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Nelly’s Right: The Rap Game Was Harder 20 Years Ago

Nelly, the St. Louis rap vet, raised a few eyebrows when a clip with him from SpringHill’s The Shop circulated on social media yesterday. In the clip, the diamond-selling superstar claimed that it was much harder to sell records as a rapper back when he was first coming out than at any other time in the genre’s history.

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“My era of music was the toughest era of hip-hop, ever. Ever,” he says on the episode that drops March 7. “When I put out songs, I had to go against DMX, JAY-Z, Eminem, Lil Wayne, 50 Cent, Luda. All of us are fighting for one spot!”

Every artist believes their generation has it the toughest. Drake, for example, on his first Rock Ross collab “Lord Knows,” laments having to deal with a climate in which a celebrity’s private life is incessantly mined for content by publications and people on social media, alike. Going as far as to wonder if the greats he’s compared to would “ever survive in this era. In a time where it’s recreation to pull all your skeletons out the closet like Halloween decorations.” Who knows how rappers from the 90s would fare if they had to contend with X, Instagram, and TikTok.

But Nelly’s mostly right. It’s tough to believe that it was harder to be a top-selling rapper in the early 2000s than it was in the, say, late 80s, but it’s not hard to believe that it’s a bit easier today.

Real quick, some numbers to consider.

When Nelly dropped his debut album, Country Grammar, in June of 2000, he managed to sell 235,000 copies the first week. Not bad for a kid most people had not heard of who was riding the success of a single everyone found super catchy if a bit puerile. The album debuted at number three on the Billboard 200. The top spot was taken by Eminem who, a month earlier released his highly anticipated sophomore effort, The Marshall Mathers LP. Yes, you read that right.

TMMLP sold 1.78 million copies its first week. The second week it sold 800,000. Third week? Another 600,000. And then the fourth week it sold a comical 520,000 copies. That’s more than double Nelly’s first week. And, for those keeping a running tally, that’s 3.7 million copies in one month. Nelly would eventually claim the top spot and he and Em would duke it out for the rest of the summer before both albums would go diamond.

So far in 2024, no rap album has even gone gold in its first week. And, sure, numbers aren’t everything. These days there are more rappers than ever who are making a great living. Depending on their deal a rapper doesn’t have to sell a million records or have a top 10 album in order to live well. Artists today have found new and novel monetization methods that just weren’t available when Nelly was first coming out. That’s all fine and well. However, it’s undebatable that we have less rap stars than before.

The era Nelly is referring to is one in which DMX dropped two multiplatinum albums in one year, both of which went number one on the Billboard 200. It’s the era when Outkast capped off an incredible five-album run by going diamond. It’s the era when Ludacris was still a rapper. It’s when JAY-Z dropped an album every fourth quarter that topped the charts and went multiplatinum. If you wanted to be a rap star, you had to do battle with all of them and more.

Ask a rap fan why no albums have managed to sell crazy so far this year and they’ll likely point out the fact that Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole—the venerable “Big 3”—haven’t dropped anything. Even if you add Future, Nicki Minaj and Ye, to that group, it still wouldn’t match up to the sheer number of heavy hitters who were moving units back then.

It was, as the saying goes, just different.

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