1998 remains an important year in the Hip Hop timeline. Although Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G.‘s deaths still weighed heavy on the heart and the rise of commercialization pushed the genre into the dreaded “Shiny Suit Era,” ’98 nevertheless helped shift the trajectory of rap in ways that can still be felt to this day.
From future Hall of Famers reaching their peak, veterans dropping late-career classics and emerging stars breaking through, that year produced a string of seminal rap albums including JAY-Z’s Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, OutKast’s Aquemini, Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Big Pun’s Capital Punishment, not to mention DMX’s historic back-to-back No. 1’s, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood.
Even among all that tough competition, however, N.O.R.E. believes he reigned supreme as “the hottest rapper in the world” in 1998, as he claimed during a recent appearance on the I Am Athlete podcast alongside former NFL pros Brandon Marshall, Chad Johnson, Channing Crowder and Jared Odrick.
“I was the hottest rapper in the world! I could’ve held out, but I wanted a million dollars,” he said while revealing he gave up his publishing rights early in his career. After Marshall questioned his bold claim, N.O.R.E. doubled down on his statement while pulling out stats to support his case.
“I was!” he replied. “In 1998? Who was it? Me, DMX, Big Pun, Cam’ron. I was the hottest at the time I signed. And, other than DMX, I sold the most in my first week. DMX did 220[K], I did 163[K] — plus the other 18,000 that they pre-sold from me! Because they bootlegged it and they still counted it!”
The album N.O.R.E. is referring to, of course, is his self-titled debut album, which arrived back in July 1998 via Penalty/Tommy Boy. The project did indeed sell 163,000 copies in its first week and has since been certified platinum.
N.O.R.E. was bolstered by the success of its singles, “Superthug,” “Banned From T.V.” and “N.O.R.E.” Cracking the Billboard Hot 100 top 40, The Neptunes-produced “Superthug” not only helped usher in Pharrell and Chad Hugo’s dominance behind the boards, but it solidified N.O.R.E. as a solo star following his breakout success as part of Capone-N-Noreaga.
N.O.R.E. isn’t the only rapper to have a strong case for hottest rapper of 1998, though. JAY-Z scored his first of many No. 1 albums with Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, which elevated him to international stardom while taking home Best Rap Album at the 41st Annual Grammy Awards.
Fugees’ Lauryn Hill also shone at the Grammys that year, winning five awards (including the coveted Album of the Year) for her critically-acclaimed solo effort The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Elsewhere, André 3000, Big Pun, Juvenile, Busta Rhymes and Cam’ron all made their presence felt.
However, many would argue the crown for hottest rapper of 1998 belongs to only one name: DMX. The late Ruff Ryders legend made history as the first rapper to release two No. 1 albums in the same year (under the same name) — in his rookie year, no less.
It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot — lead by the timeless “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” — topped the Billboard 200 in May thanks to a quarter-million first-week sales, before Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood repeated the feat in December after shipping 670,000 units, just 11,000 shy of becoming the year’s best-selling rap album.
1998 also saw DMX kickstart his prolific acting career in the classic Hype Williams flick Belly, which also starred Nas, Method Man, T-Boz and Louie Rankin.
“DMX had more love than most rappers will ever see,” Nas said during a recent appearance on SHOWTIME’s Desus & Mero. “He had more love than probably 98 percent of rappers will ever have. He walked through any hood, he sold millions of records and he had an incredible movie career.”
Watch N.O.R.E.’s full I Am Athlete interview below.