Finding The GOAT: Nelly vs. Ja Rule…Who You Got?

As we continue the ultimate battle for the title of the GOAT (Greatest of All-Time), we are asking you to help us rank who is the greatest MC to pick up a mic. We will take over 35 years of Hip-Hop into consideration, pairing special match-ups in a sequence not unlike March Madness. For the next several months, we will roll out battles, starting with artists from similar eras paired against one another, until one undisputed King or Queen of the microphone reigns supreme.

The next two MCs to square-off may be controversial to some. As Rap entered one of its most polarizing periods (15 years ago), these were two of the faces (and melodic voices) at the top: Ja Rule and Nelly. Multi-platinum stars, these men were R&B-friendly rappers, who stood the test of time as Rap rumbled in the trunks, and Hip-Hop huddled in the club. But each helped the culture reach masses integral to its growth at the threshold of technological changes. Did each creatively suffer to make music as they wished, in spite of their early uber-success? Listen to these artists’ music and understand their respective impact before casting your vote.

Ja Rule


Guru once rhymed, “It’s mostly the voice, that gets you up.” As Hip-Hop faced a difficult transition in the late ’90s, into the 2000s, Ja Rule was one of the most recognizable voices. Although his would-be ascent to stardom was closely attached to hit Pop/R&B records with the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Ashanti, Case, Lil’ Mo, R. Kelly, Bobby Brown, and Christina Milian, Jeffrey Atkins had bars that he honed in his days as a lesser known featured artist, running with the likes of Mic Geronimo, Tragedy Khadafi, and of course, Jay Z and DMX.

Clearly influenced by 2Pac, Ja Rule pushed his voice to sound as scraped and scuffed as the Queens pavement he walked on, and yet he still sounded warm and smoky on radio—for the better part of five years. Ja had versatility, part of the reason he was able to maneuver fame at an especially fickle time—the MC sounded incredible on the beats of his mentor, Irv Gotti. On one record, R.U.L.E could talk about complicated relationships at a slow and low pace, and on the next, he could hold his own alongside the then-reigning rappers: DMX and Jay Z, who Ja nearly formed a group with.

After the multi-platinum success, Ja Rule jerked the wheel. While his high-profile beef/feud with 50 Cent was at a boil, the MC immersed his sound as the antithesis of the G-Unit popularity, looking into the crowd with Blood In My Eye. Notably, he held firm at upholding the “New York” sound (even if the especially hard beat was provided by Miami’s Cool & Dre). Then, with label and legal drama, Murder Inc’s flagship artist went away. However, more than 15 years after Heads got an early taste of Ja Rule on Jay’s “Can I Get A…,” the MC remains a steadfast reminder of the hardcore ’90s sounds and a confrontational, military-minded MC that was able to maintain his core, while becoming a mainstream, reality TV, commercial darling.

Other Notable Tracks:

“Kill ‘Em All” (with Jay Z) (1999)
“It’s Murda (2003 Freestyle)” (with Hussein Fatal) (2003)
“New York” (with Fat Joe & Jadakiss) (2004)



Looking at the 2000-2005 Rap landscape, was anybody as influential as Nelly? Before Jay Z made grande statements, and in the midst of Eminem’s pinnacle of album-making, it was Nelly that steered the ship of what it took to be a Hip-Hop star from an unfamiliar place (in the pre-2000 consciousness, anyway). Nelly’s mastery of making hard-hitting singles that both sexes could enjoy broke Rap of its violent five-year past was second to none. Nelly was a relevant precursor to “Ringtone Rap,” a pioneering Midwest introduction, and an artist who helped kick down mainstream resistance to Rap as an artform.

Thanks in part to being the last great KRS-One adversary, Nelly (who did not initiate the high-profile fight over “#1” status)—grew unpopular in many circles. However, over the course of his career, Cornell Haynes, Jr. has hung in there on tracks with the likes of Chuck D, prime-time Lil Wayne, and Prodigy, among many others. With a boisterous, melodic voice, Nelly helped prove the vehicle necessary in a post-“Yo! MTV Raps” era of reaching the mainstream. Catchy, mostly PG-13, and always married to booming beats, Nelly’s simplicity and singalong style is arguably comparable to seminal artists such as Nice & Smooth, Biz Markie, and Uncle Luke.

In recent years, Nelly’s work has taken a more Dance-minded spin. One of the best-selling artists of the last 15 years maintains his pursuit of staying in clubs and trunks, thanks to work with Pharrell, T.I., and Nicki Minaj. The pride of St. Louis (who seemingly repped as hard for his city as any artist of the era) continues be at the crossroads of genre, style, and sound. Few artists have had as much impact on Hip-Hop as we know it than this man.

Other Notable Tracks:

“E.I.” (2000)
“Summer In The City” (with St. Lunatics) (2001)
“Self Esteem” (with Chuck D) (2008)

So…who you got?

Voting For Round 1 is now closed. Stay up to date with the latest Finding The GOAT brackets

Ja Rule



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