When Nelly calls, he’s just finished up a poker tournament in Florida, and it’s left a bit of a bad taste in his mouth. ”I should’ve fuckin’ folded,” he says, rueing the moment lost. “I don’t know why I just let this guy walk me around. I had pocket 7′s, the board was low, highest thing on the board was an 8, but I fucked around and let him turn on the Jack.”
It’s a rare mistake for the big Midwestern rapper who put St. Louis on the map with his debut album Country Grammar in 2000. This year, Nelly is slowly but steadily re-emerging as both a musical and cultural touchstone, topping the Country charts for 17 straight weeks with his remix of Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” then following that up in July with the single and video for “Get Like Me” featuring Pharrell and Nicki Minaj, which is the first offering from his upcoming seventh solo LP M.O., his first since 2010′s 5.0.
But while he’s crossing over into the mainstream on the music charts, he’s been building his brand with partnership deals with Mike And Ikes (a radio spot earlier this year where he brought the estranged friends back together for the good of the candy) and a fantastically bizarre campaign to get Honey Nut Cheerios’ mascot Buzz the Bee some swag, the latter of which will be a continued partnership with General Mills which will last at least a year and a half.
“Everybody knows Tony the Tiger, but nobody really knows the personality of Buzz, and GM wanted to make him cool,” said Roe Williams, senior vice president of strategic partnerships at KWL Management, who helped set up the Cheerios deal with Nelly. “[Nelly]‘s transcending into this mainstream pop artist rather than this urban-only artist, and Honey Nut Cheerios is the number one cereal in the country. It was Nelly’s idea to say, ‘Why does he have a wand? He looks stupid with this wand, he’s never gonna get any girls with this wand’—he’s an artist who is at the pulse of pop culture who is able to say and do things as a de-facto creative director for a company that allows them to really engage him in the most authentic way.”
Nelly, for his part, has been eating Mike and Ikes (they’re on his rider) and Honey Nut Cheerios (his favorite cereal) for years, and was able to get his ideas across, particularly with the Cheerios promotion. “We kinda ran with my ideas,” he said of their creative meetings. “[We used some] of their ideas, ’cause they are General Mills so they gotta protect their brand, can’t just let a rapper control the asylum all the way. [Laughs] We found a great common ground.”
With his new album slated for the end of September and a rapidly-rising presence in the mainstream, Nelly is back and ready to take over the collective consciousness in the same way he capture the world in the 2000s. He spoke to XXL about Cheerios, the relationship between country music and hip-hop, working with Pharrell and why it can be tough to move forward. —Dan Rys (@danrys)
That song you did with Florida-Georgia Line was huge.
We’re on the same label [Universal Republic], and the president of the label Monte Lipman, he’s been there since I’ve been there. We’re real cool, so Monte can call me and ask me anything, basically. He called me and he had an idea that he thought would be dope if I could put a little twist on it, he thought it could possibly fly, have the potential to crossover. Him and a lot of people at the label thought it could cross over if it had the right twist on it. They didn’t change anything, it’s the same song; we just re-did the beat, I added in my vocals and it went.
Country and R&B—it’s more or less the stories. One thing about country music and hip-hop, it comes from the every day life of that element. The majority of country music comes from good, hard-working music from around their neighborhoods, and a lot of hip-hop and R&B music comes about the same way—even though we all have dreams about different stuff, we still dream. A lot of that music is almost the same thing; when you’re poor, you wanna have it, and when you’re not singing or rapping about how to get it, you’re rapping or singing about how things are. Country and rap music are basically the same thing, man, just switch the beat around and shit almost sounds exactly alike. [Laughs] It’s all about the storytelling.