Jesy Nelson is finally in control.
The singer spent a large chunk of her twenties battling the types of vicious demons the average person couldn't even begin to imagine. Little Mix — comprised of Nelson, Perrie Edwards, Jade Thirlwall and Leigh-Anne Pinnock — formed on The X Factor UK in 2011, the same year they became the first group to win the British version of the hit competition show. But what should have marked a moment of triumph saw Nelson find herself trapped in an unending nightmare that slowly took its toll on her self-esteem.
While the group was busy winning awards, breaking records on the charts and heralding female empowerment in their polished music videos and exuberant concerts, Nelson was spiraling. Behind the scenes, she dealt with cyberbullying on a massive public scale; unforgiving media scrutiny about her appearance; and the unrelenting pressure to look and be "perfect" as part of one of the world's biggest, best-selling girl groups.
As she recounts in her BBC Three documentary, Jesy Nelson: Odd One Out, at the same time Little Mix seemed like they were on top of the world, Nelson was at her lowest. She struggled with mental and emotional breakdowns, body dysmorphia, onstage panic attacks and even a suicide attempt. She was pushed so far to the brink that at one point, she could hardly recognize herself anymore.
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In December 2020, after spending nearly a decade in Little Mix and less than a month after taking a break for "private medical reasons," Nelson announced her official exit from the group to focus on mental health. This was a long-overdue, but difficult step for a young woman who'd been battling to keep her head above water for so long.
Now 10 months after stepping away, Nelson's ready to reenter the spotlight as an artist at the helm of her own ship. Nelson's debut solo single, "Boyz," may not be a deep, emotional dive into the complex turmoil she endured over the past decade (expect more intimate songs to come later), but it does offer insight into Nelson's newly rediscovered power — namely, her ability to decide and express what she wants, and what she doesn't.
Anchored by a hard-driving sample of P. Diddy's 2001 anthem, "Bad Boy for Life," and assisted by a fiery rap verse by Nicki Minaj, "Boyz" delivers a stomping hip-pop banger. A bold declaration of Nelson's emancipated vision for herself, the new track also indicates a louder, more liberated direction for Nelson now that she's free of all the expectations that limited her for so long. As she sings on the chorus, "I like a bad boy, you can't stop me."
Below, Jesy Nelson opens up to PAPER about sampling one of her favorite Y2K hip-hop hits, working with Nicki Minaj (again!), her favorite fictional bad boy and why she doesn't really scroll on social media anymore.
What do you think is the lasting appeal of the bad boy?
Because I feel like quite a powerful woman, like I've already got a lot of my shit together, so when I get into a relationship I like someone to be my equal. It sounds really bad, but when I meet someone that is under my thumb or doesn't challenge me, that's when I tend to fall out of love or they become my friend or I get bored. And then, of course, the one time I meet someone who does challenge me, but doesn't treat me how I'm supposed to be treated, I end up falling madly in love and get heartbroken. Why am I not so madly in love with the ones who are treating me how I deserve to be treated? I don't understand it, but I guess it's a thing of [liking] being kept on my toes. But I need to find that balance of finding someone who keeps me on my toes, challenges me, but still knows how to treat me right. It's bloody hard to find, though!
You definitely deserve to be treated like a princess.
All girls do! We all deserve to be treated like princesses, but I think old school romance is out the window these days, if I'm honest.
Maybe you're just in your solo era right now, both musically and romantically.
One million percent. After I went through my breakup I was like, "I just want to be single right now!" I want to focus on my career. I want to learn to love me. "Me" is the person I really want to love this time around. That's the most important thing in the world.
Do you have a favorite pop culture bad boy?
In terms of characters in movies, have you seen Legend with Tom Hardy? When he plays the Kray Twins? You've got to see it, it's amazing. Anyway, he plays two characters: They're these two gangster twins who run East London and they are bad boys, for sure. I'm obsessed with him in that film. That's like... Ugh, yeah. Dreamy! Tom Hardy only in this film, of course cause he plays a bad boy. [Laughs]
"I want to focus on my career. I want to learn to love me."
The actual bad boy that inspired "Boyz" was from your last breakup. Are you through with bad boys moving forward? It seems you're on a different path now.
I hope so. What I need to do now is find someone who on the outside looks like a bad boy, but really on the inside they're a little soft marshmallow. It'd be the best of both worlds.
What was it like working with Nicki Minaj?
I've worked with Nicki Minaj before when I was in the band, on "Woman Like Me," so I already had a relationship with her, but when I wrote this song I knew I wanted Nicki on it. There was no one else I wanted. She was so perfect for it and we're label buddies, so our label helped make it happen. They sent her the song and she loved it and said she wanted to jump on it, which was amazing.
I shot the video with her literally three weeks ago and she was so excited. I think everyone thinks she's gonna be on a green screen, but she's not. I've done it with her and she's amazing. She was so much fun to work with. She's such a pro, such a professional. I went out there [to shoot] with no one from my team and normally I have a choreographer who helps me with my movements. I was like, "Shit, what am I gonna do? My choreographer's not here!" And literally as soon as [Nicki] got on set she was like, "Girl, I think we should do a bit of choreography together. I think we should do this and on this lyric we should do this..." She was basically teaching me choreography.
She definitely seems like an artist who goes all in.
She's so hands on and involved. She's not the kind of artist who gets a feature, gets paid for it, and then just fucks off and doesn't give a shit about the song. She really cares. Whatever she's putting her name to, she's really invested in and cares about it and that's also why I love her so much. I feel really lucky that she loved the song and wanted to put her name on it.
Musically, "Boyz" taps into this '90s, early '00s hip-hop/ R&B style that might surprise some people who are only familiar with your bubblegum pop side. There's the P. Diddy sample, the rap verse, the shimmering bridge and Y2K production...
For people who are genuine, true fans — my friends and family, and the people who really know me — this probably won't be a shock to them because I live and breathe old school '90s and 2000s R&B and hip-hop. That's my thing. Before I started singing I was a dancer. That was the music I danced to when I was in a dance group. That's the era of music that I grew up with and that I'm so passionate about, and so I knew going forward with my music that [style] is what I wanted to bring into it. I wanted to make it current for now.
And I've got so many influences. Missy Elliott is one of them. Ciara is another. All the old school bands like Jagged Edge, ATL, 112, B2K... I could literally go on forever, but for me personally, that era is the best music that was ever made. I love bringing that back now especially for the new generation who have maybe never heard this ["Bad Boy for Life"] sample before. That's so exciting for me that maybe they're gonna hear this for the first time.
You've spoken out about not always connecting with some of Little Mix's music, especially after your teams switched up. In what ways does the solo music you're working on now, including "Boyz," better represent you as an artist?
Don't get me wrong — I loved what we did in Little Mix and I would never want to disregard that, because it was great for what Little Mix was. But for me personally, taking myself outside of the group, that's not the music I would listen to. Like I said, my passion lies in old school '90s, 2000s R&B and hip-hop.
Now I'm able to tell my stories in my songs, and it's so hard to do that when you're in a group because there are three other girls also trying to convey their stories. You can't really make it all work in one song, so you just have to go with the concept. Whereas now — and I'm a very honest person anyway, there's not really much my fans don't know about me — I'm able to put all my stories into my songs. I just really hope that when people listen to my music they can tell it's from me, because I'm literally putting my heart and soul into it. And I've been so honest.
"If you know who you want to be as an artist, stick to that and believe in it. Because eventually that will shine through."
What sort of themes or stories are you hoping to share with your solo music?
Obviously "Boyz" is a fun upbeat song, but there are some songs [I've written] that are really heartfelt and were hard to write at the time. I've been so vulnerable, but I'm so proud of them because I know my fans are going to listen to them and relate to them. I speak to my fans every day and they confide in me all the time about how they're feeling, and some of the times they feel a lot like how I'm feeling, so I know they're gonna relate to them.
As an artist, It want to be 100% true and authentic to myself. I don't ever want to put out music that doesn't relay that. I always want it to come from me and always want it to be my concepts and my ideas because I think fans can tell when it's not from you and it's just a song that's been given to you. Even if three fans listen to it and they're like, "Oh my God, I feel like this! She gets how I'm feeling," and it helps them, then I'll feel like I've done my job.
Now that you're doing more songwriting, has that felt like therapy at all? What's it like now being in control of the lyrics?
I've got it written on my arm: "Music is the strongest form of magic." Music and food are the only things that can break me out of a bad mood. [Laughs] I could be in the worst mood ever — so down and so upset — but if you play me one of my favorite songs, it'll take me right out of that. So it literally was like therapy, going to the studio and being able to tell my truth and tell my stories. It felt really refreshing to take control of my narrative.
I read that Nicola Roberts once offered you advice at the start of your career, as she had experienced similar bullying when she was in Girls Aloud. What would you share to young pop artists and emerging women musicians today, if you saw they were going through what you went through?
One of the main things is to make sure you have a strong team and network that supports you through your highs and lows. That, for me, is one of the big things I struggled with. I didn't feel as though I had a team that supported me and that really, actually cared about me. That was hard — to have to come into work and know that there's certain people that don't care or even really want you to be there. If you don't have that support network around you, it's gonna be so hard when you are feeling down to find someone that you feel like you can talk to, cause when you've got people there who don't care about you, you're never gonna feel comfortable to be like, "I'm struggling, I need to just take a bit of a time out."
I think that's why a lot of artists end up making their team out of their family. A lot of people's managers are their moms or brothers or sisters because they're the people who, whatever happens, will always have your back. For me, it was so important to make my own team [out of] friends I've grown up with — people I've known for years. Also, as hard as it is, try to not consume yourself with social media. That was one of the biggest downfalls for me, and why I suffered, because I became obsessed with reading stuff about myself and it was so unhealthy. Now, my team has [access to] my social media. Most of the time if I'm on social media now, it's just to chat to my fans or post if I need to, but I don't get into that habit of scrolling and scrolling anymore, because it's so unhealthy.
What else would I say? Stay true to you. Don't let anyone ever cloud your judgment of who you should be as an artist. If you know who you want to be as an artist, stick to that and believe in it. Because eventually that will shine through. People can smell a fake from a mile away. They always know when it's not authentic or real. Kids these days are so clever and intuitive, and they know when it's not coming from the artist themselves. You have to believe in your shit and really love it.
Photo courtesy of Jesy Nelson