With ‘Heartland,’ Nelly Honors Country Music’s Past While Contributing to Its Future
Nelly's new country-meets-hip-hop album is a passion project — not only in the sense that it blends two genres he's planted his roots in, but that it reflects his passion for the artistic process.
With Heartland, the legendary rapper mixes his signature hip-hop sound with country flavor drop-ins from longtime friends and collaborators Florida Georgia Line, Kane Brown, Darius Rucker and Jimmie Allen, along with newcomers Blanco Brown, Breland and others. The project pays respect to a genre that Nelly has felt embraced by since dipping his toes in with "Over and Over," his hit 2004 duet with Tim McGraw. That crossover was a success which peaked at No. 3 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100.
Nelly later replicated that success when he teamed with FGL for a remix of their debut hit "Cruise," that became the best-selling digital song by a country duo and helped launch them into superstardom.
"I don't call it a country album — I call it country-inspired, because hip-hop is what I do, it's what I love,” Nelly tells Taste of Country and The Boot of his Heartland album. "It's my ode to country music for all the love and support that they've shown Nelly since I came into the game. I wanted to make something that I felt that specifically shows my gratitude for all that love."
Raised in the "heartland" of America, in the midwest, the Missouri native reveals he was introduced to country music in an "inconspicuous way." He was brought up by an uncle who was a loyal fan of the Lionel Richie-fronted funk and soul supergroup the Commodores, who also introduced the future rapper to Richie's work outside of the group as a prolific songwriter and producer. Richie, of course, penned Kenny Rogers' massive hit "Lady" and scored a Top 10 country hit of his own with his 1986 collaboration with Alabama, "Deep River Woman."
"My uncle made sure that I was aware of all music and how great all music was and not locked into one particular type of music," Nelly says.
In addition to Richie, the rapper cites Charley Pride, Shania Twain, Garth Brooks and George Strait among the artists who broke down country music’s oft-rigid walls in unique walls.
"You understand a little bit more of the passion, the honesty and the livelihood that goes into country music upon which these people speak from," Nelly explains, tributing Pride as a pioneer in the genre whose courage and resilience paved the way for other Black artists.
"Being one of the only Black men to have success at this in this world, I think that's something that speaks in itself," Nelly furthers. "It's tough when you think about how hard it is and how much he probably had to go through just to speak his truth and to come from an honest space. It's just different. But without him, Nelly may not be able to be here today doing what he's able to do."
That was all part of Nelly's mindset as he created Heartland — it's a project that he says enhances his sound rather than changing it. That's something he learned from Richie, too.
"A lot of these songs you can take and if you just switch the music up, it can go from R&B radio to country radio — same lyrics," he insists, pointing to "I Will Always Love You," the timeless song penned and originally recorded by Dolly Parton and later turned into a bonafide hit by Whitney Houston, as the ultimate example of this formula.
Heartland shows that Nelly know how to apply this winning formula to his own career. The album presents a solid blend of a hip-hop attitude and country beats that honor his sound while challenging country's comfort zone.
Self-described as a collection of "country club bangers," Heartland is led by "Lil Bit," Nelly’s latest hit with Florida Georgia Line that's racing to the top of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and has cracked the Top 30 on the Hot 100. FGL's Tyler Hubbard also lends his voice to the rap-leaning "Country Boy Do," while Brown flexes a hip-hop muscle on "Gritz & Glamour." The disco-tinged "High Horse" finds Blanco Brown and Breland shining in their element. Meanwhile, Rucker brings supporting vocals on the flirty "Ms. Drive Me Crazy." Nelly lets the “Good Times Roll” with Allen on the closing track.
"We're going in it with positive thoughts, great energy and looking to do something that hasn't been done before," he says of how he and his collaborators worked together. "You got to be 100 percent in it. If you're not in it, it'll come out in the music. It's art, and the last thing you would want anybody to do was try to simplify your art and think that feeling and emotion is irrelevant. Art is life, that's why they say it imitates life, because those are the same emotions that you go through in life is what you're using to try to create something to sell."
The definition of what qualifies as "traditional" country music has changed through the years — even Johnny Cash felt pushback in his time. Strait did, too. Such evolution is "inevitable," Nelly says — and he's especially intentional about using his platform to elevate Black country artists.
"It doesn't have to be a grandiose takeover to be acknowledging, to be welcoming, and to let people know 'We're evolving too,'" he says. "I'm hoping that this project can help push that forward with a lot of the people that's on this project that are in the country world. I hope that those guys' talent get a chance, and if I can help let their talents speak for them as opposed to what they look like being an obstacle for them to be heard."
"I think country music is evolving — it’s like the last frontier to catch up. It's headed that way, so I'm honored and privileged that I could be help guiding things toward that way."
Heartland is available now.CMT Crossroads: Nelly & Friends airs on Wednesday (Sept. 1) at 10PM ET.
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