This week, Nelly's "Country Grammar" squares off against T.I.'s "I'm Serious."
In the early two-thousands, two young rappers emerged onto the scene, catching attention with crisp production, unique vernacular, and some massive singles. St. Louis rapper Nelly, real name Cornell Haynes, changed the game when he dropped his debut album Country Grammar. The titular first single was an immediate hit, introducing listeners to Nelly’s rich depiction of the St. Louis criminal underworld. With infectious production from Jay E across the board, Country Grammar went on to spawn several massive singles, including “Ride Wit Me” and the Ali & Murphy Lee assisted “Batter Up.” The former was especially noteworthy, managing to unite all walks of life, from the hardened criminals to the suburban soccer moms; even Budweiser-fuelled frat-bros were known to bust out the occasional “must be the money!”
By 2001, T.I, also known as Tip Harris, had already earned quite the reputation with his dexterous flow and deadly charisma; the type of man who would flash a grin before an execution. Armed with production from DJ Toomp, The Neptunes, and Jazze Pha, T.I.’s debut album I’m Serious dropped on October 9th, 2001, and immediately put Tip on the map as one to watch. Today, T.I. is quick to play the role of the OG, delivering wisdom and using his platform to drop knowledge on racial justice. Back then, however, Tip was a hungry young rapper, and his exuberance was palpable on nearly every track. While I’m Serious didn’t have a hit with the immediacy of Ride Wit Me, the project was consistent from front to back, as thus heralding the arrival of a new contender.
While Nelly was setting out to claim the domain of the Midwest (later celebrated on the underrated St. Lunatics anthem “Midwest Swing”), T.I. was vying for the coveted position of king of the South. Different kingdoms, to be sure, yet uniquely linked in many ways; Nelly’s drawl might have been kin to his brethren down south, and his recurring use of “dirty” could easily connote some southern slang. To be sure, Nelly repped St. Louis with the loyalty of a true patriot, yet the country motif became a defining facet of his character. After all, St Louis is adjacent to the Southernmost states, so it’s no wonder that Nelly’s music shared some similarities to Tip’s.
The pair went on to collaborate a number of times, including on “Pretty Toes” off Nelly’s Suit album and “Hold Up” off his Brass Knuckles album. Recently, T.I.spoke up after Nelly was accused of rape, defending the Country Grammar rapper’s honor and showing his support once the accuser decided against legal pursuit. In that regard, it’s clear that both T.I. and Nelly are linked in more ways than one, and the loyalty between the two artists runs deep. Yet while they do share a fair number of similarities, it can be argued that their respective careers underwent opposite trajectories; creatively, many feel as if Nelly peaked with the raw raps of Country Grammar, whereas T.I. went on to improve with time and experience. Still, I’m Serious is no joke, and it feels like a worthy contender to square off against Nelly’s iconic debut.
Insofar as Country Grammar is concerned, the real MVP may very well be Jason Epperson, better known to Nelly acolytes as Jay E. Out of the project’s seventeen tracks, nine tracks were produced by Jay, including many of the album’s strongest cuts. The upbeat production of “Country Grammar (Hot Shit)” paired muted electric guitar with bouncy percussion and synth chimes, while “Ride Wit Me” brought the acoustic guitars out for a campfire-style chord progression. In fact, guitars (bass, electric, and acoustic) were a main staple in many of Jay E’s beats, along with glitchy synth lines. The first official song on the album, “St Louie,” featured the dominant use of steel drums, making it feel like a predecessor to 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.“ And that’s not even covering the album’s arguable highlight “E.I.,” an exercise in the effectiveness of minimalism.
Jay E’s production has a very distinct sound, and unfortunately, the bulk of his work appeared on Country Grammar. Despite the fact that he never really blew up beyond working with Nelly, his contributions to Country Grammar helped solidify the album as a modern classic. His production is at once fresh and catchy, radio-friendly without feeling like bubblegum. He managed to pair up with a relatively unknown rapper and pioneer a sound that was distinctly original, and without Jay E’s production, it’s hard to say if Nelly’s “Country Grammar” would have the esteemed reputation that is has today. And while Jay E has taken up the dominant focus of this write up, City Spud and Steve Willis both turn in some excellent work, with the former handling a personal favorite of mine, “Greed Hate Envy.”
Unlike the musical partnership present on Country Grammar, T.I. opted to divide production amongst a squad of talented beatmakers, including DJ Toomp, The Neptunes, Brian Kidd, Maestro, Maseo, and Jazze Pha. Together, the team managed to craft a relatively cohesive sonic journey, with plenty of bounce and Southern funk on deck. Songs like the Jazze Pha produced “Chooz U” employs some soulful electric guitar licks, encapsulating that early millennium Atlanta vibe. It would be remiss to neglect the Neptunes’ contributions to I’m Serious, especially the title track; Pharrell and Chad Hugo lace Tip with one of their signature bangers, complete with ice-cold synthesizers and crisp percussion.
The Neptunes come through with another banger on “What’s Yo Name,” which finds Tip reflecting on a particularly freaky dime over the tones of an accordion-esque synth. Meanwhile, DJ Toomp turned in some of the album’s most distinctly “Dirty South” beats, like the organ driven “Dope Boyz” and the certified club banger “Do It.” Ultimately, the production on I’m Serious feels like a time capsule; it does feel somewhat dated, but in a good way, if that makes sense. Much like the boom-bap aesthetic has become synonymous with nineties hip-hop, the production here is pure early two-thousands - almost definitively so.
In hindsight, it’s easy to look at both T.I. and Nelly’s respective careers and deem Tip the superior lyricist. In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that T.I. is one of the game’s most underrated lyricists period. Yet in the context of these two albums, it feels as if both T.I. and Nelly are more or less evenly matched, at least to the point of stimulating a fair discussion. However, Nelly’s main strength on Country Grammar are his impeccable melodies, and effortless flow elevates his performance to a formidable level. Remember, when this first dropped, Nelly’s debut blew minds, and his lyricism, while rarely flashy, captivated the masses through sheer melodic prowess.
Take the second verse of “Ride Wit Me,” for example, in which Nelly showcases his effortless flow, or the genuine vulnerability of “Luven Me.” The album’s closing track is often overlooked, but it stands out as one of the project’s most sincere moments, and that’s largely because of Nelly’s heartfelt performance:
“Ayo ma, how you doin'
It's your son now
And I picked up the mic and put the drugs down
Now I'm tryin' to do some things that'll make you proud
Instead of every time I call it's to bail me out
Oh why didn't I listen to things you used to tell me?
Knowin' that everything that you said would never fail me
Like they got plans for ya
Ain't nothin' I can do when them laws get they hands on you”
Nelly proves a capable and charismatic lyricist throughout the runtime of Country Grammar, delivering moments of introspection, badassery, sincerity, and comedy. Yet how does he fare against the animated and in-your-face presence of Tip Harris? While Nelly was far more inclined to lay back, high as fuck with a woman on his lap, Tip was more apt to burst onto the scene, shooting first and asking questions later. The distinction in persona is evident through cadence alone, and T.I.’s vocals are often sharper in contrast. As the self-proclaimed pioneer of trap, it’s no surprise that Tip revels in the brutal nature of his environment. Examine the opening bars of “You Ain’t Hard,” for example:
“I done been locked up wit the worstest of ni***s
Armed robbin con men and murderous ni***s
The dope boys be the first to deliver
Green, brown, or blow, got mo snow than Buffalo in the winter
Think these lyrics is comin’ from a pretender?
If I said it I done seen it or done it
So I mean it when I say you don't want it
Done came a long way from jumpin the hunnids
To baggin’ them quarters, doin shows from L.A. to Florida
In Atlanta, I'm the law and the order, the king of it”
T.I is proud to proclaim his royal status, calling himself the king and challenging anyone to say otherwise. For many listeners unfamiliar with the Trap, the proclamations could only affirmed by the authenticity of his bars, and T.I. succeeded in conveying his experiences with credibility. However, he also puts the gun down to make songs for the ladies. And while he never displays the sentimentality of Nelly, he certainly covers the same hedonistic lyrical territory seen on Country Grammar cuts “E.I” and “Thicky Thick Girl.”
For both Nelly and T.I., their debut albums kicked off long and successful careers. However, as touched upon earlier, many felt as if Nelly never quite maintained the quality promised by Country Grammar. His follow-up Nellyville was a dope project, but afterward, his stylistic direction switched up; he eventually parted ways with Jay E, and began the ascent into full-blown country territory, a place only his most ardent fans would go. Still, Country Grammar sounds excellent to this day, despite being seventeen years old. Throw on “Ride Wit Me” at your next party, and see what happens.
As for Tip, well, he experienced the opposite effect. I’m Serious set the tone for things to come, and Tip Harris propelled himself forward, earning the crown with critically acclaimed projects like Trap Muzik, King, & Paper Trail. The rapper soon became prolific, with I’m Serious being the album that kicked off T.I’s legacy. It’s by no means his strongest album, but for that reason, it stands tall as one of his most important.
So, between Nelly’s Country Grammar and T.I.’s I’m Serious, who had the stronger debut album?