Nelly said that the 2000s was the toughest era in hip-hop. He’s right and wrong.

OPINION: The St. Louis rapper was on “The Shop” talking about success at the Grammys and made the bold claim about how competitive it was for a rapper in the aughts. 

LIV Golf Invitational - Chicago - Day One
American rapper and singer Nelly performs during day one of the LIV Golf Invitational - Chicago at Rich Harvest Farms on September 22, 2023 in Sugar Grove, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images) Credit: Photo byQuinn Harris / Getty Images

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Thursday, on the seventh season premiere of “The Shop,” the interview show hosted by Maverick Carter, Paul Rivera and occasionally LeBron James (“The Shop” is a production of James’ SpringHill Entertainment), Nelly, Cedric the Entertainer and Becky Hammon, the two-time champion head coach of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces, joined the conversation. As its title suggests, “The Shop” is set up as a makeshift barbershop, long considered a space where Black men, especially, have the most in-depth and honest conversations about life; this episode transformed the Las Vegas Aces’ home court into the barbershop. 

Anywho, there’s a clip floating around social media of part of the conversation (arguably the most salacious or compelling part) where Nelly makes the statement that the 2000s was the toughest era in hip-hop because when he was putting out music (in the 2000s, of course) he was competing against DMX, Jay-Z, Eminem, Lil Wayne, 50 Cent, Ludacris, etc. His point was that all of those rappers were competing for the top rap spot, and since that competition was remarkable and all big sellers, the level of competition was steep and thus the hardest era in which to release music. And I don’t entirely disagree. Also, he forgot Kanye West, who was ALSO taking up A LOT of space in the aughts with his releases of “The College Dropout,” “Late Registration,” “Graduation,” “808s and Heartbreak” and “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” 

You might be asking yourself, why would he make such a statement? Well, what spurred the conversation was Paul Rivera talking about rap music at the Grammys and how Killer Mike took home the three most coveted rap category albums, none of which were televised. Nelly said the Grammys needed to do better. Paul then asked about Nelly having a chip on his shoulder coming from St. Louis, and then Nelly went into his spiel about who he had to compete with at that time, which kind of doesn’t make sense. But perhaps the point was that he had a chip on his shoulder, which made him compete that much harder and thus led to success amidst such titans of competition in that decade. Nobody would argue that Nelly didn’t kill the game. 

But it does beg the question: Did Nelly release music and have such success during the hardest era to release music in because of his contemporaries? That’s a difficult question. Undoubtedly, competing against all of those artists at a time when artists like DMX went platinum with two albums in the same calendar year, “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot,” and “Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood.” Jay-Z was selling albums and releasing classics like “The Blueprint” and “The Black Album.” I mean, Eminem is Eminem, he’s one of the biggest-selling artists of all time and most of those sales happened during that decade. 50 Cent released one of the most landmark albums ever with 2003’s “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” and then followed that up with “The Massacre” which did as well. 

Point is that Nelly is right in that he was releasing, and moving units, during an era when some of the titans of hip-hop were also doing so and when people had to go out and buy physical units of albums to make those sales. Being one of the biggest artists moving that many units when folks had so many other major artists to pull from is noteworthy. 

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But I actually think the ’90s was the hardest decade for competition. Rappers were just starting to be able to make real careers out of hip-hop. It was much, much harder to place albums in stores and get the sales that would propel you. The internet didn’t exist early in the decade, so journalists were the gatekeepers in a way that the blogs democratized — if a blogger liked you in the 2000s, they might go out of their way to ensure they amplified you as much as possible, something that existed to much smaller effect in the ’90s and don’t even get me started on the ’80s. 

With the ’80s, at least, there might not have been enough artists to truly be competing in the same way, but the ’90s brought so many classic debut albums for artists who would maintain fanbases into the 2000s. I think the 2000s being the era of the blogger made it so that artists could have way more advocates, rendering previous gatekeepers obsolete in some cases. (I suppose the opposite is also true; if a writer hated you, they could attempt to tank your career as well.) 

Look, as far as hip-hop convos go, this is pretty low on controversy. I’m not even 100% sure what point Nelly was trying to make, but it is an interesting idea. Most importantly, rappers like Nelly managed to achieve levels of success usually reserved for the biggest of pop stars, as did many of the other artists he named. And Nelly is still relevant today, another seemingly improbable feat, but Nelly has tons of hits so here are. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to listen to both “Sweat” and “Suit” because why not? 

Panama Jackson

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things, drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest), but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said: “Unknown” (Blackest).

Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download it here.

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