Nelly’s New Album ‘Heartland’ Proves Rap and Country Are Closer Than Ever

It was no surprise when “Country Grammar” – released in February 2000 – made Nelly one of the first new music stars of the 21st century.

The St. Louis rapper’s debut single combined a trunk-slamming beat with schoolyard rhymes, creating the perfect playground for a Midwestern artist with a distinct melodic streak.

“Country Grammar” was a worldwide hit, and the album that followed remains among the best-selling in hip-hop history.

But what was a surprise – for Nelly, at least – was a market in which her music was playing incredibly well. He got a taste of it during his early tours, when he found himself booked at festivals run not by rappers, but by country stars.

“We were just happy to be there,” Nelly recalls with a laugh. “We didn’t care. It’s packed, the check has been cashed, so we’re having a blast.”

FRANKLIN, TENNESSEE - SEPTEMBER 01: Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line and Nelly (C) take photos with their single Platinum for "a little" during CMT Crossroads: Nelly & friends at The Factory At Franklin on September 1, 2021 in Franklin, Tennessee.  (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images for CMT)

“A few years later, (I thought), ‘Wow, that’s something I don’t think I should ignore, because I don’t think everyone gets that kind of support.’ I always wanted to understand what was this love that was shown to me.”

Over the past two decades, Nelly has understood this, with work that has increasingly highlighted the connections between hip-hop, R&B and country. In 2004, he brought Tim McGraw to the rap airwaves with their collab “Over and Over.” A decade later, it was Nelly who blew up the country world with a chart-topping remix of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise.”

Now, the crossovers have culminated in Nelly’s country-inspired eighth album, “Heartland.” He sees it as “showing love to a world, to a whole genre of music that has accompanied Nelly since my first album”.

And 21 years later, he’s able to perform in that world with a class of country artists who have a similar musical vocabulary – in part because they grew up listening to him.

“He’s one of the first artists to really combine hip hop and country in a way that works,” says Breland, who did the same with recent hits “My Truck” and “Throw It Back.”

FRANKLIN, TENNESSEE - SEPTEMBER 01: Nelly and Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line perform onstage for CMT Crossroads: Nelly & Friends at The Factory At Franklin on September 01, 2021 in Franklin, Tennessee.  (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images for CMT)

“As someone who is sort of one of his musical descendants, having music with him and being part of this particular project has been really rewarding for me.”

With his Florida Georgia Line pals, “Heartland” includes collaborations with crossover star Kane Brown, as well as country-rap fusionists Blanco Brown (“The Git-Up”) and country mainstay Darius Rucker.

Breland and Blanco Brown join Nelly on one of the album’s highlights, “High Horse.” With a groove that blurs the lines between The Gap Band and Alabama, Nelly manages to name both Nudie’s Honky Tonk in Nashville and Magic City — an Atlanta “gentlemen’s club” that’s globally prominent. rap – in one verse.

Work on “Heartland” began in Nashville before the pandemic hit, and his songs, apparently, arrived quickly. Breland recalls that “High Horse” and Kane Brown’s feature film “Grits and Glamour” were written in one night.

“Lil’ bit hood, lil’ country/That’s just why she love me,” Nelly and Brown sing on “Grits.”

The chemistry found on “Heartland” is on full display with the latest episode of “CMT Crossroads,” which sees Nelly and most of her album collaborators share the stage for a special concert.

In addition to the tracks on the album, it’s particularly powerful to see Nelly lead Breland, Blanco Brown and Kane Brown on “Country Grammar” – a scene you couldn’t have imagined in the country world less than a decade ago. years.

“Evolution is inevitable,” says Nelly. “…All other music has been taken over by hip hop and some people have a hard time accepting it. But if you try to understand and work with it, it will be better for you than trying to put it out of side. Because it’s not going anywhere.”

“I can definitely hear, and I’m grateful as hell, man, that people appreciated my thoughts and my creativity, and felt that I added something to this game.”

This week, “Heartland” debuted at No. 7 on Billboard’s country album chart – a first for Nelly.

Carrefour CMT: Nelly and her friends

“CMT Crossroads: Nelly and Friends” airs again Friday at 9 p.m. CT on CMT Music, and later that night at 11 p.m. CT on BET.

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