Bring up Nelly in conversation these days, and you’re likely to prompt a bout of nostalgia. The St. Louis artist basically ruled pop radio for the first half of the 2000s, and there’s no telling how many high school dances “Hot in Herre” and “Dilemma” have soundtracked. To many people, Nelly is still seen almost purely through the lens his first two albums, Country Grammar and Nellyville, in part because Nelly was just so huge right off the bat.
How big did Nelly get? According to Billboard, he was the third-highest selling artist of the last decade, behind only Usher and Eminem. He’s one of the only artists to have performed during the Super Bowl halftime show twice (2001 and 2004, both times with Justin Timberlake, as it happens). On the other hand, how big is Nelly now? Well, he hasn’t had quite the cultural ubiquity of his Super Bowl companion JT, and he hasn’t exactly captivated rap audiences this year, although his fantastic, minimal collaboration with Pharrell and Nicki Minaj, “Get Like Me,” deserves more attention.
But while hip-hop fans were looking elsewhere, Nelly quietly crushed the charts this summer with his remix to “Cruise,” a song by country duo Florida Georgia Line that set the record for the longest run at the top of Billboard’s country chart and reached No. 4 on the Hot 100. Meanwhile, the breezy pop single he released in February after two years of silence, “Hey Porsche,” dominated charts everywhere but the U.S. Suffice it to say, if you’re treating Nelly as a throwback artist, you’re not really paying attention.
Nelly’s ready to make you pay attention, though: He’s been leaking a steady stream of collaborations with artists like T.I. and 2 Chainz, and, next week on September 30, he’ll be releasing his seventh album, M.O. Nelly gave us a call from St. Louis to talk about what we can expect for that album, how his legacy stacks up to his contemporaries, and explain why he hasn’t been planting flowers all summer.
Interview by Kyle Kramer (@KyleKramer)
What’s going on with your new album, M.O.?
First of all, I’m excited that I get a chance to do a seventh album. [Laughs.] Also, being 14 years later [since Country Grammar was released], being able to do a lot of great things in 14 years and represent somewhere that a lot of people don’t get to represent, especially in the music business and definitely in the hip-hop game. I stand for the Midwest. That’s why the album’s titled M.O., ‘cause I’m still holding it down like that. My friends and family all call me Mo, so it’s kind of like really representing where I’m from and me at the same time.
Where does that Mo nickname come from?
It comes from, like, Moses. My nickname used to be Moses—still is Moses—for a long time, and people just call me Mo for short.
It’s just symbolic of leading, being a leader, leading your people into a better situation.
But with this album I’m just trying to keep it me. I’ve been very fortunate to always bring something new each and every time I come out. This album is no different. There’s definitely some songs like “Rick James”and “Get Like Me” and “IDGAF”—it’s just a dope-ass project, man. I’m excited because I got a chance to just go in without any expectations and just go in and have fun.
You know what, I think it’s the continuous doubting of some people. As you become a legend in the game, you build more doubters than you build supporters.
Given your past success, you have a lot of leeway. What really excites you as an artist at this point and makes you want to get into the studio?
You know what, I think it’s the continuous doubting of some people. As you become a legend in the game, you build more doubters than you build supporters. And that’s fine. I think that comes with anything that’s challenging. I think it even comes with sports. The older that Michael Jordan got, I think the more doubted he became. It’s the same thing with this mentality because, obviously, hip-hop is a sport—or the mindset is definitely a sport. Which is fine.
There’s definitely been a lot of talk of competition recently, especially since Kendrick Lamar called out all those artists on “Control,” and there’s a really strong crop of younger rappers right now. Your contemporaries—people like Jay Z or Eminem—are almost more elder statesmen. How do you view that competitive mindset in light of new rappers coming up?
I never was the battle rapper. That was never my thing. I always felt like it’s enough room for everybody to do their thing. I like bringing new energy, re-inventing the wheel, so to speak, every time I come out. I don’t see me in competition with Jay. Jay does Jay. Nelly does Nelly. A lot of the rappers that’s in that thing, that Kendrick spoke of, I guess that’s how they feel. Which is cool with me. I don’t mind it. I enjoy looking at it from the outside in. It’s fun to me. It’s just not my thing.
Speaking of silencing the doubters, we hadn’t heard from you in a while, and then you released “Hey Porsche,” which is pretty much straight-up pop. It seemed like it caught a lot of people off guard. Where were you coming from on that song?
I don’t if you can say that because I’ve been doing melodic songs since Country Grammar. That album to me is very melodic. I don’t think people are being honest when they listen to that song, and they hear it [as pop] because I’ve been doing that type of shit since day one. They’ll go, "He’s doing something different." No I'm not. I did that shit in ‘99 and 2000. What are you talking about?
Again, I think it falls under the category of people just wanting to disbelieve. “Porsche” is multiplatinum around the world. So, obviously, it won. Nowadays everything is strategic, everything is put somewhere to be useful. Nowadays you have to put out so much music. You have to put out so much product nowadays that I think everything has to fall into the plan.
Another kind of curveball was your collaboration with the country group Florida Georgia Line. How does that fit into the plan? How did that come about?
They’re my champs. I love ‘em to death. They’re good kids. They’re young. They’re very energetic. They love what they do. They’re humble. They’re just good, man. [Laughs.] Actually, we’re on the same label, so the call kind of got called down.
A lot of the stuff that I’ve been able to do, I don’t think people recognize it as far as the accomplishments. Like the s**t that I’ve done is easy to do! [Laughs.]
My man Monte Lipman—the president of Republic—called me up. He wasn’t the president of Republic when I first got there, but [since] I did Country Grammar, Monte has been there with me. He’s rode the whole Nelly train for a long time, and we’re real close. So he knows he can call and ask me for anything.
He called and said, "Yo, I want you to hear something. I think it would be dope if you could put something on it." I was like, "Let me listen." Obviously the song was already a huge country hit, but they thought maybe we could give it a twist and it could go further. I listened and I said, "Let me see what I can come up with." I did some things on it, put some things together, and, who knew?
What do you see as the relationship between hip-hop and country music?
I don’t know. See, this is the thing with that. It’s not something where I’m like “it’s country and rap and rap and country.” No, it’s just a song. I just happen to be a rapper. [Laughs.] It’s not like somebody’s trying to sit there and "mesh" whatever. People are going to like what they like. We came up with a dope track, and I’m pretty sure some other people are going to come up with [genre labels]. I’m not labeling it anything other than being a hit.
Like you said earlier, you’ve always had pop and melodic elements in your music. Early on you were criticized for it. But over the last few years hip-hop has gone even more in that direction, with artists like Drake or even Future, who’s on your album. Do you feel vindicated at all?
I just think it works. If something works, people are going to gravitate toward it, and people are going to put their own spin on it. I’m happy that I could bring something to the game that was worth being a part of and [that] people wanted to expand on it. I mean, I wasn’t the first one to be melodic. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony was melodic, Arrested Development was melodic, Cee Lo Green was melodic. It wasn’t like I was the first one with the melodies. Now, I probably was the first one to do it in a manner of making it my own sound each time I came out, or, therefore, doing my verses or my hook and my own bridges and my own songs. Now everybody’s taking it for what it is. I think it’s been there. I just think I expanded on it.
You get the "hot in here" joke every time. It doesn’t matter. It beats people hating you. And, again, it just lets you know the impact that you’ve had on peoples’ lives and [that] people remember you.
You’ve had a lot of commercial success, but do you think you’ve gotten the critical respect you deserve? Looking back, a lot of artists who came up as your contemporaries are beginning to be seen as these legacy artists. You performed with N*Sync and Britney Spears at the Super Bowl in 2001, and now they’re having reunions and doing runs in Vegas. Do you think you’ve been overlooked?
A lot of the stuff that I’ve been able to do, I don’t think people recognize it as far as the accomplishments. Like the shit that I’ve done is easy to do! [Laughs.] That can be what it is. But again, I’m still working, so time will tell. Maybe it’s not the right time to acknowledge my shit yet. Maybe it will be acknowledged later on. You never know.
Have you gotten to the point where you’re sick of hearing about things from the past? Even I’m sick of “hot in here” jokes. Are there lyrics that people always quote to you that you wish they wouldn’t?
[Laughs.] I mean, you get the "hot in here" joke every time. It doesn’t matter. It beats people hating you. And, again, it just lets you know the impact that you’ve had on peoples’ lives and [that] people remember you. It’s not a bad thing. It probably can get a little bit redundant, but what the fuck, it beats them hating.
What does Nelly do on a day-to-day basis at this point in your career?
I work. What do you think I do? I work. I live on the road. I’m constantly busy. If you’re not busy then something’s wrong. It’s not like I’m sitting at home twiddling my thumbs or like I’m building a garden in the back or some shit.