Nessly on His Evolving Sound, New Project 'Wildflower' & Atlanta's Influence on Hip-Hop
Nessly's exuberant, animated personality is felt almost immediately as he waltzed into the Billboard offices on the eve of the release of his highly anticipated project Wildflower.
The rapper, clad in a fuzzy red sweater and lavender-drenched braids, beamed with excitement and headed straight toward a dry-erase board propped up on the wall. "Professor Nessly" he wrote on the board before turning his attention to the room filled with his managers, publicist and girlfriend and proclaimed, "Welcome to class." His excitement stems from a number of things, including the fact that he's on his first-ever press tour and is anxiously waiting to unload his first full project since 2016's solo boy band.
As an aspiring artist with big dreams of entering the rap realm, Nessly said he churned out songs daily in order to perfect his craft, but it wasn't until 2015 that he started to see the fruits of his labor, as his play count on SoundCloud rapidly increased. After getting the attention of media outlets, especially OVO Sound Radio, Nessly's confidence skyrocketed. "That was the first time I felt like things were happening for me. I didn’t feel like it was just a hobby, even though it was never really a hobby for me," he told Billboard. "I was like, finally, my foot is in the door."
It didn't take long for others to catch on to Nessly's wave, as the Atlanta upstart channels the melodic, trap-laden style that makes up much of Atlanta's signature sound but fuses it with his own distinct flair to create a sound he says is indefinable.
Below, Nessly discusses his "constantly evolving" sound, his new project Wildflower, and Atlanta's role in shaping hip-hop.
Let's go back to the moment music became a major part of your life. When did you start to create music?
I’ve always thought it was major, but not when I started making music. I’ve been making music since I was 12; I’m currently 23. I didn’t realize it would start having some movement until maybe 2015. I started to get love from all over with my origins on SoundCloud. I was breaking a lot of boundaries as far as play count.
I came from SoundCloud when it was still emerging as a platform and it was at the time when 10,000 plays felt like the equivalent of 10 million plays. So when average people were uploading songs that got like 150 plays, I was getting 10,000, 20,000 plays, and that’s when I first made the realization, like, "Wow, I’m starting to gain traction and a real fanbase."
Some of the big looks I received were from OVO Radio, HotNewHipHop, and this was all off of my energy, nothing forced. I didn’t send any emails out -- and I have gone that route before -- but this was all God.
How did it feel to get that OVO stamp of approval?
Well, I got a notification from people on Twitter like “Nessly’s on OVO!” like the day before or after my birthday, so it felt like a gift. That was the first time I felt like things were happening for me.
You mentioned that you started at a young age but didn’t start to gain traction until about 2015. What would you say helped you reach that level of success where you were getting recognition from OVO and all these new fans as well?
Just stepping outside of my comfort zone. I would sleep on hardwood floors. I would go on Greyhound buses to New York, to Toronto, which is really how I built my fanbase -- like, the strength came from Toronto, so I think that’s what made the OVO thing possible.
I would do shows for basically free. Like I would tell them to give me a place to stay and enough for the bus. I would risk myself to complete strangers, and now I understand the risk I took, but back then, I didn’t care because I just wanted to be seen and heard. The more flyers I could get on, the better; the more parties I could perform at, the better.
Was music big in your household?
Music was big in my household. My father played the guitar and my mother is from Belize, so she listens to a wide variety of things; she listens to native music where she’s from, and growing up I could remember the songs word-for-word. My father listened to a lot of Sade, Red Hot Chilli Peppers -- I still listen to that stuff, like I have Red Hot Chilli Peppers on my phone.
I listened to rap first, but I was introduced to music through rock, and even in the beginning stages, I really wanted to make rock because of the aesthetic. When I was 6, 7 years old, I didn’t want to be a firefighter, I wanted to be a rock star, because that’s all my dad listened to. My mom listened to like Phil Collins, Paula Abdul, the classic '80s, early '90s stuff, which I feel like attributes to my melodies and the way I attack certain choruses or the production I choose.
Glad you touched on melodies, because you do have this knack for smooth melodies. Where else does this love come from?
Atlanta. Atlanta’s sound has always been very playful and we’re experimental when it comes to music. I hear a lot of Atlanta in some of the biggest music today. It’s sort of like a modern-day Motown in a way. A lot of the production from any location has something Atlanta-based like the 808s, the bassline -- these are things we popularized.
Melodies are another thing we popularized. We had this movement like around 2009 that we called “futuristic” -- it’s very local and it’s not what you might think of when you hear “futuristic.” It’s its own genre, and Future actually started using “futuristic” beats. That’s how I first discovered him.
How does “futuristic” sound?
It sounds like nursery rhymes over trap drums, but not like a Lil B song. They sound like… Rich Kidz is one of the people that started it. Honestly, “futuristic” is like the unpolished, dirty version of what we have now. If you go back and listen and then listen to all the years leading up to now, you’ll hear the evolution.
What would you say your music sounds like?
I think it’s best described as “constantly evolving” -- there is no definition. You have to listen to Nessly with an open mind, because my music can be perfect for a Saturday night, it could be perfect for just sitting at home with the lights off, it touches people. My aesthetic has grown. I’ve gotten to know myself better as a person and just admitting to myself who I really am and be in touch with myself.
In 2007, you had Dem Franchize Boyz, D4L, very basic club records, and I just wanted to be a rapper, I didn’t know what it meant, I didn’t understand anything about it, but I knew that I wanted to be a part of it. I enjoyed it so much and I would sit there literally every night from I was 12 to 19, I made a song every single night. I had surgery and I brought my equipment to the hospital. I go through a deep depression if I don’t make music for a long period of time -- it’s embedded in my veins.
Atlanta is brimming with talent, from Young Thug to Lil Yachty and Future. How would you say you’ve differentiated yourself?
The way I explain it to a lot of people is: Atlanta served as the basis for a lot of what comes out next. For example, Playboi Carti has a very simple flow that opens the door for a lot of artists with that same approach or Pierre Bourne beats, you have New York artists like 6ix9ine taking that Atlanta-styled production and making one of the biggest songs in New York.
It all stems from Atlanta. The Auto-Tune wave was extremely strong because of artists like Young Thug. I’m a huge fan of Thug. But I was also influenced by Lil Wayne -- I would do the [imitates Lil Wayne’s trademark laugh] on my earlier music, like steal his voice completely.
Did you do the lighter sound at the beginning of songs like Wayne does too?
I did the lighter thing, I’m not even joking! A lot of my music emulated what I liked and I still emulate the past a lot like I still use early elements of Drake music, Lil Wayne’s auto-tune, Kanye West’s production so all of these things meshed together make Nessly. It’s a fresh idea based off of elements of my influences. I’m always ready to reinvent, that’s what differentiates me.
I realized you speak a lot about Michael Jackson in your songs.
I talk about him every project, I’ve done it on every single project. When I was 6 or 7 years old, I had this summer camp I went to and my mom couldn’t make it to this talent show and I sang “Billie Jean” word-for-word because that’s one of my favorite songs ever. I asked my dad if I could sell his CDs to FYE, and I bought Michael Jackson’s Greatest Hits CD. I had an MJ glove and everything, like I used to wear it like it was fashionable.
I came across a tweet you wrote where you said, “I LITERALLY MADE THE BEST ALBUM OF THE ENTIRE 2010s! I STAND BEHIND THAT 110%!” At what point during the recording process did you realize you had one of your “best” albums on hand?
Every project I make is my best project. [Laughs] As a creative, I feel very in-tune with myself and I’m sure of myself. My approach is going to inspire somebody to be better and bigger and add a new dimension to rap.
What’s your approach like?
I don’t write.
Everything is off the dome.
Do you find yourself going back to your old music to get inspired?
Yeah, I listen to myself all the time because I don’t think anyone has a similar approach. But I’m also inspired by people like Future, Young Thug -- that’s who I listen to besides me.
Did your work ethic change much after you got signed to Republic Records?
It’s the same. I’m in new environments. I get to record in bigger studios, I record in front of people which I never really do.
TM88 produced some of the songs on Wildflower. How’d you guys connect?
He messaged me on Twitter and we Facetimed -- we already had one song called “Falling Down” -- and he just wanted to come through and vibe out. He heard what I created and what Wildflower already was and he was like let me get on board, I want to help you take it to the next level.
You seem to have this love for art, like the cover art for your first two projects have this floral theme but on Wildflower, you’re surrounded by all types of females with this deadpan expression.
Well I come up with all of my artwork like I’m the creative director, stylist, everything. For solo boy band, I created the rose sweater myself. I cut up all these fake flowers and pinned them on the shirt while we were on set. So the story just grows with the project. Before I settled on Wildflower, there were two names I was going to name the project – There’s a Fire in the Prairie Field and Wildfire.
But I felt like Wildflower fit more with what I wanted to say which was there’s beauty in destruction like there’s sadness in destruction but something beautiful comes from it. With Wildflower, it sounds a bit prettier and the words “wild” and “flower” don’t go together but it shows the beauty and the ugly. I’m a wild flower in this instance -- I’ve always set the imagery of flowers with Nessly.
Is there a special moment behind the creation of the album you’re most proud of?
I’d say creating “Thank God” and “Ungrateful” -- they started as the same song and the production is pretty much the same. I probably recorded that song over three weeks and I usually knock out a song in 20 minutes but I cared so much about each flow, ad-lib, the pronunciation of each word and it mattered so much to me that I was stressing about that song. I would lay down a hook in one session and then come back the next day like, “This isn’t good, it’s not perfect.”
It was difficult to create because I really pushed myself to show who I really am, show what I enjoy lyrically about myself, show that I’m inclined musically and lyrically and sonically and I can put together the best songs I can. I feel like this was one of my most iconic songs. This song was almost like [Kanye West’s] “All of the Lights” for me, that’s how I look at it or “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” which is my favorite song ever so I won’t say that because I want my “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” to be stronger than this. I want my own “Can’t Tell me Nothing” moment.
Would you say Wildflower is one of your classics then?
You don’t define a classic, you can approach it as such but the people decide and if I were to have a classic on my hand, then this definitely has the potential to be one.