Here at Complex, we've been discussing amongst ourselves several flash-in-the-pan rap careers that, in retrospect, seem like they never really happened. For my generation, the chief examples would be Nelly and Ja Rule, the former having put on for Missouri, of all places; the latter having dropped like nine hit records that were all the same record. That's not to slander Ja Rule, however. It's just facts over here.
Three weeks of contentious nostalgia have led me and associate editor Insanul Ahmed to mild disagreement in re the respective legacies of Nelly (who is a better rapper than Ja Rule) and Ja Rule. Below, we're going to settle this once and for all. Our credibility to issue such a final judgment is in good order, I assure you. Insanul is from the Bronx and wears nice blazers occasionally. I'm from a Virginia suburb and have spent many teenage afternoon winding my mom's Honda Accord through shopping mall parking lots. #RealHipHop
CHARITY: OK—so we agree that critical retrospect underrates Ja Rule and Nelly, as well as fellow crossover megastars like Ludacris, Ma$e, and Pharrell-era Snoop Dogg. As much as we pretend that "dance rap" is Soulja Boy's scourge, contemporaneous with bird flu and SARS and such panic of 2006, the truth is that dance and ~good vibes~ are rap's earliest, convening principles. Hip-hop been rocking roller rinks and cinema lots since Biz Markie.
With Nelly, we're talking three great rap albums that double as great pop albums. Country Grammar, in its Drake-predictive glory, has aged as well as any Millennial might've hoped. In fact, it's aged better than nearly any other rap album from 2000, Stankonia aside. Nellyville, the sophomore follow-up, is greater (and more important) than any Drake project other than Take Care. Nelly's zipper snagged upon the dual Sweat and Suit tapes in 2004, and that's just about the end of his run, but indeed, it was a helluva run.
Plus, despite Nelly's obvious pop stake, dude could rap. (The St. Lunatics, not so much.) Sure, he phones his bars in on the poppiest, latter-day singles ("Dilemma," "My Place," "Just a Dream"), but then so did 50, and so does Nicki Minaj. "Country Grammar," "Greed Hate Envy," "Ride Wit Me" ain't gibberish. "Greed Hate Envy" is every innovative vocal tic that rap critics love about Young Thug—himself a mash-up of Weezy, Nelly, and Bone Thugz—and Nelly dropped "Greed Hate Envy" when Young Thug was 8 years old. So what if Nelly's singles are flip-cup music? His thesaurus is no more or less dense than DMX's, and he's no less worthy of square footage in the pantheon.
INSANUL: I was actually a pretty big Nelly fan growing up. Although I usually tell people the first album I ever bought was Dr. Dre’s 2001 that’s not technically true because the CD store was having a two for $20 sale. So the first rap albums I ever bought were actually 2001 and Country Grammar. And I played the fuck out of both those albums for a while, but as time passed I realized one was a lot better than the other. I occasionally revisit 2001 (but nowadays I make sure to fast forward all the Hitman verses), but I almost never revisit Country Grammar—save for “E.I.,” which still bangs to me even though I never ever hear it when I’m out. So I’d definitely disagree that Country Grammar has aged better than, say, Ghostface’s Supreme Clientele or even the 2000s pop culture laden The Marshall Mathers LP.
Nelly does deserve a lot of credit. People forget, dude came out of absolutely nowhere, put on for his city, and knocked Eminem and Britney Spears out of the No. 1 Billboard spot. Country Grammar is still one of the 10 best-selling rap albums ever. That is a huge accomplishment, and his sudden rise is one no rapper has mimicked since without an extended mixtape run. His rhymes back then were actually more clever than anyone ever gave him credit for (“Should we apologize? Nah fuck 'em, just leave 'em pissed! HEY!”), but his problem was always his delivery. Maybe it was a Midwest thing, but it was hard to decipher his lyrics. Plus there was definitely some studio trickery at work because he never sounded quite the same way on stage as he did on record.
What MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice are to the ’90s, Ja Rule and Nelly are to the 2000s. - Insanul ahmed
I wasn’t particularly a fan of anything beyond the first album though. Country Grammar felt like rapping that happened to have pop appeal whereas his subsequent albums were pure pop rap. There’s a super fine line to draw between good pop rap and bad pop rap, but it always boils down to corniness. I remember hearing “Hot in Herre” the first time thinking it was corny. I still think it’s corny. Sure it’s catchy, but I always feel silly listening to man instruct women to strip nekkid because the AC isn’t kicking in. It wasn’t just that either; the Band-Aid was corny, the beef with KRS-One was corny, the entire concept of the song “Pimp Juice” was corny. I wanted rappers to be rock stars, and Nelly just never seemed like the type of guy I wanted to be like. Well, except in the music video for “Tip Drill,” then I wished I were Nelly.
(Drake has had way more impact than Nelly, but I’m not even gonna go down that route.)
On the flip side of this was Ja Rule. I loved Ja’s voice when I first heard him on Jay Z’s “Can I Get A....” “Holla Holla” was OK, but then he went straight pop. Which again, I liked at first when he did "Between Me and You" and “Put It on Me.” But by the time Ja had become a superstar, and Ashanti and Jennifer Lopez remixes were popping, it was just a case of overexposure. Looking back, though, Ja Rule had a ton of great singles. I’d be happy as hell to hear “Livin' It Up” the next time I’m turning up. But still, no dice for “I Cry” or “Always On Time.”
What MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice are to the ’90s, Ja Rule and Nelly are to the 2000s.
CHARITY: Your love of the “Tip Drill” video is #problematic, as is your typical New Yorker’s inability to decipher what anyone from anywhere else in America is saying. It’s not like Nelly was Thug! (Though again, I’ll note Nelly and Thugger’s similar penchant for rapsung melodies.)
Both Nelly and Ja Rule were singles-driven artists. For that reason, their respective catalogs are largely overlooked. (Off top, name five songs from a single Ja album. It strains the mind, no?) That said, Country Grammar and Nellyville, as full projects, hold up against any given pairing of Ja Rule albums. Country Grammar is a cheeky, goofy, “Southern” album with jokes and swang. Plus dude could rap his ass off, e.g., “Ride Wit Me,” “Greed Hate Envy,” “Wrap Sumdem.”
Albums aside, Nelly is just a technically more impressive rapper than Ja Rule. A decade after Country Grammar, listen to “Long Gone” from Nelly 5.0. I’m telling you, Nelly and Plies washed Nas (listen below) over this Miles Jaye flip. This is when hip-hop stopped caring about Nelly in particular because rap sounded like Nelly in general by 2009. Nelly is precursor to Drake. Ja Rule is precursor to who/what, exactly? Not even Troy Ave, that's who.
Ja Rule has a great voice, and he had a great flow that was ultimately wasted on his limited supply of song concepts and vocab. Think of DMX, for instance. He doesn’t have the most expansive vocab, either, but DMX’s songwriting is so varied and his imagination is so intense that you can hardly fault him otherwise. Nelly doesn’t offer that, obviously, but instead gave us (1) a bunch of tremendous records and (2) a dynamic and unprecedented flow. Ja gave us only the former.
A separate possible conversation here, as you teased, is people lying about their “first” rap record, e.g., kids born in 1991 fronting like they owned Illmatic before they were fucking with Juvenile and 400 Degreez. Don’t lie to me, boy!
Both Nelly and Ja Rule were singles-driven artists. For that reason, their respective catalogs are largely overlooked. - Justin Charity
INSANUL: Like you said, both of those guys are singles-driven artists. So who made the better singles? For my money, I’d say Ja Rule. (I can’t believe I’m saying that.) Originality is a weird thing; having it is great, but it doesn’t necessarily mean what you make is great. In the end, Ja Rule made better songs. That’s what important. I don’t care about what means he used to achieve them.
You’re also right that Nelly is a precursor to Drake. But the most telling fact about all of this is that Nelly and Ja Rule have little influence on rap right now. Good luck getting Drake—or any current rapper—to actually say they like Nelly. Drake would rather cite Lil Wayne as an influence, and so would Young Thug. Even occasionally pop-oriented rappers like Wiz Khalifa cite Three 6 Mafia and the Diplomats as influences, not Nelly. In all honestly, the 2014 Nelly isn’t Drake; it’s Kid Ink.
And once again, this brings me back to Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer, and the lies people tell about the albums they bought. Hammer and Ice sold millions upon millions of albums. Nowadays everyone fronts like they were always corny, but somebody bought those albums. Ditto for Nelly and Ja. Those guys were popular and had fans. Millions of fans in fact. Was it you? Don’t lie to me, mannnn!
CHARITY: I couldn't confidently pick Kid Ink out of a police lineup of rappers named Kid Ink. That's no knock, other than to say that he's no Nelly.
Whether rappers would proudly, explicitly cite Nelly as their godfather is irrelevant. In 2003, 50 Cent stayed comparing himself to 2Pac even though, on merits of technique and style, he's clearly a descendent of Prodigy and Treach. Drake is contractually obligated to cite Lil Wayne as his chief influence. Asking a rapper who their influences are is, again, like asking a friend what's the first rap album they ever owned: They're not answering to convey information; they're conveying brand.
And anyway Drake and Nelly are BFFs. Nelly stays owing Drake money due to ill-advised sports wagers. Meanwhile Ja Rule is c-listing his way through Evangelical Hollywood, a fate way more corny and tragic than Ice Cube's slapstick parenting films. I bet Nelly could outrap both Ja Rule and Ice Cube in 2014. In this world where Plies can outrap Nas, man, anything can happen.
P.S. Ludacris > > >