Jelly Roll’s Journey From Juvenile Hell to Country Gold

You would not mistake these two Jelly Rolls for different men. There’s a consistency in how he draws out his vowels, the contortions he makes with his face, the miniscule rhythmic adjustments he makes to ensure the end of each line snaps like a rubber band. As he sits in the BMG building, enjoying a precious bit of downtime between the chaos of Grammys week in LA and a string of festival and tour dates that will take him all the way to Halloween, Jelly is far removed from the gregarious rapper whose polo shirt was, in fact, evidence that he’d arrived straight from his PO’s office. But the years spent honing his creative and commercial instincts on the Southern-rap mixtape circuit—and the time he spent in an array of correctional facilities, dating back to his teenage years—are the basis of Jelly Roll’s seemingly newfound success.

And some success it’s been. Over the past year, Jelly’s been nominated for new artist of the year at the Country Music Association Awards, which he won, and best new artist at the Grammys, which he lost to Victoria Monét. The Grammy category has long fueled jokes about how late the Recording Academy is to pick up on emerging acts. But Jelly Roll’s nomination did capture a certain truth: While he’s been releasing music since George W. Bush’s first term, his recent run represents the end result of a reinvention and rejuvenation that goes beyond even the obvious pivot from hip-hop to country.

The past half-decade or so has been a time of personal as well as professional transformation for Jelly Roll. Where he once trafficked certain drugs and rapped about his proclivity for others, he earlier this year testified before a Senate committee about the fentanyl crisis; a juvenile facility in which he was locked up is now outfitted with a recording studio he funded. And to produce the hits that have precipitated this fame and fortune, Jelly had to for the first time welcome others into what had previously been a hermetic creative process.

“I lived on an island,” he says. “I was such a singer-songwriter I didn’t have the proper respect for the writing community—I maybe had a sneered nose to ’em.” He got over his distaste, found collaborators he trusts, and has become one of the truest breakout stars of the 2020s; last year’s Whitsitt Chapel earned rave reviews from country critics, the number three slot on the Billboard 200, and this raft of awards nominations.

And yet he’s not ready to completely cede control of his process. After he lavishes praise on the “writing community”—the pro songwriters who’ve propped up Nashville’s recording industry for decades—he offers some important caveats. “I don’t want nobody in the room to ever dictate what I say,” he insists—not because of ego, or style, or publishing splits, but “because they’re not accountable for it.” For as gracious as Jelly Roll is to hundreds of employees on every floor of this building (later, upstairs, someone recounts his showing up with a bag of Rolexes for the radio team), he knows whose name is on the spine of the LPs. “I’m accountable for these words,” he says. “I’ve gotta stand on them.”

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