Nelly Brings Rap-Country Twang to the 'Heartland'

BY Louis PavlakosPublished Sep 3, 2021

There was some understandable skepticism when Nelly announced Heartland, his newest album that's more country than anything he's put out so far. Nelly's first foray into proper country music came in 2004 when he collaborated with Tim McGraw on "Over and Over" a song that dominated the country charts, peaking at No. 3 on Billboard's Top 100. He then dabbled with country music again in 2013 on "Cruise," featuring Florida Georgia Line. Despite this success, fans who'd grown up on his anthems like "Ride wit Me" and "Country Grammar (Hot Shit)" didn't embrace it.

Luckily enough, there's not one song on Heartland that sinks to the level of "Cruise." A second collaboration with Florida Georgia Line, "Lil Bit," is catchier and far less annoying. The country-tandem of Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley are relegated to hook duties, keeping their presence to a welcome minimum. Nelly, on the other hand, sounds right at home on the track. Even if the lyrics aren't exactly ear-shattering ("From the front to the back, hip-hop or the hoedown / Got the game on the go route / I'm the black Tom Brady in this, I'm the GOAT now"), the track is a clear-cut example of how comfortable Nelly sounds exploring his country sound.

Heartland's brevity is what makes it as palatable as it is. Across its nine tracks, Nelly rarely ever sings with a signature country twang. He raps as normally as he would, it's just the instrumentation that leans more into the conventions of modern country music. Sometimes it works, like on "Grits & Glamour," the album's centrepiece, featuring Kane Brown. Similar to "Lil Bit," it lacks on the lyrical front ("I'm a straight shooter like my last name Curry / Too many hoes, I got thirty under thirty") but makes up for it with Brown's sticky hook and twangy vocals. It's far more a pop-rap song than it is full-fledged country, but it should be the song that sticks with Nelly's traditional pop fanbase.

Nelly succeeds on the album when he's making radio-friendly bangers. On "High Horse" with BRELAND and Blanco Brown, he's at his best. The allure of the track, however, comes from the guests who make the song as Southern-sounding as it is. In fact, most of what makes sound Heartland authentic are the guests, who've spent their lives making proper country music — Nelly's just tagging along for the ride.

While the first half of Heartland is the rodeo, the second half is the aftermath. On "Someone Somewhere" and "Follow Me," Nelly sounds like he fell asleep at the wheel. The uplifting nature of the tracks seems better on paper than it is in practice. The songs' respective guests, George Birge and Chris Bandi, don't add anything other than a Southern voice to make the song sound, well, country.

Surprisingly, the only track on the latter half that doesn't sound like a throwaway is the one Nelly handles by himself, "5 Drinks Ago." He sings with a vulnerability that isn't seen anywhere else on the album ("And that was five drinks ago, five drinks ago / When you were just somebody that I used to know / When I was thinking sober, we were good and over"). It's unfortunate that it's buried between the worst songs on the short project, because it's the only track where the St. Louis legend shows he can make decent country music by himself.

Heartland probably won't make a mark outside of major cities in the U.S., but it's still Nelly's best album in over a decade, mainly because it takes risks he hadn't taken since his Country Grammar era. It may be far from perfect, but a reinvigorated Nelly is a welcome addition to an already stacked year in hip hop.

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