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It has been more than a decade since Nelly first made a name for himself with his 2000 debut Country Grammar. Since then he’s churned out three No. 1 hits and solidified his spot as a hip-hop and pop icon. In fact, he’s one of the best-selling rappers ever, with over 21 million copies of his six albums moved in the U.S.
With all that productivity, it came as a bit of a surprise when the Grammy winner decided to take a three-year hiatus before releasing his seventh studio album, M.O. (out Tuesday, Oct. 8).
But the break wasn’t spent resting. Rather, Nelly focused on other endeavors including two clothing lines, nonprofit work, hosting gigs, endorsement deals and some acting stints. Currently, he stars in the BET comedy series Real Husbands of Hollywood alongside Kevin Hart and Nick Cannon.
Musically, Nelly has also been riding high. His “Just a Dream” was a bona fide smash in 2010 and he’s hoping for similar success with M.O.’s two singles, “Hey Porsche” and “Get Like Me,” featuring Nicki Minaj. Of course, when it comes to pop music, the public tends to have a short memory — hence the saying, “You’re only as good as your last hit” — but this St. Louis native isn’t bothered. He has a plan to regain his crown, as he explained in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
How would you describe the current state of music?
It’s just a game. It is what it is. I’m not one of those people saying this is how things should be because you can spend your time dwelling on it or you can work within the system. The system just is what it is. Every generation thinks that their music is the best. I remember the hip-hop in the ’90s, people were saying the ’80s was better. It will always be that way. Hopefully you can put out a product people find innovative. Especially when you do what I did and take a three years off. You could barely get away with that back in that day.
How do you split your time between Real Husbands of Hollywood, your label, your clothing line and music commitments?
That’s a little bit of what has taken three years. Just trying to find that time. There are only so many hours in the day, so many days in the month, so many months in the year. You gotta figure that out as you go along and find out the best way you can do two or three things at once. I don’t have the blueprint. I’m more or less a workaholic and I try to keep working and branching out. Fortunately I have a nice array of fans that hang out with Nelly a little bit and that support it. The Real Husbands of Hollywood — that’s a real dope scenario. The cast is great and getting to have fun in something that’s not a stressful scenario is well-needed.
Are there more acting roles in your future?
I think yes. As you expand a little more you get into more of the television and the movies. Recently, I finished a movie called Reach Me, which was awesome. I try to find the right roles and I never try to disrespect the culture that is acting. I know I can’t play every role right at this second. Not without going through the training and the practice.
You have a track on M.O. called “Rick James” — how did that come together?
I love the “Rick James” track — it’s something a little bit different and it’s very creative at a time when a lot of people are following suit when it comes to selling records. Obviously when you get to doing stuff — with me and Pharrell, our chemistry is a little different. First of all, it’s a great chemistry but we push each other to the limit. We try to create like no other, as far as what other people may not be able to pull off that only he and I can pull off. My fans have allowed me to be very diverse in the type of music that I put out. I can go from one extreme to the next.
Did you claim some credit for the trend of rappers linking up with unlikely collaborators?
I don’t think it’s that I had something to do with it as much as I inspired it. I wasn’t the first rapper to collaborate. You have Method Man and Mary J. Blige and a lot of people who brought that formula to the game and made people go, “Holy shit.” I think that I was doing it in a way that crossed all formats. Even the Method Man and Mary J. joint, it was mainly more of an urban, R&B type of track. When I was able to do it, it ran across the table format-wise all the way to pop, rhythm and things like that. In that sense, I could see the similarities when people take it to another level like that.
Who have you become a fan of in the rap game since you have been gone?
Drake is someone who has been able to make a good lane for himself by being inspired by several different people. I love 2 Chainz — I think he brings his own swag to the table. J. Cole is also real dope. I think everybody is figuring out exactly what they need to do.
How careful are you when it comes to lyrical content these days? Verses about “Molly” are permeating the airwaves while kids in middle America are dying from abusing that drug.
First off, this is an art. This is not being politically correct. This is emotion. I think you feel a responsibility to express yourself the best way you know how and try to be truthful about it. A lot of times, people — as in media folk — they want to promote what they want to promote. That’s the word that gets out a lot of times. The media can control how they want views to come out and how they want to say it.
Every hip-hop artist I know has a nonprofit organization, but nobody talks about that. First thing they want to do is talk about the bad shit, not how many families they employ or how many kids they sent to school. They want to [blame] the problems of the world on hip-hop because we’re the lowest voice on the totem pole.
Nobody speaks up for us the way that they may speak up for other genres of music. But that’s cool because it doesn’t stop us. We know what’s going on and we continuously do things in our communities a lot of people may not do. I don’t think any other genre of music possibly gives back to their neighborhoods as much as hip-hop does. I don’t see it.
Will hip-hop always be on the bottom of totem pole or do you see it changing?
We’re the easiest scapegoat. I’m not gonna front — we don’t make it hard for them with a lot of the things we do. But you have to understand that a lot of people in hip-hop think socially. We come from places that don’t always get a chance to be heard. When we do step on the scene, we kind of jell over topics some people don’t want to hear [about].
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