Was Nelly a Bigger Star in His Prime Than Drake?

Thank you, Rap Twitter, for providing the world with another unexpectedly divisive argument about two rappers you wouldn’t necessarily think to compare.

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On Tuesday, Rap Twitter decided it was time for another pedantic debate and argued for hours about the legacies of Nelly and Drake. Two Complex staffers weighed in on both sides of the aisle.

And as popular as Nelly was, another knock against him is the fact that he was never the top guy during his run. Drake, on the other hand, has progressed from the top rapper in the game to become a full-blown pop star and global icon. For better or worse, every single move Drake makes results in a headline and is talked about endlessly. Who he might be dating, in the studio with, roasting on Instagram, etc. The man’s reach is limitless. Consider this: Every single summer Drake summons thousands of people up to Canada for a music festival. His own festival. Love him or hate him, that’s real world impact, and a level of celebrity that Nelly never reached.

Finally, while Nelly’s hitmaking peak may have been greater than Drake’s, the St. Louis rapper can’t touch Aubrey when it comes to longevity. Country Grammar came out in 2000. Nellyville dropped in 2002. By 2004, when Nelly dropped his third and fourth albums, the run was already slowing down. Now compare that to Drake, who dropped “Best I Ever Had” eight years ago. Time flies and Drizzy is only getting stronger—at least in popularity. While all of the other points matter, the fact that Nelly didn’t dominate as long as Drake already has and will continue to do makes this debate a wrap.

Ross Scarano: As I understand it, yesterday’s argument was about which artist peaked higher, not about who’s career has been more impactful. Longevity isn’t relevant since we’re talking about single points on the line graphs of their careers. Using the stats at hand, we have Nelly’s first single, “Country Grammar,” peaking at No. 7, with 34 weeks on the chart. The album it came from went diamond (that’s ten million records sold), sat on the Billboard 200 album chart for 104 weeks. Five of those weeks were spent in the No. 1 spot. People bought this album like crazy. They bought it like my mom bought the Adele album: by arriving at the checkout of a human-run business with a physical object in hand, which they then acquired using legal tender in a transaction mediated by another human being.

Statistics are murky, of course, thanks to payola and figurative inflation. And, as you pointed out, Drake streams exceptionally well. Great streams. Massive, beautiful streams. But we’re comparing apples to oranges. The channels available to become a star seventeen years ago—mired as they may have been by shady industry practices and questionable collusion—were limited. As this discussion ripped across the bullpen yesterday, our fearless leader made the point that it’s like comparing Ali and Tyson. In Ali’s day, if there are three TV stations, and Ali is fighting on one of them on Saturday, that’s a third of the market he’s (hypothetically) reaching. Tyson, like Drake, walks into the ring in a more fragmented media environment.

You talk about Drake generating headlines but the number of outlets to cover Nelly’s behavior in 2000 and 2001 was smaller, and the scope of Nelly of content generation was limited by real reporters with cameras and more physically-restricted gossip pipelines. But this means that a TRL appearance in 2000 meant exponentially more than a photo opportunity in 2017. Nelly was bigger because it was possible to be bigger. The peaks have been cropped now.

And finally, it’s proven that the ability to go diamond isn’t impossible in this day and age—just take a look at Adele. We’ve covered apples and oranges, now let’s talk about pears. Her 2015 album 25 went diamond. Just like her 2011 album 21. No matter how big a star Drake is, if the sales are there, the sales are there.

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