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In late April, it was announced that Nelly was no longer on Republic Records. With massive sellers like Ariana Grande, Drake and Taylor Swift on its roster, Republic had no room for artists who weren’t moving units. Nelly has not had even a gold-selling album since the 2005 compilation Sweatsuit. This is a big change from the blockbuster albums he released early in his career.

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While 5.0 produced the 4x platinum single “Just a Dream,” Nelly has not had a true hip-hop hit in a while. “Just a Dream” is more Pop/R&B. A few years ago, Charlamagne Da God said that Nelly’s career had gone cold. But this is hip-hop cold. Focusing on country music gives Nelly the opportunity to heat things up again.

With one exception, Nelly’s most country-tinged singles have had a mild impact on the urban charts but much greater crossover success. “Ride Wit Me” peaked at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and only #87 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart. “Over and Over,” which features country superstar Tim McGraw, peaked at #3 on the Hot 100 and only #51 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop. “Just a Dream” reached #7 on the Hot 100 and never charted on R&B/Hip-Hop.

As a solo artist, three out of four country-esque Nelly singles have gone top ten on the Billboard Hot 100. And we also can’t forget his feature on the remix of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” which reached #4 on the Hot 100 and #1 on Hot Country Songs. For the most part, Nelly wins when he embraces the country sound.

At this point, Nelly has nothing to lose. Hip-hop fans aren’t really feeling his music, even when he has big names on the track with him. But he’s shown a love for country music since day one and country fans have embraced him right back. His manager, J. Erving of Atom Factory, says Nelly has an opportunity to grow his country fan base. If rock stars can go country, why can’t rappers?

“I have no problem with people expanding outside of their genre.” – Charlamagne Da God

Some country fans are skeptical of this move by Nelly. Chara Garmon, an entrepreneur and recent graduate from NYU’s Music Business program, had this to say: “I’m not sure that’s the lane for him… I don’t know if he can make a believable country album. I’d love to see what he could bring to the genre sonically though. In a time when crossover artists are common, I think Nelly has every right to explore.”

By committing to country, Nelly will be jumping into a bigger pool than he’s used to swimming in with his hip-hop releases. According to Nielsen, country was the second largest radio format in 2014, right behind Pop. And in 2013, country music was the #1 genre among music buyers. This means that country music not only reaches a wider audience than hip-hop, this audience also buys more music.

“Hip-hop fans want the sh*t right then and there or they’ll download it somewhere else for free. They’re like, ‘What the f*ck do I look like buyin’ it?’” – Tyler, the Creator

Nelly probably won’t make traditional country songs. They would be either country rap or country pop. But if he puts out a few country hits, he could make a comeback. His older music could also start selling to an audience who wasn’t aware of him before, a la Missy Elliot. If he can find a way to pull this off, we’ll all be calling Nelly a genius.

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