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.
“I’m tryna get some new Js. If Foot Locker ain’t got ’em, I’ma grab the store clerk and drop him with the Rock Bottom.”
If I’d written that line, nobody could tell me shit. I would retire from writing right there, on the spot, as an undefeated legend. I would’ve achieved perfection, and there would be be no chance that I could ever come up with anything that good again. But I didn’t write that line. Chamillionaire did. Then he followed that line with this one: “I’m ’bout to walk up on Bin Ladin, ask him where he been hidin’, then slap the snot out him.” Some people can just come up with brilliant bullshit like it’s nothing. Some people are just different. I’m so jealous.
Chamillionaire wrote a lot of great punchlines; my favorite just happens to be the one about walking into a mall shoe emporium and throwing a referee-shirted employee at the floor. Very few people have ever been better at the art of goofy, exuberant, unpredictable, elegantly worded shit-talk. I could quote Chamillionaire lyrics all day. “I’m sorry to tell you, but I got really bad news. Game over, you lose.” “‘Hi, this is Def Jam, and we heard your tape. We wanna sign you, we can’t wait’ — beep, message erased.” The amazingly bad fake British accent when he says, “Great Scott, the bloody rims keep forgetting to stop.” I love that stuff so much.
For a few months in the mid-’00s, I was convinced that Chamillionaire was the best rapper on the planet. He had everything that I wanted in a rapper. He was precise. He was funny. He had a regionally specific accent, but he enunciated. He had bounce in his delivery and a weirdly inimitable sense of personality in his writing. He sang hooks that I couldn’t get out of my head. He didn’t tell drug-dealing tall tales, but he also didn’t make a big thing out of not telling drug-dealing tall tales. When Chamillionaire finally signed a major-label contract, I was convinced that he was about to become a star. That didn’t quite happen. Instead, Chamillionaire made a conscious decision to stop being funny, shooting instead for some kind of importance. Then, he got to #1 with a protest song so bouncy and catchy that most people didn’t realize it was a protest song. Weird career.
Chamillionaire’s one big hit seemed to snowball without anyone’s help. Chamillionaire’s major label album had already been out for the better part of a year when its second single reached #1. The song didn’t have a huge promotional push or a big-budget video. It did have a guest-rapper, but that guest-rapper was a decade past his career peak. “Ridin'” was sticky and memorable enough that it exceeded all commercial expectations, and then Chamillionaire never got anywhere near that career peak again. Sometimes, a song just hits the zeitgeist at the right moment, and Chamillionaire’s singsong hook — “They see me rollin’/ They hatin'” — was catchy enough to transcend its context.
The “Ridin'” hook probably wasn’t the career legacy that Chamillionaire imagined for himself, but one big hit is better than no big hits. Chamillionaire — King Koopa, the Color-Changin’ Lizard — was born Hakeem Seriki in Washington, DC, and he mostly grew up in northwest Houston. (Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer’s “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” was the #1 song in America when Chamillionaire was born.) Chamillionaire’s parents didn’t let him listen to rap, but he found his way to the music anyway, especially after he made friends with a white kid named Paul Slayton at Jersey Village High School.
We went over Paul Wall’s backstory in the column on Nelly’s “Grillz,” which means we’ve gone over much of Chamillionaire’s backstory, too. The short version: Paul and Chamillionaire joined the street promotional team of the local indie label Swishahouse, and they impressed label boss Michael “5000” Watts with a radio-station freestyle. This led to stardom on the thriving Houston underground rap scene and to the release of the 2002 underground classic Get Ya Mind Correct.
I love Get Ya Mind Correct without reservation. The album is fully immersed in the culture of Houston rap — the cars, the diamonds, the multiple mentions of regional seafood chain Pappadeaux — but it’s got a lively, energetic snap of its own. Paul and Chamillionaire both sound like smart nerds who love language, and they’ve got an on-record charisma that still sparkles. But it’s not an equal partnership. At the time, Paul Wall was mostly a foil. Chamillionaire was the star — the one with all the best lines, the one who sang the hooks, the one who set the tone. By the time I heard Get Ya Mind Correct, Paul Wall and Chamillionaire had already gone through a bitter split, and they’d already launched a half-hearted feud.
In 2005, when the local anthem “Still Tippin'” became a national crossover hit, the major labels descended on Houston and offered big deals to every H-Town star. Chamillionaire signed to Universal and came out with his major-label debut The Sound Of Revenge in November 2005. Around that time, I interviewed Chamillionaire in a New York record-label office, and he talked about fighting to be taken seriously. He kept saying that Get Ya Mind Correct had “no substance” and that he wanted to make something truly purposeful and meaningful. For me, the whole experience was disorienting. This guy had made this great record, but he didn’t believe in its greatness. To him, that album was a childish trifle, a thing that he couldn’t wait to leave in the past.
The Sound Of Revenge isn’t a bad album, but it lacks the sense of fuck-around joy that I still hear in Get Ya Mind Correct. I reviewed The Sound Of Revenge for Pitchfork, and I was nicer about that record than a lot of critics, but my review still fit the general consensus: Chamillionaire had lost something vital. Suddenly, his flow sounded forced — grim and clenched and overworked, like he was trying to work himself into a mainstream rap-star mold that just didn’t fit him. At first, the album got lost in that fall’s flood of major-label Houston rap records. On first single “Turn It Up,” Chamillionaire and established Houston star Lil Flip teamed up over a Scott Storch beat. The song was decent but generic, and it peaked at #41. (Lil Flip’s highest-charting single, the 2004 Lea collab “Sunshine,” peaked at #2. It’s a 3.)
A month after its release, The Sound Of Revenge went gold, and it seemed like that would be it. Nobody saw “Ridin'” coming. Chamillionaire recorded “Ridin’,” the album’s second single, with producers Juan and Oscar Salinas, two Latino brothers from Dallas. The Salinas brothers, known as Play-N-Skillz, started off working with Texas stars like Bun B and Lil Flip in the early ’00s. Play-N-Skillz’ production style had a distinctly Southern bounce, but it didn’t have the psychedelic slow-crawl quality of most Houston rap. Instead, the duo brought an accessible synthetic brightness. In 2004, they released the major-label compilation album The Process, and they got to #69 with the Art Of Noise-sampling Krayzie Bone/Adina Howard collab “Freaks.”
Krayzie Bone has already been in this column as a member of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. That group had a huge moment in the ’90s, but various different members of the group had gone though addiction problems, mental health issues, and prison bids. While all that was happening, Krayzie Bone established himself as the most solid, dependable member of the group, and he guested on singles from artists like Mariah Carey, Ice Cube, and Lil Jon. (My friend Al Shipley has a funny line about how Bone Thugs-N-Harmony got their names mixed up. Krayzie Bone is the one who’s always busy, and Bizzy Bone is the one who’s always crazy.) Krayzie Bone had a couple of solo albums that sold pretty well, but he never had a true breakout as a solo artist.
“Ridin'” is a song about police racially profiling young Black men who drive nice cars. Chamillionaire, like a lot of other Texan rappers, always talked proudly about his cars, and he’s never had any criminal background, so it’s easy to imagine him facing this issue often. On “Ridin’,” Chamillionaire alternately fumes about dealing with constant police harassment and mocks the cops who can never find anything illegal in his car. The police are jealous of his success, and they want nothing more than to bust him. They seem him rolling. They’re hating. Patrolling, they’re trying to catch him riding dirty.
On “Ridin’,” Chamillionaire’s flow is fast and intricate, and he veers freely from one subject to the next. He brags about his car and his money, and he warns off any carjackers who might try to rob him, but he’s mostly concerned about cops. The juxtapositions can get disorienting: “Ride clean as hell, so I pull in ladies/ Law’s on patrol, and you know they hate me.” But as the song continues, it takes shape. Chamillionare knows why he keeps facing traffic stops, and he’s pissed off about it: “Thinkin’ they’ll catch me in the wrong, they keep tryin’/ Keep steady denyin’ that it’s racial profilin’.”
At least on the surface, “Ridin'” is a triumphant song. Chamillionaire knows that he’s not doing anything illegal, so he enjoys the sight of cops getting pissed off that they can’t arrest him: “Bein’ the baller that I am, I talk to them, givin’ a damn about them not feelin’ my attitude/ When they realize I ain’t even ridin’ dirty, bet you’ll be leavin’ with an even madder mood.” (Chamillionaire also promises to fuck a cop’s girlfriend, which is always a good trump card to play.) But there’s genuine anger on “Ridin’,” and there’s fear, too. Chamillionaire worries about crooked cops going after the cash in his glove compartment, and if you’ve been paying any attention to the news over the past few years, you know his fears aren’t unfounded.
Krayzie Bone’s guest verse on “Ridin'” is just dazzling — the kind of twisty and melodic fast-rap thing that nobody ever did as well as Bone. You could get totally lost trying to sing along with that verse. But it’s a little funny to hear Krayzie Bone talking about getting drunk and high while driving: “Doin’ a hundred while I puff on a blunt and roll another one up/ We livin’ like we ain’t givin’ a fuck.” This seems like a pretty good reason for a cop to pull someone over. And yet I can’t get too mad because the man just sounds so good, and you can really hear his influence on Chamillionaire’s style. Krayzie Bone also rhymes “bust shots in the air” with “Chamillionaire.” I bet that made Chamillionaire happy.
Bryan Barber directed the “Ridin'” video in the same year that he made the Outkast movie Idlewild, and it’s got the late Tiny Lister, the gigantic and mean-looking actor most famous for playing Deebo in Friday, as the cop who gets mad at Chamillionaire. (Tiny Lister was very available for rap videos in the ’90s and ’00s. He was in a ton of them.) We see Lister beating up motorists, and we also see him in a pro wrestling ring, a none-too-elegant visual metaphor for the way that cops treat innocent people. Lister actually had pro wrestling experience; he had a run in the WWF around the same time that he played the bad guy Zeus in the 1989 Hulk Hogan vehicle No Holds Barred. Lister was never a great wrestler, but he was truly awesome at glaring and flexing.
Despite that video, people don’t generally think of “Ridin'” as a protest song. Instead, it’s a solid example of that era’s entry-level pop-rap. Chamillionaire and Krayzie Bone rap so quickly that a lot of people missed the message, and the hook is so bright and catchy that the bit about “they see me rollin'” endured as a meme for years afterward. Maybe the song was just too catchy for its own good.
Chamillionaire seemed totally unprepared for the success of “Ridin’,” and he never scored another hit. Chamillionaire did return to the top 10 later in 2006, guesting on former Number Ones artist Ciara’s single “Get Up.” (“Get Up” peaked at #7. It’s a 7.) On Chamillionaire’s 2007 follow-up Ultimate Victory, he refused to cuss, which came off as a teacher’s-pet gimmick. The single “Hip-Hop Police” featured Slick Rick, someone who’d spent the bulk of his career in prison. Even with that context, “Hip-Hop Police” seemed like a halfassed attempt at another “Ridin’,” and it didn’t crack the Hot 100.
Ultimate Victory flopped, and none of its singles charted. For a couple of years, Chamillionaire made guest appearances on other artists’ minor hits: Frankie J’s “That Girl,” Jibbs’ “King Kong,” the very good Three 6 Mafia song “Doe Boy Fresh.” Chamillionaire recorded a third major-label album, and he actually got to #40 with “Good Morning,” a single built on a presumably-expensive Tom Petty sample. But the album never came out, and Chamillionaire parted ways with Universal. He released a couple of EPs independently, but he still hasn’t made another album. On mixtapes that came out after he left Universal, Chamillionaire sounded like he was utterly sick of rap.
In 2010, Paul Wall and Chamillionaire patched things up and went on tour together. I was extremely fired up to see them perform at SXSW that year, but they mostly just took turns rapping their solo songs, staying away from the Get Ya Mind Correct material. They were back together, but they weren’t really back together. For the past decade or so, Chamillionaire has made very little music, and he’s mostly been out of the public eye. Apparently, he’s been focusing on entrepreneurial efforts. He was an early investor in Lyft, which must’ve worked out well for him, but I’ve never heard of Convoz, the social network that he helped launch in 2018. In 2021, Chamillionaire showed up at the chaotic and deeply entertaining Bone Thugs-N-Harmony/Three 6 Mafia Verzuz battle, performing “Ridin'” with Krayzie Bone. The YouTube rap star Tobe Nwigwe spent a long time publicly lobbying for a Chamillionaire guest verse, and he finally got one last year.
I don’t like Chamillionaire’s one big hit as much as the stuff that he recorded early on, and I don’t think he ever captured the magic of Get Ya Mind Correct again. But whenever Chamillionaire pops up these days, I feel a sudden rush of affection. It would be cool if Chamillionaire returned to rap on a more full-time basis. I’d like to see him rollin’ more often.
BONUS BEATS: You know exactly what’s about to happen here. The biggest chart hit of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s entire career is his 2006 “Ridin'” parody “White & Nerdy.” The joke is obvious, but Weird Al actually nails the Chamillionaire and Krayzie Bone flows, which impresses me to no end. Also, I somehow never noticed until now that the “gangstas” in the video are Key and Peele. Amazing. Here it is:
(“White & Nerdy” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. They see you readin’. They hatin’. Buy the book here.