Nelly says his nine-track country influenced album Heartland, out today via RECORDS/Columbia, is his thank you letter to the country community for its support over the past 20 years. Since the release of his 2000 RIAA diamond certified debut Country Grammar, the rapper has received love from the country community, with Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line recruiting him for collaborations as well as several tour invitations. On Heartland he returns the favor, recruiting nine country acts including Darius Rucker, Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen, Blanco Brown and Breland.
“Having knowledge that there are some people in this particular genre of music that are not as forthcoming of allowing other people to succeed in this music, I found it very necessary that I got a chance to celebrate this project and also work with as many African American country artists as I could putting this project together,” Nelly tells me.
“Putting these brothers in position I thought that it was very necessary for me, if I was going to show my appreciation for how country music has allowed Nelly to be a part of their world ever since my first album came out, I thought it was only right that I had a chance to celebrate this project with these brothers.”
Nelly, born Cornell Iral Haynes Jr., was introduced to country music at a young age by his uncle. Kenny Rogers, George Strait and Charley Pride were early influences as was Lionel Richie. Nelly’s first foray into the genre came in 2004 with the Tim McGraw-assisted “Over and Over.” While his label at the time wasn’t happy with his decision to record the song, Nelly believed in the music as did McGraw.
“When I told my label that I wanted to do something like that they weren’t keen on it, but I had faith in my fans and my fans have allowed me to try different things and evolve,” he says. “I always wanted to be an artist that was evolving. I don’t like to stand still. Some people are content … leaders can’t be content.”
“Over and Over” peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2004. Nelly saw success with a country act again nearly a decade later with the remix of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” in 2013, peaking at No. 4 on the Hot 100 chart. Now, Nelly is returning to country airwaves with his latest FGL collaboration, the platinum certified single “Lil Bit,” which also is featured on Heartland.
Nelly credits his success with Florida Georgia Line as simply having honest passion for the music and having a mutual respect for each other.
“We put forth our best energy,” he says of their work together. “I love them to death. I think a lot of it comes from not having any fear either. When we go in there, we don’t have the restrictions that some people will put on themselves.”
He’ll be teaming with the duo as well as Kane Brown, Blanco Brown and Breland for next week’s CMT Crossroads. The episode, which airs Wednesday, Sept. 1 on CMT, makes Nelly the first rapper to headline the series. It will feature music from Heartland as well as some tracks from Country Grammar.
“It’s an honor,” he says of being the first rapper to headline the show. “We didn’t change anything as far as my approach to performing. I was blessed with the energy of FGL, Blanco, Breland and Kane.”
Heartland showcases how country music has influenced Nelly and made him a better artist. Songs like the personal “Five Drinks Ago” highlight his vulnerability and vocal ability while the Kane Brown assisted “Grits & Glamour” is an ear-worm that could work on multiple radio formats. RECORDS artists George Birge and Chris Bandi also appear on the project.
No stranger to crossing genre lines, throughout his 21-career Nelly has had No. 1 songs on the Rap, R&B, Pop, Country and Top 40 charts. Fittingly, he’s an advocate on embracing change and evolving as an artist. As his music continues to evolve, so do his business ventures. Nelly has launched several clothing lines, a CBD line and is co-owner of the Charlotte Hornets. He also has ventured into television with appearances on Dancing with the Stars and Kevin Hart’s Real Husbands of Hollywood.
“I’m doing country music but I’m still from the hood in St. Louis so there’s certain things that ain’t gonna stop the hustle,” he says. “[I] want to expand and to build as much generational wealth not just for [myself] but for generations to come and hopefully change a certain narrative. My family never really had it like that so if I could be the catalyst to it then so be it.”
The three-time GRAMMY Award-winning artist says the best business advice he’s received is to invest in things that he’s passionate about. “A lot of the businesses that I am involved in and have been involved in are things that coincide,” he says. “It [makes it] that much easier to wake up in the morning and go do it.”
Nelly also is investing in the future of music with his “Lil Bit of Music Series” launching later this year. The series features newer talent like Allen, Blanco Brown and Harper Grace sharing the stage with Nelly in various cities throughout the U.S.
“If I could help young artists along the way, so be it,” he says. “We’re going to start off small. Hopefully everything goes well and we’re able to have it where everybody can be safe, and we have a good time.”
Just as he aims to introduce new country talent with his “Lil Bit of Music Series,” Nelly hopes his Heartland project will open the door for Black artists to be embraced within the country community.
“We’re trying to evolve and we’re pressing forward and hopefully this project could be a lightning rod and gateway for a lot of artists that look like Nelly to be more involved and more inclusive,” he says. “I saw it as a necessity to get as many of my brothers on here as possible.”
Heartland is out now. CMT Crossroads airs Wednesday, Sept. 1 at 10 p.m. ET on CMT.