only way to truly honor the lone can of Pimp Juice and the history it represented for me was to drink it.
After doing some very cursory research, I learned that most canned drinks are safe to drink long after they expire. Apparently, most processed beverages today have so many chemicals in them that as long as they remain sealed, the only thing that goes bad is the carbonation. Such was the case with Pimp Juice, which appeared to have enough preservatives to survive a nuclear holocaust. Just for reference, here is a list of its ingredients: water, high-fructose corn syrup, apple juice concentrate, citric acid, natural flavor, d-Ribose, malic acid, ascorbic acid, inositol, maltodextrin, guarana seed extract, niacin, calcium pantotherate, taurine, pyridoxine hydrochloride, yellow #5, riboflavin, blue #1, and cyanocobalamin. I’m no scientist, but even I know that this seems bad.
After procuring the can from Zach, I made a plan to recreate the psychological moment of 2003 by crafting an itinerary of things I liked to do back then. My plan was to drink the Pimp Juice while listening to Nelly, playing Super Smash Bros., and eating Taco Bell, followed by a viewing of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. But it didn’t go quite as planned.
First, I spent about ten minutes debating about what kind of glass to drink it out of, or whether I should just drink it from the can. The latter felt more nostalgic, but did I really want to put my lips to a piece of tin that had spent 15 years in various not-always-clean refrigerators? I did not, so I decided to aggressively wash the can and then pour its contents into a very nice French cognac snifter, because why not? This was a nice occasion. Nelly’s “Air Force Ones,” one of my all-time favorite tracks, was playing in the background.
When I opened the Pimp Juice, it took very little pressure to break the seal—it was almost as if the juice was dying to be released from its prison. I immediately smelled apples and chemicals. As I poured it into the snifter, it looked green, like some kind of hyperbolically colored poison from an action film or a children's movie. I inhaled the scent deeply, then took my first sip. It tasted like a combination of flat sparkling apple cider and whatever that bullshit flavor in Red Bull is that makes it taste like Red Bull. Honestly, it wasn’t that bad. In fact, it was almost tasty—I wanted another sip. If you’d told me that it was canned yesterday, I might have believed you. Ah, the miracle of modern canning.
All my responsibilities slipped away from me as I descended into the past, continuing to drink the Pimp Juice. After a few minutes, I started to feel something that resembled a serious caffeine high. Was it real or psychosomatic? It probably didn’t help that I’d already had two cups of coffee that day. And I forgot the Taco Bell! Now I was starting to feel too messed up to drive anywhere. My mind was starting to race. “What if I fucked up?” I thought. “Can I get botulism from this?” I wanted to jump on WebMD, but my history of comparable experiences had taught me that WebMD is the absolute worst choice in this kind of situation. I booted up Super Smash Bros. Ultimate on my Nintendo Switch and took another sip.
The fact that it’s legal for children to drink this stuff is insane to me. I remember downing these as after-school snacks when I was a teen, but drinking one as an adult felt like a one-way ticket directly into the void. I started to feel that familiar, extreme buzz that you get when you’ve had way too much caffeine, when you’re skating the razor’s edge between focus, anxiety, and mania. “What if I just continue on this trajectory, past energy drink territory, past illegal substance overdose or extreme food poisoning territory, right on into the old pharmacy in the sky?” I thought. It was time to switch to water.
I got through two matches in Super Smash Bros. before the game started to freak me out. The upbeat music was annoying me and the pace of the game felt oppressive, so I turned it off. Something inside directed me to turn the lights out and to put on William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops, so I did that instead. I didn’t feel sick, but I did feel overhyped. After about half an hour of ambient music and darkness, I started to feel like myself again. I thought about turning on Return of the King, but that felt wrong. So I just started writing instead.
I’d like to impart some meaningful advice here, but I imagine you already know what I would say. Culture will continue to force us to look backwards, and that’s fine—just do it at your own risk, and definitely before the expiration date is up. We can never really go back, and that’s probably a good thing.