Nelly first dipped his toes in country music nearly a decade and a half ago. Now, the legendary rapper, who’s won multiple Grammys and sold over 21 million records worldwide, is returning to the genre with the upcoming release of the Heartland EP. If you want a preview of how successfully he merges the lines between the two genres, his latest single “Little Bit,” featuring country duo Florida Georgia Line, is out now — and currently sitting at the top of the iTunes Country chart.
It’s funny how things work out. Speaking over Zoom, Nelly explains how he found time to work on the Heartland EP during the pandemic: even in the midst of working with Budweiser, finishing 3rd on Dancing with the Stars, and getting set to play rock and roll legend Chuck Berry in the forthcoming biopic, Clear Lake. “I probably spent about three to four weeks in Nashville working with some of the dopest producers and writers and things like that, just bringing this thing together,” he says.
Now that Heartland is coming in the near future, Nelly is preparing to show the world his appreciation for the country genre that comes from years of mental preparation. “The creative process for this is something that I’ve been building up to, probably, over the course of my career,” he says. To think that it’s creation largely came from circumstances created by the pandemic. “This was something that was a little different and I don’t know if I would’ve been able to really get it all to where I want it, if it was not for COVID.”
Nelly sat down with BET.com to discuss the making of “Little Bit,” the best part about recording the Heartland EP, what he’s working on in the future, and more. Check out the full conversation, lightly edited for clarity, below.
BET.com: Tell me about the making of “Little Bit.” What inspired it?
Nelly: Well, the creative process for this is something that I’ve been building up to, probably, over the course of my career. Probably after I did “Over and Over” with Tim McGraw. And that moment has led to this and my Heartland EP that’ still a Nelly album, but will be country-influenced. I don’t want people to think that I just woke up one day and wanted to do a country album. I have so much respect for country music, country artists, and everything that they go through. This EP is showing my inspiration for loving and appreciating it. It’s all been about making sure that the timing was right, so to speak.
So, I would think probably a bunch of things, been a long time coming and just trying to make sure the timing was right, so to speak.
BET.com: “Over And Over” was an unexpected smash hit when it was released in 2004. How did the success of that play into coming back with “Little Bit” now?
Nelly: Seeing how people gravitated to it, accepted it and were open-minded about it. I think as a artist, when you’re thinking of things in your head and you’re being creative, and you come across certain textures that you want to try to get across to people, as far as, “Yo, I think this is a dope record,” let’s see if you can listen to the record without being judgmental, because you think that this other artist that’s on it is from a genre of music that you may not like. I think once you can break down those barriers and get across it, if you just listen to the music, you can learn to appreciate it. And that was my point, and that’s what I go into when I go into collaborating with somebody that may not be in my genre of music. I was just happy that everybody got the music.
BET.com: You’ve been working with country heavyweights like Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen. What’s the journey been like to become established in this industry?
Nelly: It’s a blessing, first of all, to have artists that want to work with you. But I think it’s one of those situations where you just feel fortunate, bro, that you can do these things. I hate saying that, but that is the case, because everybody doesn’t get these opportunities.
BET.com: How will country music shape the essence of Heartland?
Nelly: It’s still a Nelly album. Don’t get it twisted, it’s influenced by country music. It’s my appreciation for it and the artists that I listen to and some of the artists that I’ve been able to collaborate with. But again, I think it’s that sound of how country music has influenced Nelly. It’s still going to be a Nelly album, it’s just going to have a country vibe to it.
BET.com: What’s been the funnest part of making Heartland for you?
Nelly: Just being in that aura. I probably spent about three to four weeks in Nashville working with some of the dopest producers and writers and things like that, just bringing this thing together. And I think the best part about it was that I had so many people from that genre of music and those creative spaces that have created so many big country records wanting to get in and work with me.
BET.com: With Heartland being an EP, are you currently working on another album?
Nelly: Yeah, definitely. I’m always recording, always in the studio. Heartland is just a project that I’ve been waiting to do for so long. It’s the idea that’s been festering and I finally got a chance to really sit down, hunker down, and get into it. This was something that was a little different and I don’t know if I would’ve been able to really get it all to where I want it, if it was not for COVID. And I know how crazy that sounds, but I’m talking about being able to be stabilized and really sink your teeth into making sure that this project is where you want it to be. But I don’t know. I’ve got a lot of other music as well that I’ve been working on. After we run through this, get on the road, hopefully everything opens back up and I can get out and promote the project, I’m planning on running right into something else. I don’t know exactly what that is yet, but we’re definitely going to keep it moving.
(Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images)