Beating The Rap: Revisiting Kobe Bryant’s Hip-Hop Misstep

We all make decisions when we’re younger that we’d like to forget, which is all part of getting to where we need to be. Essentially, you have to screw up – often – to learn the right way to do things by comparison.

Even someone who seems to have mostly had it together right from the start, Kobe Bryant, has been prone to such learning experiences – some far more whimsical than others. I was recently privy to one of his more benign missteps, his short-lived tenure as a rapper.

My parents are in the process of moving, so I’ve spent some time at their house looking through my old things, deciding what I should hold on to. My greatest find so far was at the bottom of an old trunk: a vinyl record with a couple of rap songs for a 10-year-old Kobe Bryant album that never saw the light of day.

I’d pretty much forgotten about Kobe’s brief foray into emceeing, and it took me a minute to remember how I ended up with this. I used to host a sports show at a college radio station back around Y2K, and when they’d get advance copies of sports-themed CDs, they’d give them to me for lack of anything better to do with them.

The Kobe Bryant record was the coolest of those random hand-me-downs for a variety of reasons. The cover art was outstanding, with Kobe contemplative in Banana Republic on the front, and in mid-scream while wearing a fur coat on the back. I also liked that they distributed the street single on vinyl, presumably to make it easier for old-school DJs to play it in the club, as if anyone would have been caught dead doing that.

Best of all was the acronym K.O.B.E. for the single, which to my knowledge, doesn’t stand for anything except Kobe’s name with periods in between the letters. (Even if I’m wrong, I’d still prefer to think of it that way.)

The fine print on the record cover said the two songs, “K.O.B.E.” and “Thug Poet,” were from a forthcoming album named Visions. Kobe was signed to Sony/Columbia Records under the watchful eye of Track Masters, best known for producing the majority of Nas‘ polarizing sophomore album, It Was Written. I was curious to listen to Kobe rap at this point, but having never actually owned a record player, I resorted to YouTube.

“K.O.B.E.” features a Latin-type beat sampled from a 7th Wonder song, while his rap style sounds a whole lot like Will Smith – which made sense, given that Track Masters also produced “Miami” and “Men in Black.” Tyra Banks (?) sang the hook, though the label on the record managed to call her “Tyra Bank.” Whether Kobe had a ghostwriter or not, we’ll probably never know – I mean, you ask him – but either way, the cringeworthy lyrics about pursuing women who won’t use him for his money kind of make Roy Jones look like Rakim in comparison.

“Thug Poet” boasted features from a young 50 Cent – also with Track Masters at the time – someone named Broady Boy and Nas. That caught my attention… I mean, Nas? But his only involvement was a sample of his voice rapping “Thug Poet” on the hook. Unlike Jay-Z with “Dead Presidents,” Kobe decidedly did not take a hot line and make it a hot song, though for what it’s worth, his verse here was better than anything we heard on “K.O.B.E.”

(Sidebar: Kobe in turn had a prominent role in one of Nas’ songs, though it was one he presumably wanted no part of.)

At some point, Columbia realized that Visions was going to be an unmitigated disaster and shelved it, but before they did, Kobe and Tyra performed “K.O.B.E.” live at an NBA event. As you might expect, it’s a total mess, highlighted by Kobe inexplicably rapping the third verse in Italian.

That gets at why it was so confusing that Kobe ever went this route: It didn’t play to his strengths. When Kobe did that ad for adidas where he spoke Italian, it came off as elitist, but it was on message. Kobe’s mentality is for everyone to proverbially watch the throne, to know that he’s on another level both on and off the court. Rapping was the wrong outlet; he wasn’t comfortable doing it, and he comes from a background of relative privilege that would kill any legitimacy he’d purport to have. I’d sooner have expected him to try opera.

That said, what Kobe did wasn’t new back then, nor is it out of date now. Drake mused that sports and music are synonymous – “we want to be them, and they want to be us.” The hip-hop culture inherent to basketball often lends itself to players giving rap a try, and while some are pretty good at it, others are the musical equivalent of Lil’ Romeo playing for USC.

Five championships and about $200 million in NBA salary later, Kobe Bryant has demonstrated the value of staying in his lane. When he breaks character now, it comes with a requisite ironic wink at his vaunted intensity.

But one still has to wonder: Much as we all cringe sometimes when we look at old pictures of ourselves wearing Hypercolor shirts or snap bracelets, does Kobe ever dial up his old rap videos? If so, you’d have to think he’d ask himself what in the world he was thinking to get involved with that.

Or rather, with what we know about Kobe, he’d take the opportunity to renew his focus by reflecting on how far he’s come, imagewise and otherwise.

What do you think? Did Kobe’s record have any redeeming qualities?

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