UPDATE 12/31/2019: Drake’s certified sales, award wins, and net worth have all gone up several levels since this…and he’s still the biggest hip-hop artist in the world. There’s no debate.
Anyone going to bat for Nelly yesterday was probably doing so for a number of reasons: they wanted to check Drake, have a controversial opinion, or simply provide perspective that current hip-hop and pop fans might have been lacking.
Regardless, if you think Nelly’s prime was greater than Drake’s, it certainly isn’t the strongest argument you’ve made in your life.
Drake vs. Nelly can be summed up in a comparison of their critical, commercial, and cultural achievements during their primes.
Nelly’s critical reception
To simplify the argument, let’s consider each artist at their best. Greatest sales, number of award nominations, and most talked about. For Nelly, this would mean the time period between his first album, Country Grammar, and the simultaneous release of his contrasting third and fourth albums, Sweat and Suit (2000 to 2004).
Overall reception of Nelly’s work peaked with Country Grammar. Though there’s no Metacritic score for Country Grammar available, it received strong positive reviews from a variety of sources including British music journal NME (9/10), and the LA Times (3 out of 4 stars). Nellyville, his second album, received similar reviews including an 8.5/10 from RapReviews.com and 3.5 out of 5 stars from AllMusic.
His next two albums received wide-ranging criticism. Sweat was rated as high as 9/10 by RapReviews.com, and as low as 2.5 out of 5 stars by Vibe, with AllMusic steady at 3 of 5 stars. Suit varied even more, ranging from A- and 9/10 (Entertainment Weekly and RapReviews.com respectively), to 1 star from famed music critic Robert Christgau, and 1/10 from NME.
During this run, Nelly received 12 Grammy nominations, winning three Grammys: 2003’s Best Rap/Sung Collab, 2003’s Best Male Rap Solo Performance, and 2004’s Best Rap Performance By A Duo or Group. He also received the following: 6 American Music Award nominations, winning 3; 5 BET Award (not BET Hip-Hop) nominations, winning 1; and 15 Billboard Music Award nominations, winning 7.
Drake’s critical reception
One thing about this argument that makes it silly is that Drake is still in the midst of his prime. He’s fresh off of his most commercially successful album, has a bunch of pending Grammy nominations, and he’s still the most talked about artist in the world. For Drake’s greatest run, we’ll start at 2010, the year of his debut album, rather than 2009 when So Far Gone dropped.
Drake’s critical reception increased with every album from his first (Thank Me Later) to his third (Nothing Was The Same). His lowest rating from a major source for Thank Me Later was a 6/10 from NME, his highest being an 8.4 from Pitchfork. Take Care‘s lowest rating was a C+ from Entertainment Weekly, with pretty much every other major source giving it either an 8 or equivalent rating in stars or letters (4 out of 5 stars from Rolling Stone, 8.6 from Pitchfork, 4 out of 5 stars from AllMusic). Nothing Was The Same saw a peak in Drake’s overall critical reception, with Metacritic’s overall score at a 79 versus Take Care‘s 78 and Thank Me Later‘s 75. The ratings plateaued with If You’re Reading This, and have seen a dip with Views.
During this stretch, Drake has received the following awards and nominations: 35 Grammy nominations, winning 1, and with 8 nominations pending the 2017 Grammys; 21 American Music Award nominations, winning 4; 30 solo BET Award nominations, winning 9; and 33 Billboard Music Award nominations, winning 1.
Also, some awards that Drake and Nelly could both fairly compete for (ruling out BET Hip-Hop Awards and the Juno Awards) that Nelly has not been nominated for: the MTV VMAs (16 MTV VMA nominations, winning 3), and the Latin American Music Awards (2 nominations).
Nelly has sold 21 million albums in the United States to date. Drake has sold roughly 15 million albums in the United States based on his RIAA certifications. Nelly has seven albums and started selling in 2000. Counting If You’re Reading This and What A Time To Be Alive, Drake has 6 albums which started selling in 2010.
Nelly has fewer RIAA platinum and gold-certified singles (12, including work from the last 3 years) than Drake has platinum singles (16) not to mention his gold singles, adding another 4 to that count.
I don’t really want to get into how much more lucrative Drake’s tours are. Or the number of plaques earned as a featured artist. Just note that Drake’s net worth is already as high as Nelly’s.
Yeah, I’m sure people were buying band-aids and slapping them on their faces to look like Nelly. And he had a huge part in popularizing Air Force 1s. And between his first two albums, he has several timeless singles.
But not only does Drake have singles which are starting to prove they can stand the test of time, the ways in which he’s impacted global pop culture are much broader in scope.
Because of Drake, our thinking about gender roles and relationships have shifted. He’s the center of talks about cultural appreciation versus appropriation in hip-hop. He’s the center of talks about what “real” hip-hop is. He has phrases that have already become everyday slang (i.e. yolo, started from the bottom). He’s taken seriously by media outlets and professional athletes as an NBA team’s “global ambassador”. And despite the different playing field social media has given him, Drake is simply everywhere in a way Nelly never was.
Considering how much shorter Drake’s career is compared to Nelly’s, the fact that he has him beat in the majority of these categories is all that needs to be said. Drake and Nelly are both iconic pop/hip-hop figures, but stop making a scene on Twitter. Just admit you sound silly trying to invoke my nostalgia when you say Nelly’s peak was greater than Drake’s. Okay?