Ahead of the album release, Nelly discussed the inspiration of Heartland, amplifying nonwhite country artists and where he expects to go from here. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
You’ve been talking about releasing a project like this for a minute. When did you start thinking about and collecting these songs?
The idea of the project has been ever since “Over and Over” -- so since 2004, 2005, after seeing that success. But the only reason I even thought that I could have success with “Over and Over” was because, even when we dropped Country Grammar, we were getting so much love from this community. We were getting booked at fairs, at rodeos, and functions within the country world. When you’re just getting on, you don’t give a damn who’s out in the audience -- you’re just happy that somebody is listening to you! [Laughs.] We were looking around like, “This is interesting,” because I’m standing in the middle of a bull ring or some s--t! We were St. Louis boys, and it was amazing, all the love we were getting.
So even from that perspective, going into “Over and Over,” I had a love and respect for country music. Early on, that was led by my uncle -- through Lionel Richie, and what Lionel Richie was doing as a songwriter. I found out that Lionel Richie wasn’t just writing great songs in pop and R&B, but also in the country world -- which was amazing to me, because this guy’s a Commodore! That’s gotta be one of the all-time biggest Black groups ever! And here you are, you’ve got this brother with this huge afro, writing all these hit records in this world. That’s when I knew that the music was so transcendent.
Once I understood that, it led me towards “Over and Over.” After that I was playing with [country music], just playing around with it, but I didn’t want to think I knew exactly what to do right then. Just because I had success with one song, does that mean I should put a whole album out? I was still kind of unclear about certain things -- and the last thing I wanted to do was offend anybody by thinking I know something about a certain genre of music, just because I’ve had success in it once. I never wanted to take that for granted. And after doing “Cruise,” and doing my homework to get more familiar with Nashville and everything, it became a lot easier to know how to navigate and create this project, to bring it to fruition.
What other country music were you listening to as a kid?
Not a lot, as a kid. My father and my uncle -- it was like, in order to understand music a little bit more, you must be exposed to all of it, in some way, shape or form. My uncle made sure I was aware of all music, whether it was classical, jazz, country. And then growing up in the Midwest, in St. Louis, which has a huge country music following... I evolved more once I got into music -- I made a point to be aware of all different types of music.
When you look at the charts, I don’t care what chart it’s on -- if it’s winning, I want to know about it. I want to pay attention to who’s winning and why they’re winning, because at the end of the day we’re all artists. We’re all digging into this craft and trying to explain ourselves through music and do different things. So I wouldn’t say that, as a kid, I was overly enthused about listening to country -- at our house, it wasn’t our music of choice. But we did love Kenny Rogers, “Lady” and “The Gambler,” Dolly Parton, things like that.
You’ve linked back up with Florida Georgia Line after the “Cruise” remix for “Lil Bit” on this project. Have you stayed in touch with those guys over the years?
Always. They’re my cats. They’re brothers, man. We stay on a group chat, on individual chats, always giving each other s--t. I’m just so proud of them, becoming who they dreamed about wanting to become. When I first met them, they were young and bachelors, no kids, out here thuggin’. Now they’re these great husbands and great fathers and great entrepreneurs in different realms. It’s an honor to call them brothers.
And then on the other end of the spectrum, you have artists that have just bubbled up over the past few years, like Breland and Blanco Brown, on the song “High Horse.” What impressed you about them?
Just their talent. They love what they do, and they love to do it. It’s a situation where you go, real recognize real. The brothers are so talented, with their vocals, their ideas. They live through their music, and totally get it.
You have Kane Brown, Darius Rucker and Jimmie Allen all on this project as well -- all of these voices that have broken through as nonwhite artists in a predominantly white genre. Was that something you thought about while putting together this project?
Hell yeah! Hell yeah. It’s definitely on purpose. If not me, then who? If I come into this situation understanding the parallel, and not trying to help out the situation as best as possible -- I mean, I have respect for the country world, and out of that respect, I felt like this was something that I had to do. If anybody was going to bring these brothers together, these talented brothers in this world, I felt that it was an honor that it could be me. Being able to do it -- and then do it in a fashion that I feel is off the charts, because all of the songs are just dope -- it’s not done just to be done. It makes sense, it all makes sense.
Do you have conversations with these artists about country music in general, what inspires them, the state of the industry -- things like that?
We have all kinds of conversations. Sometimes they’re on-brand, sometimes they’re off-brand. The majority of the time, they’re all about music, and just how we’re feeling and what we’re doing. I’m actually getting ready to go out with Blanco, and we’re trying to get a few dates with Breland in there too.
We have those conversations, but we’re all old enough and mindful enough that we understand what’s going on. So it’s not like it has to be said -- we get it. It’s almost like we’re all pulling for each other, in a way, all the way up to the OG Darius all the way down to the youngest member, Breland. And everyone in between -- me, Kane, Blanc. We all get it, so hopefully a few more things get recognized with this project.
Are you thinking about more country-inspired music after this?
I don’t know! One thing I credit my fans for, and that I’m very thankful for, is being able to be musically free. I don’t have to be categorized, you know what I mean? I am hip-hop, I love rap, that’s just who I am. But as far as my music, I get a chance to express myself in whatever lane that is possible, because we all know that nothing is just one-dimensional nowadays. We were fortunate enough that a lot of brothers before me inspired me by being melodic, and I was able to expand it and bring melodic [hip-hop] all across various charts. Now if you can’t be melodic when you rap, it’s almost like an old [style] -- just hearing a rapper that doesn’t do any melody. So I just think it’s a little different.