There was a time when Nelly was arguably the hottest rapper out. Jay-Z even alluded to it on “Excuse Me Miss”: “Only dudes moving units/Em, Pimp Juice, and us.” Unfortunately, the digital era hasn’t been particularly kind to the St. Louis rapper. Nelly had big sales the first half of this decade, but his last hit was 2005’s “Grillz” and his last album, 2008’s Brass Knuckles, was considered by many to be a flop. All of that might be turning around, though, as the St. Louis rapper’s single “Just A Dream” is currently sitting at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, and his upcoming album 5.0 is due in a month. Complex caught up with Nelly to talk about the pressures of a comeback, his influence on modern rap, and the rumors surrounding his relationship with Ashanti…
Interview by Ernest Baker
Complex: Why do you still live in St. Louis instead of New York or L.A.?
Nelly: I’m a country nigga, man. I ain’t going that way. I love living in the Midwest and the South. I love New York for being New York. I love L.A. for being L.A. But when it comes home, I’m a Midwest, South type of dude. I like open roads, I like to drive, and it may not be as fast, but it’s definitely a place where you get to appreciate a lot more. Not saying that you don’t up here, but that’s not what I’m accustomed to.
Complex: The new album is called 5.0. Is there any significance to that besides the fact that it’s your fifth project?
Nelly: Obviously, it’s my fifth drop date. Sixth album. Sweat and Suit came out on the same day. I think for me, if you know anything about a 5.0, that being a 5.0 Mustang, you know the classic, the cleanest, the muscle, the energy, the intensity, and I think that’s what it is for me. I think if they get a chance to really look at it, they’ll see it’s a classic Nelly album with the energy and muscle of what previous albums have been up to this point. Not saying that it sounds like any other album I’ve ever done. But you can still feel the Nelly of all those albums put here into this one album.
Complex: Well, I think one of the reasons there’s been this reaction to “Just A Dream” is because it’s taking people back to 2002. It fits into this new era, but it calls on a lot of your really successful past records. Is that something you went for or that’s just how it happened?
Nelly: I’ma be real with you, yo. Sometimes as an artist when things come easy to you, you look for other avenues that are more challenging to you and you try to walk those lanes. When it comes to songs like “Just A Dream,” “Ride With Me,” and “Over And Over”—that shit come easy to me! I don’t mean to sound like I could just go out there and make an album filled with “Just A Dream”s and have them all be successful. Nobody could do that, but the point is, when I’m doing certain things or projects that I think could be a little more challenging to me, sometimes I overdo myself and I fuck up.
Complex: Do you feel like you “fucked up” with Brass Knuckles?
Nelly: I feel like a lot of things went into that. I feel like a lot of things fucked that up—don’t get me wrong, I still got a plaque and I still sold over 500,000 units on that album. That compared to Nelly numbers is considered not winning, but that’s only considered not winning compared to Nelly numbers.
Complex: Eight million with Country Grammar. Six million with Nellyville.
Nelly: Exactly. The last album had a lot of push-backs and mix-ups on the dates. You can only push an album back so many times. I think the biggest thing was, I had people like, “I didn’t know it was out! When did it come out?” It was that type of reaction, so I don’t know. It’s a career.
Complex: So with 5.0 on the way, times are different and just going platinum is very successful. Over-the-top successful is only double platinum. When you were coming out, a No. 1 record got you eight million albums sold. Now “Just A Dream” could be hit No. 1 for weeks and 5.0 might not even go platinum.
Nelly: Or you might not even go gold! Like, there’s people that have No. 1 records and can’t get gold albums.
Complex: Exactly. Is that something that’s hard for you to adjust to?
Nelly: I think when an artist gets the No. 1 record as opposed to some of these new people that get No. 1 records—well, I can’t say because they’re not artists, too, but when certain artists get No. 1 records, it translates differently. You have people making good songs that people are buying, but it takes an artist to sell albums. Right now, I don’t even know what I’m going to do. I don’t even want to set myself up for that shit. I know we’ve had success so far with the singles that we released, especially with the “Just A Dream” single doing as well as it’s been doing. But I don’t know what to expect because it’s been a minute since I been out like that.
Complex: It’s at No. 7 now. The new charts come out tomorrow. Do you expect anything? Are you like, “With the shit that I’m competing against, this has to be No. 1.”
Nelly: Nah. Again, I don’t know what to expect and I think people don’t know what to expect from me. I think this works best for me because this is what allowed me to succeed the first time I came out. It’s because people weren’t checking for me and it’s like now, people weren’t checking for me. It’s almost like, “Yo, taste this wine. This is the best wine ever!” You ever hear someone hype something up so bad and when you taste it, you’re like, “There’s no way this taste is gonna live up to how bad they hyped this up.” I think that’s what’s happened to me over my career. It’s my own fault, but it’s due to my own success. People have hyped me up so much that they know I’m gonna sell so much, that if I don’t sell that much it’s going to be looked upon as a failure. Out of five records I only had one that didn’t sell over four million records. Everyone wants to be like “Ah, well…he fell off.” Or I could be like, “Hey man, I’m four and one!” [Laughs.]
Complex: Your raps always had little melody to them. Then you have dudes like Drake and Cudi who really run with that style. Do you see them and their success and think, “They’re a little bit indebted to me.” Not like you’re throwing shots, just a feeling that you helped make that style acceptable.
Nelly: That’s not for me to say. That’s for the critics that critique what everybody else is doing. That’s their job to look at those situations and say, “This is who this should be credited to.” I can’t go, “Yo…”
Complex: But you don’t feel that way?
Nelly: Don’t get it twisted, you see the influences. You know what doors you kicked down. You could look out here and say, “Everybody is doing this now.” Who’s not? Name one rapper who hasn’t had a sung record now. Name one.
Complex: A lot of them have.
Nelly: Drake, ‘Ye, Tip. These are my dudes. Those are influences, but those are good. That’s not a knock or anything. I feel privileged to be that influential. It’s crazy; we did Billboard’s “top artists of the decade” [Ed. Note: Nelly was No. 3.], and they asked me, “Who do you think is one of the biggest influences on music today?” And I was like, “Shit…me!” I mean, let’s just be real about it! Who else was doing it like that? Who else was singing on hooks? And rapping on verses? Putting bridges in the songs and doing it like that? I mean whether I get the credit or not, it don’t matter.
Complex: You mentioned T.I. He’s a good friend of yours, right?
Nelly: That’s my brother. That’s my man.
Complex: Have you been in touch since his recent arrest for drug possession?
Nelly: Yeah, he’s doing good. Obviously it’s unfortunate, but it’s one of those things that’s funny because people are like, “What’s going on? Are you sure?” And it’s like, “That’s my patna.” This is my friend. This is my dude. There’s not too many things that anybody can do to stop making me be their friend. When you grow up like I grew up, I seen it all and been through it all family-wise. I’m not going to stop being family members with some of my family because of certain things that they did. If that’s the case, then where would we be, period? He’s a G. He’s a soldier. He gonna do him. That’s what you respect.
Complex: When you said there’s nothing he can do, for the most part, that’s gonna make you stop being his friend-
Nelly: I mean, unless it’s something personal.
Complex: Yeah. This kind of goes along with that. I don’t know what your relationship with Ashanti is like or what led to an alleged breakup, but then the gossip sites will say you said that you’re back together and have pictures of you two holding hands at T.I. and Tiny’s wedding. Is it an on-and-off situation because you’re not good at cutting people if they don’t hurt you, personally?
Nelly: We never admitted that we were together or back together or separated, but we heard that. Only thing we ever said was we friends and it’s the same way now. I’m focused on 5.0. I got an album coming out on November 16th, she’s working on her project right now.
Complex: So you’re not in a position to put your personal life out there as much as guys like Kanye or Eminem?
Nelly: Certain artists can get away with certain things. Certain things are acceptable for certain people. It’s a difference.
Complex: But are there things that happened in the relationship that have gotten you to a point where you’re not going to be dealing with her in the same capacity?
Nelly: It’s not like that. My ultimate goal and our ultimate goal is to be individuals, to sustain what we been able to sustain. You wanna make sure that when you get into a time and place that you’re able to do what you need to do, and right now, that’s my album. You don’t want to be into a situation where you do an hour-long interview and 45 minutes is based on something and you’re like, “Yo, what about this?” And that’s something that we’ve been able to maintain. Like, whatever becomes of our relationship. Whatever, whenever, or however, that’s going to be something that we’re going to do and we’re going to judge. It’s not going to be manipulated by outside people looking in, who don’t even know what the fuck is going on. I think that the only way you can maintain that is to just do what you do. I have to be Nelly. She got to be Ashanti.
Complex: So the album that’s coming out. There’s a comeback factor to it. Does that excite you? Are you ready to come back and prove something that you’re still relevant?
Nelly: I wouldn’t want to say, “Yo, I’m ready.” If I say that, then it means that I wasn’t ready at some point. That’s not the case. I’m ready to just be me again. Again, 5.0 represents something classic. That title tells you what I’m going to do. You have to do what you do the best. It’s kind of like Eminem. I feel like what he does best is tell those stories, and it’s nothing to him. From the outside looking in, he tried to do a couple of party records, but it didn’t really—you know what I’m saying, and now you look at “Not Afraid” and that Rihanna joint. That’s classic Eminem! But on a new level! I think that’s what I’m going to hit. I think other people are looking at it as a comeback, but I look at it as a career. I look at it as, Okay, I didn’t say I was done. Y’all said I was done because my last album didn’t succeed compared to Nelly sales, but shiiiiit. On the other hand, it does feel good to slap motherfuckers in the face. [Laughs.] I missed this one buzzer-beater. I hit four of them before that. So I’m not a winner? You think I really can’t do that? You think the four albums was flukes, motherfucker? That’s what you telling me. You’re telling me that four albums before that, 35 million records was flukes. No. There’s no fucking way. Every season can’t be a championship. No team goes into an NBA championship not wanting to win a ring. Only one king comes out, but the next year, the other team isn’t saying, “Fuck it, I’m done. I don’t even want to play no more.”
Complex: Has the rap audience has been too fickle?
Nelly: I think I just been too humble. Not smacking motherfuckers in the face saying, “This is what I do!” Sometimes, because I’m from where I’m from, I do just be quiet and go about my way, and I thought that would be enough to show motherfuckers what it is. Maybe I should be a little more vocal like, “He doin’ me! I sold this! I outsold all these motherfuckers!”
Complex: Why don’t you do that?
Nelly: Because that’s just not me. [Laughs.] I try to do it sometimes in my music, don’t get it twisted, but that’s just not me to step up on the stage and say, “Look at me.” I grew up playing team sports. My whole role is that we win. That’s all I thought about was we win. My family win, but now we in a certain time where maybe I do gotta get a little more aggressive and stand up on some words and say, “I don’t give a fuck what you motherfuckers do. I bet you won’t catch me!”
Complex: Maybe that’s the message you want to send. That you’re rich and you don’t give a fuck.
Nelly: [Laughs.] But you’re still competitive. I’m still in this game. I’m still alive. I’m still hip-hop. This is a competitive game and you still want to be there. Ain’t nothing like being in the club and your song comes up. If it’s a new song. Sure, I could go in a club and they could rock an hour of Nelly songs and motherfuckers are still gonna dance and party, but you wanna be in the now and know that it’s working, you know? So I think that’s the goal now.