NBA players like rapping, and that is a fact of the universe that we are powerless to stop. The way that I have tended to deal this phenomenon is generally to ignore it completely. It is shockingly easy to do: Just as I do with Kreayshawn, I pretend that NBA rappers do not exist, that they have never existed, and that one day, they actually will cease to exist, so that what I've been pretending all along will be true, and everything will be fine.
The problem with that approach is that NBA players keep rapping.
So, in honor of Pearl Jam/Björk Week (and in honor of recalling a time when pro basketball existed and pro basketball players could boast about that fact on a song), I listened to some NBA rap over the past few days. Here's one thing I learned: If all NBA rap were, in fact, suddenly eliminated from the canon, then humanity would lose out on the ever-important "Life is like a jump shot" analogy, which has been employed by just about every pro basketball player who has ever rapped in the history of both of those things, regardless of its accuracy.
Beyond that, however, there is not a whole lot here—unless you get nostalgic for a time when Dana Barros could snarl "I stay strapped!" over a classic West Coast beat. But it's possible that I'm still shortchanging these men. I've broken the following ten samples into two categories: The Passable, and The Unpassable. Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Brian Shaw: "Anything Can Happen"
This song came off of a 1994 album called B-Ball's Best Kept Secret, which presumed that the best kept secret of the NBA was that middling journeyman point guards like Brian Shaw could rap, kind of. When this song came out, Shaw was somewhere in between stints with the Heat and the Magic, and he'd spent two seasons with Il Messaggero in Italy. In 1993, he'd lost his sister and his parents in a car accident. He had seen some things. Thus, this is Shaw's tragic "I made it" anthem, which is hard to hate on. He made it to the NBA! Let's sing about it.
Shaw has one of the more natural flows of the batch. He's not struggling to keep up with anything, as you'll see plagues some of the others here. He's also mastered that kind of melodic flow that came out of the West Coast around this time—think Snoop Dogg on "Gin and Juice" or any 2Pac song. (Shaw was from Oakland.) His second verse actually has some nice double-time rhymes, and "Anything Can Happen" is one of the few songs on Best Kept Secret with a tolerable hook. Although the hook unfortunately involves the phrase "Life is like a pool game."
Still, you can't ignore Shaw's composure on the mic (in his words: "So what I do, I keeps a low-pro composure/Developing my skills without no exposure"). The only truly miserable moment on the track is Shaw's "tragic-magic" rhyme at the 1:55 mark—but he redeems himself, generally, by sticking to truths. He's not here for meaningless boasts, he's here to earnestly inform you that anything can happen. Just like... in a pool game?
Shaquille O'Neal: "Can't Stop The Reign" with Notorious B.I.G.
This automatically goes to the top of the list due to the B.I.G. factor. Shaq told Outside The Lines last spring that he'd "first heard" of Biggie when the rapper used him in a rhyme ("I'm slamming n—-as like Shaquille, shit is real," on "Gimme the Loot"), which is, quite possibly, the coolest possible way anyone ever could have been introduced to Biggie's music. Shaq also deserves some credit for making a real, tangible effort at a side rap career: He released four albums in the '90s.
This track came off of Shaq's third studio album, Can't Stop The Reign, which also featured guest spots from Jay-Z, Mobb Deep, Smooth B, Rakim, and a few hooks from Bobby Brown. Great as Biggie is on it, the title track is mostly forgettable. But Biggie is on it, so. And I am nostalgic for a time during which "condos with elevators in them/vehicles with televisions in them" was a real boast.
Dana Barros: "Check It"
This is another one off of Best Kept Secret. How many hip hop songs have some variation of "check it" in the title? Approximately 50,000? Barros's version is in the top 5,000 or so, at least. I'll admit that I'm partial to this track because it might be using the same sample as A Tribe Called Quest's "Lyrics To Go," which is one of many perfect songs off of Midnight Marauders. It's possible that it's not the same sample, but that familiarity is immediately endearing to me.
Barros doesn't possess the laid-back Q-Tip flow, however; he's an aggressive rapper. He snarls so much over this beat that it sometimes sounds as if he has a British accent (listen to the "I'm blowin' up" line at the :40 mark). I can't think of any other rapper who's employed that voice effect to his advantage. He also knows his place: He shouts out to Wu-Tang, Redman, and Eric B. and Rakim (with his "I ain't no joke" and "You know I got soul" lines), which is rap's equivalent to paying respect to the elders. For me, though, it really comes back to the beat. This could almost be a Gang Starr track.
Chris Webber: "Gangsta, Gangsta"
This music video makes me weirdly nostalgic for a time when low-budget hip hop music videos actually looked low-budget. Today all the kids have HD cameras and special fish-eye lenses and some contrived element of the avant-garde. When Chris Webber and Kurupt shot a music video, they had two rooms in a big house, a few bottles of champagne, and lots of extras bobbing their heads to the beat.
This song, you might notice, samples from Busta's "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See," and you can kind of hear both Kurupt and Webber mimicking his flow here—as much as one is able to mimic Busta's flow, that is. Luckily for Webber, Kurupt takes most of the attention, and they've created a hook that makes the rest of the song mostly irrelevant. Plus, the video! We might not really learn "how" these two "do it," but it doesn't matter, because there is Webber air-DJing at the 1:05 mark and, 15 seconds later, performing the most sincere raising of the roof motion ever, and because look! There's fucking Redman.
The Artist Formerly Known As Ron Artest: "Champion"
This is unsubstantiated, but I have a hunch that Ron Artest recorded "Champion" approximately two hours after the Lakers won the 2009 NBA title, on a handheld voice recorder. After that, he drove home while reciting the song in the backseat of an Escalade while his friend filmed it on a cell phone—and with that, along with a joyous post-game interview, a side rap career was born. I'm not really saying this is good (it'd be much more fun if it were awful) but it is decent, and it does come with Dr. Dre's blessing, with is something. There's also some old-school element of swagger in this kind of slapdash production and release—and a perverse element of swagger in saying "I'm so Michael Phelps" on record.
Allen Iverson: "40 Bars"
Allen Iverson, a.k.a. "Jewels," ends this song with the line "This type of murda don't need no hook/Just 40 fuckin' bars from the mouth of a crook." I'm not saying Jay-Z owes anything to Jewels, but I do think that AI got something right here: If you're an NBA player and you're going to try and be a rapper, you might as well start out with the basics—and the basics are just boasts and bars. (You might as well also keep your given name as your stage name, since you are already famous and recognizable under that given name, but Jewels it is.)
Simplicity wins here, though. With that said, if we take an actual lyrical inventory of this track (Things mentioned: Gun, Murder, Faggots, Maggots, Casualties, Bentleys, Gats, Twin 45s, Snipers, Killing Bitches, Fucking Bitches, Staying Fly, Riches, Ditches, Bitches, Killaz, Killing, Dying Fast, Dying Slowly, Busting Up Motherfuckers, AKs, Rifles, And 9s, and finally, The Rate Of Jewels' Mystique [?]), and of the rhymes used to convey them ("need it/squeeze it/believe it/wit it" is one four-bar sequence), these 40 bars are so simple they just kind of suck.
Malik Sealy: "Lost In The Sauce"
First of all, may Malik Sealy rest in peace. Second of all, my god, this is bad. This is really bad. I appreciate Sealy's tenor over this beat, but beyond that, the flow is just so halting, and so awkward. One way to determine whether or not someone is comfortable rhyming is to listen to how he or she gets through multi-syllabic words. With that in mind, listen to Sealy rap about the "po-ten-shal to be an in-stru-ment-al." This song is also a total, absolute downer. It includes the line "Just remember, life ain't always fun." Noted.
As for the hook, it is time we address the whole "Life is one big jump shot" theme. Is it really? Let's see what Chris Mills thinks about this.
Chris Mills: "Sumptin' To Groove To"
This song was the worst idea of the entire bad idea that was Best Kept Secret. The problem with C-Mills, as he has calls himself, is that C-Mills is really boring. Here is how he describes himself: "Big ball player/Nice rhyme sayer/And as yall know, I'm a fly girl layer." He then ditches the -ayer rhyme scheme, since he has used up every word that works in the first 25 seconds of the song. Here are some other things C-Mills is doing, according to C-Mills: He's flipping the script. He's stacking the bills. He's using the skills. His lyrical flow is slow. He's also, allegedly, bringing rhymes to new "plateaus."
The second verse includes this gem: "Sometimes I chill with the crew/And other times I reminisce/Thinkin' about opponents that I have to dis-miss." It's true: Chris Mills has never talked trash in his life.
And again, the jump shot: "Life is like a jump shot/Sometimes it's not/Always on the money/Just like my days/Could be rainy or sunny." So you would agree, then, Chris Mills, that life is like a jump shot. Is it? Is it really? It does, I suppose, have an upward arc and a downward arc. Some days you are on; some days you are off. And some days you are Chris Mills and that is just the best thing you can come up with.
Kobe Bryant: "K.O.B.E."
Uh oh! Kobe Sayin' Rhymes. Kobe was like the Italian-speaking Ja Rule of NBA rappers, wasn't he? All that he really had to say in verses was that he could buy things for women. The difference, of course, is that Ja Rule's songs were popular because they had great radio-ready hooks, and because he got real-life professional singers like Ashanti and J. Lo to sing those hooks.
"K.O.B.E." has a terrible, indecipherable hook that nobody will ever sing along to, and it is sung by Tyra Banks. Tyra Banks! Let's never speak of it again.
Tony Parker: "Top Of The Game" with Fabolous, Booba
I mean, I don't even know what he's saying.