The Number Ones

January 21, 2006

The Number Ones: Nelly’s “Grillz” (Feat. Paul Wall, Ali, & Gipp)

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

There’s no practical reason to put diamonds all over your teeth. There are, in fact, several compelling reasons not to do that. It’s expensive. It looks uncomfortable. When I had a retainer, I couldn’t resist popping it out and playing with it; I bet a diamond grill feels about the same. You’ve got to take the grill out to eat, and if you don’t brush or floss before popping it back in, you might be trapping food in your real teeth. There’s got to be some risk of accidentally swallowing a diamond, which doesn’t sound fun.

But rap fashion has never been about practicality. It’s about peacocking — showing off your income while implicitly disrespecting the aesthetics of the old-money types who probably didn’t want to see you doing well in the first place. Plus: Have you ever been in the same room as someone who’s got a mouth full of diamonds? You can’t look away. Photos and music videos don’t properly capture the way those things catch the light, the way they sparkle. In a nightclub, where the rotating lights already create psychedelic effects, it can be truly trippy to watch someone’s mouth suddenly glow.

Gold fronts had been part of hip-hop fashion since at least the ’80s, but teeth started getting brighter and gaudier in the late ’90s. Platinum teeth were a key part of the Cash Money Records aesthetic. Meanwhile, the city of Houston developed its own rap culture, with its own signifiers: slowed-down beats, codeine-laced cough syrup, tricked-out old-school cars, elaborately bejeweled mouthpieces. In the mid-’00s, when Houston’s rap scene had a huge mainstream moment, those diamond grills took off elsewhere; I can vividly remember the great rap blog Government Names running a 2005 ranking of different rappers’ grills.

Paul Wall, the man who made himself synonymous with decorative mouth jewelry and who topped that best-grill list, once described the lure of this particular fashion choice like this: “The disco ball in my mouth insinuates I’m ballin’.” On Nelly’s “Grillz,” Paul Wall says the same thing in a different way: “My motivation is them 30 pointers, VVS/ The frontage in my mouthpiece simply symbolize success.” The diamond grill is an ostentatious attack, a display of wealth that cannot be ignored. In the early days of 2006, “Grillz,” an ode to that whole diamond-teeth fad, pushed Nelly to his fourth and final #1 hit on the Hot 100.

Less than four years before “Grillz,” Nelly absolutely owned the charts. Thanks to the back-to-back success of “Hot In Herre” and “Dilemma,” the St. Louis superstar spent virtually the entire summer of 2002 in the #1 spot. A year later, Nelly and his young protege Murphy Lee retook the top of the charts, teaming up with Diddy for the soundtrack song “Shake Ya Tailfeather.” At that point, Nelly seemed like he could keep racking up #1 hits forever, but that’s not how pop music works. Imperial eras always end.

In retrospect, Nelly can probably be considered a transitional figure — a rapper who came along at the right moment to capitalize on a shift in public taste. Nelly’s springy melodic style wasn’t a boardroom creation; instead, he organically landed on a bright and hooky cadence that sounded just right on pop radio. Nelly was a born showman with a boisterous, approachable sound. He wasn’t an overt crossover-chaser like Will Smith, but he also wasn’t a grimy street-rap hitmaker like Juvenile. He was somewhere between those two extremes, and that made him the right person to bridge those eras. By 2006, though, a rap song could impact the Hot 100 without sweetening itself up for pop radio. Nelly, who always kept his sound sweet, started to struggle for hits.

Like so many other pop stars, Nelly was also the victim of his own hubris. When Nelly got to work on the follow-up to his massively successful 2002 album Nellyville, he hit on the idea that he really had two albums’ worth of material. Those two albums came out, Use Your Illusion-style, on the same day in 2004. The concept was dumber than dirt: One album, Sweat, full of uptempo club bangers, along with another Suit, with sweeter, more tender melodic fare. Sweat was a full-on brick. The album barely went platinum, and its first single and biggest hit, the Neptunes-produced dance track “Flap Your Wings,” only made it to #52. Suit did a lot better, and its biggest hit would ultimately show where Nelly’s career would go.

“Over And Over” is a lovelorn ballad built on a fluttering acoustic guitar loop. Nelly doesn’t really rap on the song. Instead, he sings, and he has company. Nelly recorded “Over And Over” as a duet with the country superstar Tim McGraw, whose gravelly croon gave the hook a bit more weight. The song wasn’t the indulgent Super Bowl Halftime Show fireworks display that people might’ve expected. Nelly and McGraw were both fundamentally melodic down-home artists, and Nelly had named his first album Country Grammar. “Over And Over” didn’t exactly increase Nelly’s standing within the rap world, but it became a big crossover hit, reaching #3. (It’s a 7.) “Over And Over” is probably the main reason that Suit went triple platinum, leaving Sweat in the dust.

A year after Nelly released Sweat and Suit, he came out with a record that was probably what those two albums should’ve been. Sweatsuit whittled the tracks from those two albums down to one CD. It’s not a deluxe edition, exactly. Instead, it’s a kind of un-deluxe thing. Rather than adding more bullshit to a hugely successful album, Nelly trimmed the fat away from two underperforming LPs. But Nelly also added some more bullshit, too. Sweatsuit came with a few bonus tracks.

In the summer of 2005, Adam Sandler starred in The Longest Yard, a remake of the 1974 Burt Reynolds movie about a quarterback who goes to prison and then leads the convicts in a football team against the guards. (“The Chanukah Song,” Sandler’s only Hot 100 hit, peaked at #80 in 1999.) Sandler’s version of The Longest Yard was full of stunt-casting. Burt Reynolds returned as the convicts’ coach, and Sandler shared the screen with former NFL players (Brian Bosworth, Michael Irvin, Terry Crews), pro wrestlers (Bill Goldberg, Kevin Nash, Stone Cold Steve Austin), Sandler’s own comedy buddies, and Nelly, who made his big-screen debut as imprisoned running back Earl Megget. That summer, Nelly got to #24 with the soundtrack song “Errtime.” That song isn’t on Sweatsuit, but another Longest Yard soundtrack cut, the easy-to-forget ballad “Fly Away,” found a home on Nelly’s new record.

“Fly Away” is the sort of loose-dangling track that you might expect to find on an album like Sweatsuit. You probably would not expect to find a prospective #1 hit on that album, especially after the actual Sweat and Suit singles failed to go that far on the Hot 100. But Nelly did manage to get there with his song about mouth-jewelry. Part of it was the timing. At a slow time in the record-release calendar, “Grillz” took advantage of the Houston rap boom. It helped that “Grillz” was a pretty good song.

Nelly recorded “Grillz” with producer Jermaine Dupri, the veteran Atlanta hitmaker who was on a serious run in the mid-’00s. Dupri had gotten his start as a rap producer, but he recorded most of his big hits with rap-adjacent R&B stars like Usher and Mariah Carey. Still, Dupri and Nelly had known each other for a few years, and they had a rapport. In 2001, a fired-up Nelly guest verse helped push “Where The Party At,” a Dupri-produced track from the So So Def R&B group Jagged Edge, as high as #3. (It’s a 10.)

Nelly later told XXL that he and Dupri were spending a few days working together in Atlanta but that they hadn’t come up with anything. So they blew off some steam at Magic City, the famed Atlanta strip club that helped break tons of rap hits. While at Magic City, Nelly got an idea for a song in his head, and he started singing it to Dupri. Dupri decided that it was a hit, so he and Nelly, along with “half the muthafuckin’ club,” went back to the studio that night to lay the track down. Once they had the idea for the song, Nelly had definite ideas about who should rap on it. One man in particular had made custom diamond grills a huge part of his personal brand.

What it do? It’s Paul Wall. He’s the people’s champ. His chain light up like a lamp ’cause now he’s back with the Camp. He’s crawling similar to an ant because he’s low to the earth. People’s feelings get hurt when they figure out what he’s worth. He’s got 84s poking out. At the club, he’s showing out. He’s a player, ain’t no doubt. Hoes wanna know what he’s ’bout. Biggest diamonds off in his mouth, princess cuts all in his chain. Wood grain all in his Range, dripping stains when he switch lanes.

Paul Wall might be the only white rapper in history who never showed the slightest anxiety about his own whiteness. You could never just forget that Eminem was white; the man’s race was too baked into his delivery and his persona. With Paul Wall, it was neither. He was, and is, just a laid-back guy with a country-ass drawl who loves the trappings of Houston rap culture as much as he loves life itself. He was the iceman Paul Wall, and he had his mouth lookin’ somethin’ like a disco ball. He had the internet going nuts.

Paul Slayton is Houston born and bred, and he got his start rapping with his Jersey Village High School buddy Chamillionaire, a guy who will soon appear in this column. In the late ’90s, around the same time that Paul started studying communications at the University Of Houston, Paul and Chamillionaire did street-team promotions for Swishahouse, the Houston rap label founded by DJ Michael “5000” Watts. One day, the duo convinced Watts to let them freestyle on his radio show, and Watts was impressed enough to put their freestyle on a mixtape. From there, Paul and Chamillionaire made themselves big names on the booming Houston rap underground.

Paul Wall and Chamillionaire’s 2002 album Get Ya Mind Correct is quite simply one of my favorite rap records of all time. It’s not an artistic masterpiece or anything, but I don’t care; I love it just the same. The hooks are insidious, the beats are clean, and the punchlines will stick with me forever. Chamillionaire gets most of the best lines, but Paul matches him flow-for-flow, and his whole presence is extremely engaging in the doofiest way imaginable. My favorite bit is Paul talking about watching “Rush Hour 1 through 3 on three TVs.” Rush Hour 3 wouldn’t come out for another five years. That means Paul Wall obtained a time machine and went into the future, but only so that he could buy a Rush Hour 3 DVD in order to watch all three movies simultaneously. Listen. I don’t know. I’m easily entertained, I guess.

Get Ya Mind Correct was a regional indie hit that reportedly sold hundreds of thousands of copies, but Paul Wall and Chamillionaire eventually broke up and spent a few years beefing with each other. Paul Wall returned to the fold at Swishahouse, and he rapped alongside Swishahouse labelmates Slim Thug and Mike Jones on “Still Tippin’,” a track originally recorded for the 2003 compilation The Day Hell Broke Loose 2. “Still Tippin'” is a classic song, a glorious slow-creep distillation of everything that made Houston rap so special. When that song made the rounds — eventually peaking at #60 on the Hot 100 — major labels realized that Houston was a scene full of big personalities who were also canny marketing minds. Those guys were already doing huge numbers on their own, and labels started offering lucrative contracts around town. All three “Still Tippin'” rappers got major deals, and Paul Wall ended up on Atlantic.

Paul Wall’s 2005 major-label debut The People’s Champ went platinum, and its biggest hit, the Chi-Lites flip “Girl,” peaked at #35. By that time, Paul was also famous for something other than rapping. In 2002, Paul started working with Johnny Dang, a Vietnamese-born jeweler who he met at a Houston swap meet. Working with Dang, Paul started designing custom grills for himself and other rappers. (Future Number Ones artist Lil Wayne on The People’s Champ: “Lil Wayne, never dropped the ‘Lil’/ I gave Paul $100,000 for my grill.”) If Nelly was going to make a whole song about diamond grills, he needed Paul Wall on it.

Nelly got other people involved, too. Nelly and his friends had never been above writing entire songs about something as frivolous as a fashion accessory. In 2002, for instance, Nelly and his St. Lunatics friends made it to #3 with the infectious sneaker-themed posse cut “Air Force Ones.” (It’s an 8.) One of Nelly’s St. Lunatics comrades was Ali Jones, who rapped as simply Ali. Ali’s 2002 debut album Heavy Starch hadn’t gone anywhere, but Ali still showed up on “Grillz” alongside Big Gipp, a former member of the hugely influential Atlanta group Goodie Mob.

Goodie Mob were part of the same Dungeon Family collective that gave us Outkast, and the term “Dirty South” comes from a song on Goodie Mob’s classic 1994 debut Soul Food. (According to legend, it was actually Dungeon Fam affiliate Cool Breeze who came up with the term. “Dirty South” peaked at #92.) Everyone in Goodie Mob seemed almost confrontationally Southern, but nobody in the group was more Southern that Big Gipp. Gipp rapped in a gluey drawl that was sometimes almost impenetrable for Northern listeners, and he had a wild look that was highlighted by the gleaming metal all over his teeth. You can see Gipp’s mouthpiece in its full glory in the video for the group’s paranoid 1994 bugout “Cell Therapy.” (“Cell Therapy,” Goodie Mob’s highest-charting single, peaked at #39.)

Goodie Mob’s first three albums all went gold, but the group never really approached the commercial success of their friends in Outkast. After 1999’s World Party, Cee-Lo, the most visible member of Goodie Mob, split to go solo. The other three rappers stuck together, but their 2004 album One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show bricked. When Nelly recruited Big Gipp to appear on “Grillz,” Gipp didn’t have too much going on. But Nelly remembered Gipp as a pioneer in the field of decorative mouthpieces: “Gipp was one of the first ones to have the white grill, way back in the day, so I was like, ‘We gotta get Gipp, too.'”

“Grillz” isn’t an especially complicated song, but it does have 11 credited songwriters. You’ve got all four rappers: Nelly, Paul Wall, Ali, Big Gipp. You’ve got Jermaine Dupri and James “LRoc” Phillips, the keyboardist who worked regularly with Lil Jon and who co-wrote Usher’s “Yeah!” And then you’ve got five more writers credited because of a quick interpolation of Destiny’s Child’s “Soldier,” a song that had just come out a year earlier. Destiny’s Child, a group that’s been in this column plenty of times, released “Solider” as a single from their final album, 2004’s Destiny Fulfilled. The song is a love letter to street dudes, and it’s got guest verses from ascendant Southern-rap kings T.I. and Lil Wayne, both of whom will eventually appear in this column. “Soldier” peaked at #3, making it Destiny’s Child’s last top-10 hit before all three members went full-time solo.

Jermaine Dupri’s “Grillz” beat has some of the same clean synth-string churn as the Rich Harrison-produced “Soldier,” but that’s not why five extra names got added to the “Grillz” songwriting credits. Instead, in the middle of Nelly’s “Grillz” verse, the uncredited singer Brandi Williams — a member of Blaque, a girl group who scored a few chart hits during the peak Destiny’s Child era — chips in with a quote from “Soldier”: “Open up your mouth, your grill gleaming/ Eyes stay low from the chiefing.” (Blaque’s highest-charting single, 1999’s “Bring It All To Me,” peaked at #5. It’s a 7.) On “Soldier,” that’s Kelly Rowland’s line, and it’s fun to imagine that Nelly threw that in there in tribute to his “Dilemma” collaborator. Whatever the case, it’s kind of funny that Kelly has a songwriting credit on “Grillz” but not “Dilemma.” Destiny’s Child members Beyoncé and Michelle Williams are also credited songwriters on “Grillz,” along with Rich Harrison and Sean Garrett — all because of that one line.

That Destiny’s Child line isn’t the only interpolation on “Grillz,” but it’s the only one that affected the songwriting credits. “Grillz” also calls back to a couple of ’80s rap tracks. Nelly’s flow on “Grillz” is a variation on what LL Cool J does on his 1987 deep cut “Kanday,” and Nelly also quotes LL’s line about “I wouldn’t leave you for nothing, only a crazy man would.” (LL Cool J has been in this column as Jennifer Lopez’s duet partner on “All I Have.”) The end of “Grillz” also repurposes TJ Swan’s “why’d you have to leave me that way” hook from MC Shan’s 1987 single “Left Me Lonely.” (Shan has also been in this column as the producer and guest-rapper on Snow’s “Informer.”) The “Grillz” songwriting credits could’ve been even longer, but maybe Destiny’s Child had better lawyers than LL Cool J or MC Shan.

In any case, “Grillz” is nobody’s idea of an opus. It’s a bonus track about a garish fashion fad with four different rappers, an uncredited hook-singer, and a whole lot of quotes from other songs. If you judge music based on its importance, then “Grillz” isn’t going to do anything for you. But I like “Grillz.” It’s bright and catchy and self-consciously silly. Jermaine Dupri’s beat, with its sawing synth-strings and its weightless dings, never taxes your attention, but there’s something deeply satisfying about its simplicity. And all four rappers are fully locked-in.

Nelly’s hyperactive melodic yawp never gets too much room to go crazy on “Grillz,” and that’s probably for the best. In his verse, Nelly sounds enthusiastic, but he sticks to the beat and to that old LL Cool J flow. He sounds very proud of the different-colored diamonds in his grill: “I got a grill I call penny candy, you know what that mean?/ It look like Now And Laters, gumdrops, jellybeans.” (It kind of sounds like he says “jelly and beans”? That can’t be right, can it?)

On the hook, Nelly almost sounds like Brandi Williams’ hypeman: “Let you see my what?” He also has a line about “rob the jewelry store and tell ’em make me a grill.” I don’t know too much about mouthpiece logistics, but this seems impractical. Is Nelly going to hold his gun on everyone in the store while the in-house dentist gets all his teeth measurements? This is obviously what makes for a great rap line. It’s supposed to make no sense at all. It’s supposed to be sheer cartoon-logic delirium. It succeeds.

The Paul Wall guest-verse on “Grillz” is the kind of thing that Paul could do in his sleep, but that doesn’t make it any less charming. Paul Wall simply loves rapping about grills. He’s got the diamonds and the ice all hand-set; he might cause a cold front if he takes a deep breath. He’s got the wristwear and neckwear that’s captivating, but it’s his smile that got these onlookers spectating. His mouthpiece is simply certified, a total package. Open up his mouth, and you see more karats than a salad. His teeth are mind-blowing, giving everybody chills. Call him George Foreman ’cause he’s selling everybody grills.

On the last verse, Ali and Gipp go tag-team style, tossing it back and forth. Gipp naturally gets all the best lines, and he also gives his own history lesson: “I ain’t dissin’ nobody, but let’s bring it to the light/ Gipp was the first with my mouth bright white.” Ali matches Gipp’s nonchalance, but his punchlines are more awkward: “Got a bill in my mouth like I’m Hillary Rodham.” Give Ali credit for avoiding the obvious Lewinsky punchline, but it also kind of looks like he’s talking about how he’s sucking Bill Clinton’s dick. If that’s what he meant, cool, but I don’t think it is. Also, does Ali think the Clintons are really going down on each other all the time? That’s not really the vibe I get from those two.

In any case, there’s something endearingly dorky about these four rappers spending an entire song attempting to outdo each other by bragging about the intricate particulars of their mouth jewelry. If you’re a connoisseur of diamond-studded grills, I’m sure all those punchlines make perfect sense. If you’re not, the whole thing is pleasantly bewildering. Either way, it’s obvious that these guys are all very excited about their grills. They remind me of little kids comparing Beyblades or Pokémon cards.

The success of “Grillz” probably owed something to iTunes downloads and ringtones. It also combined Nelly’s lingering goodwill with the sense of excitement around Houston rap aesthetics. (We’ll see more Houston rappers in this column in the weeks ahead.) But “Grillz” wasn’t much of a resurgence for Nelly. The “Grillz” single went platinum, but Nelly’s Sweatsuit collection couldn’t get past gold. Nelly truly entered his flop era with his next album, 2008’s Brass Knuckles. Brass Knuckles stalled out at gold, and its biggest hit, the Fergie collab “Party People,” only made it to #40. (Fergie will eventually appear in this column.)

Nelly managed one more major chart hit after all that. In 2010, Nelly made it to #3 with the heartsick ballad “Just A Dream.” (It’s a 6.) But “Just A Dream” was less of a comeback and more of a fluke. Nelly’s album 5.0 didn’t even go gold, and he hasn’t been back in the top 10 since. Still, the Nashville-country lilt in “Just A Dream” foreshadowed Nelly’s future. Three years after “Just A Dream,” Nelly rapped on a remix of bro-country duo Florida Georgia Line’s crossover hit “Cruise.” (“Cruise” peaked at #4 on the Hot 100. It’s a 7.)

Since that “Cruise” remix, Nelly has gone full-on country. In 2021, he released Heartland, the country album that he’d been promising for a few years. (The cover art is a hat that’s half Stetson, half Cardinals fitted. It looks stupid.) On Heartland, Nelly teamed up with country stars like Darius Rucker and Kane Brown, and he got to #23 with the Florida Georgia Line collab “Lil Bit.” That was Nelly’s biggest chart hit since “Just A Dream.”

These days, Nelly lives on the nostalgia circuit. He plays country and rock festivals, and everyone knows all his old songs. The acting career that Nelly started with The Longest Yard didn’t amount to anything. In recent years, we’ve also gotten some truly disturbing stories about Nelly. In 2017, police outside Seattle arrested Nelly for rape. The charges were dropped after Nelly’s accuser decided not to cooperate. A few months later, Nelly was again accused of sexual assault in England, though nobody pressed charges. Nelly hasn’t been convicted of anything, but those allegations now hang over all his old music. It’s a lot harder to enjoy a song like “Hot In Herre” if you suspect that the guy who made it is a sexual predator.

Even with those disturbing allegations, Nelly remains hugely famous. I can’t really say the same of any of the other rappers on “Grillz.” Paul Wall hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since 2007, when his Lil Keke collab “Break Em Off” peaked at #72. Before too long, Paul returned to the Houston underground, and he seems perfectly comfortable there. Paul got gastric bypass surgery, and he’s now skinny as hell. He continues to show up on tracks with anyone who’s chasing that old-school Houston sound, and he’s also challenged himself, rapping over East Coast beats from producers like Statik Selektah. Paul still sells grills, too. He designed the American flag grill that Ryan Lochte famously wore at the 2012 Olympics.

Ali and Big Gipp stayed together as a duo long enough to release the 2007 album Kinfolk, but that record didn’t go anywhere. Gipp eventually got back together with the other Goodie Mob members, including a returning Cee-Lo, for a pair of reunion albums. Unless you count Cee-Lo’s backup vocals on TLC’s “Waterfalls,” Big Gipp remains the only Goodie Mob member ever to appear on a #1 hit. (Cee-Lo came close twice. In 2006, Gnarls Barkley, Cee-Lo’s duo with producer Danger Mouse, reached #2 with “Crazy.” It’s a 7. Four years later, Cee-Lo returned to #2 with the solo track “Fuck You.” That’s a 6.) For a solid 15 years, Gipp was the last Dungeon Family member ever to appear on a #1 hit. Future, once a peripheral DF affiliate, finally got there in 2021; we’ll see him in this column one day.

“Grillz” didn’t exactly leave a seismic impact on the world, the way some of Nelly’s earlier hits had done. But it’s a fun song that captured a moment. Sometimes, that’s all you need. The moment has changed since then. You don’t see too many grills anymore. Rappers are still spending money on their teeth, but it’s taking a different form. Lots of rappers grew up in poverty, without access to dental care. When they get famous, some spend money on reconstructive surgery and veneers. As in: “Got a bag and fixed my teeth/ Hope you hoes know it ain’t cheap.” A few months ago, the stand-up comic Hannibal Buress made a “Grillz”-style song about that whole trend, and he called it “Veneers.” Paul Wall rapped on the remix.

GRADE: 7/10

We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like the one you’re reading. Become a member and help support independent media!

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jay Rock, Lea, Bash, Punch, and a very young Kendrick Lamar rapping over the “Grillz” beat on a 2006 mixtape track:

(Jay Rock’s only Hot 100 hit, the 2018 Kendrick Lamar/Future/James Blake collab “King’s Dead,” peaked at #21. Kendrick Lamar will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Pharrell rapping over the “Grillz” beat on his jarringly great 2006 mixtape In My Mind: The Prequel:

(Pharrell has already appeared in this column once as a guest, and he’ll eventually be in here as lead artist.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On the outro of Paul Wall’s 2007 Jermaine Dupri collab “I’m Throwed,” DJ Michael “5000” Watts scratched up a “Grillz” sample. Here’s the video:

(“I’m Throwed,” Paul Wall’s final Hot 100 hit, peaked at #87.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Rob the bookstore and tell ’em get you a copy, or else buy it here.

more from The Number Ones

Please disable your adblocker or subscribe to ad-free membership to view this article.

Already a VIP? Sign in.