Despite all obvious obstacles, 2020 was a productive year for Nelly.
In September, the three-time Grammy winner joined the cast of ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” where he ended up placing third. October saw the release of “Lil Bit,” a country-inflected collaboration with Florida Georgia Line that led to performances on NBC’s “The Voice” and ABC’s “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,” which helped him score one of his biggest hits in nearly a decade. And in November, Nelly celebrated the 20 th anniversary of his breakthrough debut “Country Grammar” with a deluxe reissue of the album.
For his latest comeback chapter, Nelly has teamed with PepsiCo’s Lay’s as the star of a new campaign for the brand’s Flamin’ Hot potato chips, which have been reformulated from a BBQ base to an even hotter cheese-based recipe. Nelly appears in a new commercial for the brand set to hit broadcast TV this month, and which features prominent use of – what else? – his 2002 hit “Hot in Herre” that spent seven weeks at No. 1 in summer 2002.
The Lay’s campaign marks “Hot in Herre”’s latest appearance in pop culture, from over a dozen syncs for film and TV (including “Parks & Recreation” and “How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days”) to a 2016 Bud Light Lime-A-Rita commercial that sparked a brief resurgence in streams and downloads of the song, and a 2012 Pepsi Super Bowl commercial featuring Elton John.
But what made this new campaign with Lay’s appealing for Nelly was the opportunity to appear on-camera. “The Lime-a-Rita spot was something that was a little different, because they just used the music. Here you’re actually using Nelly,” says the 46-year-old, describing himself in the third person for one of several times throughout a Zoom interview. “So when that comes about, you just want to make sure that you’re genuine with what you’re doing. I love eating the chips, it’s ‘Hot in Herre,’ it’s Nelly. We didn’t have to put this fake aura; we just presented it as it is.”
A Frito-Lay spokesperson adds of the collaboration: “It is the perfect marriage with Lay’s bringing the flavor and Nelly bringing the heat. Having dropped his Grammy winning song ‘Hot in Herre’ almost 20 years ago, Nelly gave us an iconic anthem that fans already know and love to help get the word out about the revamped Lay’s Flamin’ Hot.”
Songs for Screens caught up with Nelly to learn more about his busy year, his first proper return to music since 2013’s “M.O.” (and first EP with new label RECORDS/Columbia), and what to expect from his upcoming portrayal of Chuck Berry in the Buddy Holly biopic “Clear Lake,” which Variety first reported in November. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Now that we’ve finally closed the book on 2020, what was the year like for you?
I’ve been one of the fortunate few that have been able to come out of everything that’s been going on in a positive direction, so to speak. I’m very blessed for that. “Dancing With the Stars” was great, I had a chance to shoot my new campaign with Flamin’ Hot, so hopefully 2021 is even hotter for Nelly.
Tell me more about your “Dancing With the Stars” experience — I was trying to think of how many of your videos back in the day featured you doing choreo, maybe “Tilt Ya Head Back” with Christina Aguilera?
I don’t know if that was even choreo, I think we maybe hit one move and that was it. [laughs] So, in no way shape or form did I have any correlation with what was going on with “Dancing With the Stars.”
I’m pretty good with my own groove, obviously I can count music, so that helped with learning what to do. But it was definitely a new experience. My first day of rehearsal I was like, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” And you start working muscles and parts of your body that you’ve never used before. I’m no stranger to the gym, I’ve been playing sports for more than half my life, so I thought I was in shape until I started dancing. I lost a little weight, about 10 pounds, which was great — didn’t mind that part of it. It was really dope I had a wonderful partner in Daniella [Karagach], which was her first time, so we had that chance to walk that experience together.
I loved it, man. And I got a chance to release a new single, “Lil Bit,” which has taken off unbelievably well and I thank everybody for that. I’m getting ready to release the “Heartland” EP, and it’s the first single. It’s not a country album, but it’s country-influenced. I appreciate all the love and support that I’ve gotten from the country side ever since 2004 with “Over And Over” and my man Tim McGraw. It’s still a Nelly album but it’s my way of showing my appreciation of how much it has influenced Nelly.
Tell me about this new spot with Lay’s. What was the shoot like?
It was a little different than any other situation where I’ve been able to shoot, whether it be commercials or videos. With COVID protocols, obviously we had to follow a lot of guidelines to make sure everybody was safe. But it was still a great experience. We shot it out here in L.A., and I love that they were real quick about it. We were able to get in and hammer it out. And they allowed Nelly to be Nelly.
I would imagine shooting a commercial with hot potato chips could have an effect on your overall body temperature. Did it?
I was a little bit skeptical, like, “These things are already smoking, how are you gonna make them even hotter?” And when we started filming the commercial they would say, “Be careful,” because shooting all day you find yourself eating them constantly — I’m going through bags, and I’m sweating. They’re great if you like hot chips.
“Heartland” will be your first proper music release in eight years. What can we expect, and who have you been working with aside from Florida Georgia Line?
We haven’t been able to dish that out yet. But it’s one of those situations where I’m really so excited about this project, almost more than a lot, because I am doing something that could be transcending. I think people are gonna be very surprised about the way it turns out.
I’m very excited about it, and one of those reasons is just because of COVID and not being able to be out in front of people personally. I’m used to being out there to touch your fans, be in front of the people and presenting my music in-person.
And you’re working with Ron Perry and Columbia via Barry Weiss’ RECORDS this time out. How’s that going?
Ron’s dope, he really allows me to continue to be Nelly and spread this thing out. He’s the one that’s like “I get it, and I see what you’re trying to do” and that was important to me.
It was recently announced that you’ll be playing Chuck Berry in an upcoming biopic. What can you tell me about that project?
We’re still working that out as well. But I think it’s more or less just trying to get in the vibe of Chuck. We’re both from the same place, so that works out a little bit. I don’t have to work on the lingo. And obviously as much of an importance as Nelly is to St. Louis, I would put Chuck of even greater importance – maybe we don’t even have Nelly without Chuck. I’m just happy that we can celebrate music from St. Louis, and I get a chance to play someone as iconic as Chuck Berry.
Songs For Screens is a Variety column sponsored by Anzie Blue, a wellness company and café based in Nashville. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column highlights noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as film and TV. Follow Andrew on Twitter at @ahampp.