After reminding fans of the strength of his discography with a nostalgic set during a Verzuz battle with Ludacris earlier this year, Nelly is gearing up for another big event. In honor of the 20th anniversary of his Diamond-certified debut album, Country Grammar, he is participating in a virtual concert on July 25, where he will perform the historic album in its entirety for the first time.
Twenty years after its release, Country Grammar is still considered one of the most pivotal rap albums of the 2000s. In 2016, it became the eighth rap album to reach Diamond certification (commemorating sales of 10 million or more copies) by the RIAA. But the album’s importance goes far beyond the numbers. Nelly suggests Country Grammar played a big role in influencing a new generation of rappers.
"I think [Country Grammar] allowed people from not just New York, L.A. or Atlanta—places that were already established—to believe that they could be a major player in this game if they worked their ass off, and if they came up with something that was appreciated by everybody," he tells Complex.
Though he won't take credit for being the first rapper to use melody, Nelly does acknowledge his influence on blurring genre lines across hip-hop music. "We don't know if hip-hop actually gets a chance to rock across different formats the way that it does without Country Grammar," he says. "We may hear pop radio and rhythmic, of course, but now we’re talking top 40 and country and some of these other formats that we may not have gotten the chance to be heard on." He adds, "I would say that I raised the bar as far as being able to have a hip-hop album that can compare to anybody's album: to a pop artist, to an R&B artist, to a country artist, or whatever."
The anniversary performance, which is held in partnership with virtual reality company MelodyVR, will be available to view for free through the MelodyVR mobile app, where fans will be virtually transported to a cutting-edge 360° studio in Los Angeles.
In preparation for the event, Complex spoke to Nelly about Country Grammar’s influence and legacy. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
Did you always plan to put on a concert for the 20th anniversary of Country Grammar?
Yeah, we did. We started coming into plans on it last year, around the 19th anniversary. We wanted to do something really dope for the city of St. Louis because, musically, we don't have that many options. This was one of them. It was supposed to be the first year of my festival that we had been planning for a couple years. We partnered with Live Nation and a lot of local businesses around the St. Louis area to bring something special—not just to St. Louis, but to the midwest as a whole. It was called My Smoking Hayride Festival. Considering that I had such a broad fan base that extends from country all the way to hip-hop, and everybody in between, I wanted it to be the first festival that combined country and hip-hop. We took five hip-hop acts and five country acts, and we were going to merge the two over a weekend in St. Louis. Unfortunately, that didn't turn out the way that we wanted. But we were able to thank some of the people for supporting Nelly for so long.
Did COVID play a role in the change of plans?
Yeah. It's definitely changed the outlook. I think it just changed the energy of it. It may not be as high-risk as some people may think, and it may not be as low-risk as some people may think. That's what we're still trying to figure out as a society. We're trying to figure out what we're dealing with. There are certain precautions that we're taking that we encourage people to take as well, which made the concert totally different, but totally still enjoyable. It just gave a different spin on it. But we weren't able to reach out to as many people as we would have hoped to for the anniversary. We weren't able to put on as big of a show as we would have liked, because that would have involved hundreds of people backstage, if not more, which is a no-no. I think the last concert that we actually did in St. Louis was downtown. I've still got pictures of it. We had well over 75,000 people in downtown St. Louis.
What’s your favorite memory from working on Country Grammar?
Creating the album was almost like me trying to get signed. That's the big story that I take from it, because I always say: it's expression, but it's also somebody's opinion. Just because your sound isn't hot at that second doesn't mean that your sound is not the future. I had four demo songs that I would go around and play for people, and I would send them to different record labels. All four of my demo songs were all four singles off of Country Grammar. So it's kind of hard if somebody [who heard the demo] says, "Oh, yeah, I remember him, but he didn't have those songs." No, those were the exact same songs I played.
Sometimes you can hear an artist and you say, "I heard a demo tape, but he was rapping like this or he's changed his style up or he's doing something different." That wasn't the case with me. I was shopping to get a deal with the same songs that you heard on the radio when Nelly dropped Country Grammar. The same songs that I was sitting with in people's offices cubicles, and sometimes at a restaurant or in a studio, or meeting them in a car. Those were the same records. Even though I did get it [the record deal], it was a little challenging at the time. [People would ask], "What is that sound? Is it a novelty? Is it something that's new today, gone tomorrow?" I can understand that, but I wanted somebody to take a chance, because I knew that we had something special.
Do you think you have a place in the conversation about popularizing melodic rap?
Well, this is a thin line for me, because I don't want to act like I don't understand my worth to the game. And then on the other hand, I don't want to act like I'm the first one to use melody. But I think it would do an injustice to everything that I worked for to act like I don't have a significant influence on the game. And the thing about my melody is, all of my songs were different. "Ride Wit Me" don't sound like "Country Grammar." And “"Country Grammar" don't sound like "E.I." And "E.I." don't sound like "Batter Up." None of those sound the same.
For me, it was just an approach of being able to find the way in the beat. That was just my whole thing. Whatever the beat is doing, that's what my approach is, which is what a lot of people do today. If you look at a lot of the people who are killing it melodically, they can switch it up from song to song, but still be in pocket. It's a different flow, but they're still doing them. That's the only thing I wanted to do. I wanted you to still be able to tell that it's Nelly on the record, even if I was doing something different. Thankfully, people understood that when it came to me and they allowed me to do it.
“Me making the doorway wider, and then having so many other people walk through it, I would say is undeniable.”
Do you think you paved the way for other artists to cross over to country music or blend genres?
Well, I can't say for sure, but I could say you recognize it more ever since I did it. I can't say that I was the first one, because I have influences of CeeLo Green and Goodie Mob, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Do or Die from Chicago, Arrested Development. I don't want to be saying my age, but when I was born, there was no rap on the radio. My uncle and my pops, they're the ones who got me into music, but they were playing the greats: Al Green, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, all the way down to Michael McDonald. So, it's crazy the barometer upon which I grew up listening to different types of music. Then when hip-hop hit, I knew that this was it. When LL [Cool J] came out, it was a wrap, because I didn't know you can like girls and rap at the same time. Before L, all the rappers sounded a little bit angry, or they were more message-driven.
So yeah, it would be tough for me to say that I was the one that did it first. I had help opening up the doorway. But me making the doorway wider, and then having so many other people walk through it, I would say is undeniable. Like, Michael Jordan wasn't the first one to drive through the air from the free throw line. But it's something about the way he did it that made it a little bit doper.
What do you think Country Grammar’s greatest influence is on the next generation of rappers?
I think it allowed people from not just New York, L.A. or Atlanta—places that were already established—to believe that they could be a major player in this game if they worked their ass off, and if they came up with something that was appreciated by everybody. They could have success if they just tried and gave it their all. The thing about rap is, it always changes. Nobody holds it down forever. Evolution is inevitable. Things always must change. But I instilled that belief in a lot of people that aren't from those major contributing cities: If you come up with something you can really sink your teeth into and relate to with other people, you could be at the top of the game. That's all I ever wanted to do, was just be heard, man.
“It'd be horrible for people to deny my influence on this game, because who is not singing their own hooks now and putting the melody into their music?”
Did you always intend to disrupt the musical landscape in the early 2000s, which had focused more on New York and Atlanta rap?
Oh, yeah. Of course. I mean, I got our biggest landmark on the cover. The first song on the album is “St. Louie.” My goal definitely was to let whomever would listen know that where I'm from, we're just as talented and just as capable of being in this thing called music and artistic expression as anybody else. And not to say that I was first, because obviously we had such legends as Angela Winbush, Chuck Berry, and Ike and Tina. But as far as hip-hop goes, we were able to come out when we came out and expand those boundaries of hip-hop as far as bringing in more listeners. We had kids whose parents might not have ever let them buy hip-hop records in their life, who were able to buy a Nelly record. That broke the ice and led them into a new direction. That was beautiful, man. I definitely think that was more of the goal, but that would also lead me to my other goal of being successful.
Where would you rank Country Grammar in your discography?
I don't think that's for artists to do. I don't think artists get the chance to rank themselves. I mean, I'm a competitor. I've been playing sports my whole life. I believe I can beat anybody, even if I know I can't. Like, I believe I can beat Michael Jordan playing basketball, but if you asked me if I know, then I know I can't. But I'm going to believe I can with everything I have when I step out there. So I don't know. That's a tough question.
But on the other side, it'd be horrible for people to deny my influence on this game, because who is not singing their own hooks now and putting the melody into their music? When I came into the game, I put rap in the context of being able to survive with all genres of music. When you go to the Grammys now, we can get nominated for the best album compared to everybody, because sonically we're there. I would say that I raised the bar as far as being able to have a hip-hop album that can compare to anybody's album: to a pop artist, to an R&B artist, to a country artist, or whatever.
If you never came out with another project after Country Grammar, do you think you would've been able to make the same impact?
Without Country Grammar, I don't gain the confidence and understanding that my way of thinking and my approach works. So maybe I don't dig deep into my bag as far as "Over and Over Again" and things like that. "Dilemma" too. Those may not happen if I don't understand that I can do me, and they are accepting me. There's not going to be anybody out there who could have really accomplished "Over and Over." People like to look at "Cruise (Remix)," but "Cruise" was 10 years after "Over and Over." And "Old Town Road" and things like that, does that come? We don't know if hip-hop actually gets a chance to rock across different formats the way that it does without Country Grammar. We may hear pop radio, rhythmic, of course, but now we're talking maybe top 40 and Country and some of these other formats that we may not have gotten the chance to be heard on.
As a veteran in the industry, what's the most important thing people should know about you right now?
The most important thing is that it's hard to say that you want to be liked or loved, because I think when you say that, then it's your way of saying that you will sometimes step outside of yourself for other people's approval. That's something that I would not do. Now, it's always a blessing and it's beautiful when people do, but I wanted to lead my people—the people that were counting on me, my family, my friends, my city—to a better situation. We didn't have a lot of college graduates and people that were doing things in our family. With my success, I was able to help cousins and other people stay focused and keep inspiring them to go on to bigger and better things. At the end of the day, I would just say that I love my family, man. I love my people.