Ahmad was onto something when he wished to be a kid again. The Los Angeles rapper made a timeless song about yearning for his past, a return to simpler times. I’ve reached the ripe age where my childhood is a distant memory, almost like a completely different lifetime. It takes an elementary school yearbook, an ancient Game Boy, old stories from the sandbox, or movies and music from that age to truly send me traveling back.
Yesterday, I thought about the fifth grade for the first time in years, memories triggered by an internet debate of Nelly vs. Drake.
When I think of Nelly, I remember how radio engraved the lyrics of “Country Grammar” into my ears. The words to “Ride Wit Me" and the “Girlfriend” remix were learned in the gymnasium and were played during school assemblies. The fact he collaborated with *NSYNC during the height of their boy band dominance would have turned any rapper into a pop darling. Cartoon band-aids rested on cheeks right below the eye, imitating the St. Louis legend. When we got a little older, as young men we silently saluted his genius when a pair of Apple Bottoms would walk away into the sunset. My mother knew Nelly—I have spent years pouring alcohol over cringe-worthy memories of her singing “Hot In Herre” during rush hour traffic. My grandmother knew Nelly—the day she asked me what it meant to “shake ya tailfeather" left a permanent scar on my innocence.
Nelly made us want gold grills and the cleanest white Air Force 1s; he convinced us country music wasn’t just about drunk white men and songs about their dying dogs. He was the gateway to BET after dark, the reason why you stayed up late to watch music videos, and I also recall the bit of guilt that came with the credit card scandal.
I witnessed so much of Nelly’s incredible run at a young age that I didn't have a proper perspective on how rare his success was at the time. Outside of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, the Midwest didn’t have a place in mainstream rap. Kanye would come four years later, making Nelly a trailblazer as one of the most successful, solo rap acts to blow up on a national level from a Midwestern city.
Nelly came in the door without a co-sign and exploded on the scene with a singing/rapping style that allowed for a seamless crossover. He was like LL in a sense, a rapper that wasn’t pushing a hardcore image, and could appeal to women. Being different than what was the norm in rap assisted in his elevation. He was an artist that found his way in at the perfect time.
Before “Right Thurr” bombarded Billboard, Chingy was just a young St. Louis rapper opening for Nelly on tour. Nelly’s popularity put him in front of Ludacris, and lead to Chingy signing to DTP. Likewise, Murphy Lee didn’t have a long career, but he is the only St. Lunatic that was able to achieve a Gold album and Gold single due to Nelly’s explosion.
Being one of the most successful artists of the 2000s is no small feat. Country Grammar was certified Diamond, Nellyville went 6x multi-Platinum worldwide, and his dually released Sweat and Suit albums went Platinum and 3x multi-Platinum respectively, with the following Sweatsuit compilation also going Gold. In other words, millions of people—many millions—bought Nelly's albums.
It’s true that during Nelly’s rise, UMG was caught in a huge radio payola scandal. The charts were greatly influenced by payola then, and it still exists today in various forms. Knowing the degree to which the labels tampered with the charts, I would be naive to simply provide Nelly’s commercial success without context, but I see his career in full, and all the impact he had on a time period. The way my generation experienced Nelly is why he was such a huge deal to us.
In retrospect, Nelly’s reign didn’t seem to last very long. A quick look at his Billboard chart history will tell you he had a No. 3 hit in 2010 with "Just A Dream," but for all intents and purposes, by the time I reached high school he was becoming old news. Right after the success of “Grillz” and his assistance on the T.I. classic “Get Loose,” he slowly started to fade into the background. His six-year run was incredibly strong, the peak of a career that has accumulated over 22 million albums sold.
Even at the height of his acclaim, I don’t believe Nelly was the biggest rapper of the 2000s. Nelly was a rap darling who crossed over into other genres, but he wasn’t able to measure up against Marshall Mathers. Eminem completely conquered rap in the 2000s, no matter what metrics you want to pull.
Drake is the top rapper of today, there isn’t anyone bigger in this modern era, but I see why people would compare him to Nelly and not Eminem—they’re both cut from the cloth of Ladies Love Cool James. Nelly was never pegged as the sensitive rap star, but his heavy female fanbase and non-gangster image put them in a similar class. I wouldn't say Nelly paved the way for Drake, their music doesn't coexist in the same realm, but they are kindred spirits in many ways.
Drake hails from Toronto, a city that, like St. Louis, didn’t previously have a presence in rap. Kardinal Offishall and k-os both made moderate noise, but before Drake, Toronto’s rap scene didn’t crossover into the mainstream American market until the arrival of Drizzy Drake. It’s similar to St. Louis and how the arrival of Nelly brought attention to the overlooked region.
On a bigger scale, Drake truly became closely associated with his city. In many ways, Toronto is Drake’s greatest contribution to the music industry. People rush to the 6ix for OVO Fest and his artists from Toronto are picking up steam, albeit slowly. PARTYNEXTDOOR may not have a Gold album, but he’s in the position to be the Murphy Lee to Drake’s Nelly. Acts like The Weeknd, Tory Lanez, and River Tiber have been able to make strides with all this newfound attention on their city. Rap has brought Drake to the point where he mingles with the Toronto Raptors and Toronto politicians, he has single-handedly helped to make Toronto a staple scene in a way that only a very popular artist can.
Drake’s star power changed Toronto, helped to tilt a shifting genre, and hasn’t lost his hold over the populace since his emergence in 2009. He broke every record last year and set some new ones. Even if you take away the commercial accomplishments, his cultural impact on the city of Toronto speaks for itself. He may not inspire our lifestyles like Nelly, but Drake has had a huge impact on what is happening in pop culture. He's influenced an entire generation to see Toronto in a new light, bringing such a cultural city to the forefront of the conversation.
Drake and Nelly are two superstars that succeeded in two completely different eras in music. You can’t compare Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points in a single basketball game to Kobe scoring 81 without explicitly referring to how different the NBA was for both players.
With Nelly, for many of us, he defined a small part of our lives. Drake's longevity is a testament to his hold on the times. There are kids whose childhood is being dominated by Drake’s music. They’ll see him in a completely different light. He’ll one day be a similar source of nostalgia for them.
Twitter arguments aside, it's unjust to try and compare the two, their peaks are separated by various factors. From commercial success to cultural impact, both artists have made strides. No matter how big Drake gets from here, we can’t diminish what Nelly accomplished, and vice versa. Even if you hate Nelly's music, or despise the man, he gave us Apple Bottoms, and for that, Nelly is never going to Hell and will forever live on in our memories.
It's less about the numbers and more about how you will be remembered.
By Yoh, aka Nostalgic Yoh aka @Yoh31