Son Raw is nothing if not an opportunist.
So Versuz forced my hand. I halfway through comparing Eminem to Nelly this month in a double header 20/20, highlighting how 2000’s top 2 Hip Hop artists in sales both came from the geographic Midwest and stood out from the rest of the rap competition, but otherwise had practically nothing in common apart from perhaps a low simmering beef. Given that the quarantine battle of the week features Nelly vs. Ludacris however, it seemed preferable to switch my plans up for a pre-fight breakdown, putting Nelly’s Country Grammar up against Luda’s Back For the First Time.
On paper it makes for an easier comparison. If Eminem vs. Nelly was intriguing because they represented opposite side of the commercial rap spectrum – angry, hardcore macho seriousness vs. sexy, good times, for-the-ladies pop hits – Nelly and Luda at least operated in the same space, both expanding the parameters of mainstream rap beyond the established east and west coasts. Making their major label debuts for Universal and Def Jam respectively, Nelly and Luda were marketed as baby faced solo stars with crossover hits at a time when Hip Hop beyond NY and LA was best known for molasses thick drawls, unpolished gangster rap, and local labels pushing out high volume product at a rapid clip. If Cash Money and No Limit served the hardcore, Nelly and Luda were the majors’ attempt to spin their rising sound into the mainstream.
In Nelly’s case however, it was less of an attempt than a fluke. Following their groundbreaking distribution deal with Cash Money Records, Universal went on a regional rap signing spree, gobbling up every other emcee in every other regional hub. The idea was to collect a stream of steady, if modest profits while helping regional success stories expand, but Country Grammar changed the game, becoming an absolute smash hit while somehow completely ignoring the era’s prevailing logic.
First, Nelly was from St Louis, a complete non-factor on rap’s regional chessboard. Too country for coastal purists, but also removed from booming scenes in Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas and Florida, Nelly was a proverbial runt in Universal’s litter, with his own A&R describing the internal reaction to his music as “extraordinarily negative” . To this day Nelly is the opposite of a rapper’s rapper: the more invested you are in Hip Hop as a ‘serious’ culture and art form, the less likely you are to claim him as a favorite or even find anything to admire in his crossover-minded output. But purists were never Nelly’s audience. Instead, he zeroed in on underserved market segments: kids, women, and pop listeners, all potential clientele listening to radio and MTV that were excited by rap’s shiny new sound, but scared off by the street tales and hardcore image of a BG or Juvenile.
Mostly produced by Jason “Jay E” Epperson, a local friend and in house beatmaker who knew the Korg Triton’s sequencer inside out, Country Grammar, and its singles in particular, are wonders of syncopated futurism. ‘Country Grammar (Hot Shit)’ and “E.I” bump and tick like platinum Rolex watches, with even the synthesized guitar lines and marimba doubling as rhythmic elements. Crucially, the beats hint at melodies without actually providing them, and listening to the instrumentals is revelatory – the tracks land somewhere between Japanese ambient and Mannie Fresh. The cavernous empty space in the mid range was all Nelly needed to deliver call and response hooks that were the envy of every other rapper come Summer 2K, and that’s not even accounting for “Ride With Me,” a grand slam swing for the pop fences so successful that kids and soccer moms alike sang along.
The beats were shiny and sample free, the budget low and the profits immense: Country Grammar sold 2 million units in a month and would go on to be certified Diamond, as Universal rapidly pivoted towards supporting the record and marketing Nelly as a family friendly alternative to Cash Money. And though white pop fans contributed a hefty chunk of those sales, Nelly had a strong black base of support, as he flipped urban music into country music, or at least a showcase for the kind of Black life that existed in countless small and medium sized towns in the American heartland.
Country Grammar’s deep cuts in particular, served as a showcase for his less pop minded, street level St. Lunatics crew, whose modus operandi was to act as a cleaner and more accessible Hot Boys to Nelly’s Juvenile. Though they never won over rap purists invested in 5%er slang and obscure samples, Nelly and crew proved that regional rap need not be subculture, and that black music and entertainment need not take its cues from the coasts. Like album opening comedian Cedric the Entertainer, Country Grammar was just edgy enough to entertain, just safe enough not to scare, and promised an accessible vision of black American life so joyful and inclusive, that it can feel beamed in from another universe when viewed through contemporary eyes.
Comparatively speaking, Ludacris was a rap insider. Building an audience as a radio DJ in the red-hot, increasingly important Atlanta market, Luda signed to Def Jam with album in hand: his self-released Incognegro serving as the basis for his major label debut. Armed with a Def Jam budget, he then bolstered the tracklist with a few choice additions: a UGK guest appearance for the streets here, and some Timbaland and Neptunes beats for radio and the club there. The resulting Back For the First Time embraced Luda’s southern identity wholeheartedly while also positioning him as Atlanta’s answer to Method Man’s charisma, Redman’s humour, and LL Cool J’s commercial instincts. If Nelly softened regional gangster rap’s hard edges and slang, Ludacris’ gambit was to prove his worth bar for bar while subtly shifting the sound of radio southwards.
This was perfectly in line with each label’s game plan as well: while Universal was seeking out regional players, Def Jam’s strategy sought to balance their roster’s street appeal with big name production, creating credible stars that could dominate rap’s biggest markets.
That strategy meant generating club hits that could both cross over to radio and animate barbershop conversations, and in this respect, Back For the First Time’s lead single ‘What’s Your Fantasy’ and the Timbaland helmed ‘Phat Rabbit’ both went for the jugular. Showcasing double time tempos and female-friendly topics, these name-brand productions established Luda as both the suave light skinned guy in the club and an acrobatic lyricist pirouetting over cutting edge instrumentals. Though he never truly pulled off the kind of serious, heartfelt confessional that became the barometer for rap “importance” since Pac, Luda was otherwise the total package: animated, talented, versatile and from one of America’s fastest growing black cities. Though he’d never match Nelly’s aw-shucks affability, he also never got clowned by rap purists searching for an easy target.
Not that he Luda stuck to the confines of New York-approved rapping styles. Even beyond tracks showcasing a double time flow, Luda yelped, elongated his syllables, slurred his words and telegraphed his punchlines. Most importantly, he found a way to reconcile the chant-heavy, hardcore music of pre-crunk Atlanta acts like Drama with the more pop-minded side of Outkast’s black futurism. The clincher in this respect, was the Neptunes produced ‘Southern Hospitality’, which hit the airwaves just as Pharell and Chad became the dominant commercial force in Black music for their era. The Neptunes had been making headway into the charts for a few years thanks to singles for Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Noreaga, but their ascent up the charts during the summer of 2000 was meteoric, beginning with Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass” and “Danger” and following through with Jay-Z’s “Give It To Me” in October, just as Luda’s album was set to drop.
An instant smash on both BET and MTV, the beat for “Southern Hospitality” sounded like it was beamed from Mars (or Neptune), but the subject matter and delivery was pure southern pride: a mix of defiance and bravado both deeply representative of Atlanta and comprehensible to coastal holdouts unconvinced by No Limit and Cash Money’s mercenary approach to the rap game, or Three 6 Mafia’s extreme deconstruction of established rap styles. It’s a song that still knocks in clubs, still stands up as a rap performance, and somehow still sounds unique after 2 decades of Neptunes music. It’s also worth comparing to Nelly’s big hits: “E.I” and “Ride With Me” go down easy, easily sliding in between songs in any radio format. Southern Hospitality forces you to pay attention: banging, confrontational, and a reminder that Hip Hop’s crossing over didn’t necessarily depend on muting its more extreme sonic elements.
Ultimately, while both Luda and Nelly proved commercially successful with strong female fan bases, their pop rap legacies saw each convert separate and distinct audiences to their cause: softcore pop radio for Nelly, and reticent rap diehards for Luda. Nelly followed up Country Grammar with Nellyville, mostly sticking to Jay E production along with a now obligatory Neptunes single, before peaking with Sweat and Suit a few years later, a dual release that saw him take Billboard’s top 2 spots before fading into the legacy circuit. Luda meanwhile dropped his career-best LP, Word of Mouf, and reliably released follow-ups to diminishing returns before hitting the jackpot as an actor in The Fast & the Furious franchise.
On paper, a head to head clash of the hits this Saturday feels fairly even then: two early crossover stars who shifted rap’s center way from coastal megacities only to be later eclipsed by even more explicitly regional acts… and yet it requires papering over significant differences. For my money, Nelly’s got the bigger hits, but Luda flew almost as high while still earning respect from rap fans who’d never admit to buying a Nelly CD. Ultimately then, the match up will celebrate the era when Hip Hop truly began dominating mainstream American culture, when it became undeniable and when its chart topping acts showcased new facets of Black American life with every video.
But let’s be real, Luda’s clearly the better rapper.