In the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death, he’ll be remembered for his feats on the court, his altruistic ways off it, his business endeavors, and for his rightfully polarizing public image. But he’s been sold short in one place: The unfair assessment of his rap career. I know what you’re thinking, but just hear me out. Kobe was a great rapper, he just came out at the wrong time.
Much like the perception of his performance at his day job, how you felt about Kobe’s rap career depended a lot on which version of Kobe’s rap career you were first introduced to. “K.O.B.E.” was a playoffs airball of a single intended to kickstart the legend, rack up highlights for the reel, and announce the arrival of a born winner who would be the next big superstar of the game. It did that, just probably not in the way Kobe and his management team hoped. Meanwhile, his verse on teammate Shaquille O’Neal’s deep album cut “3x’s Dope” with then-emergent Brooklyn rapper Sonja Blade was a vintage #24-era fusillade of wordplay that instead bared a Kobe Bryant who couldn’t help but to resolutely chase his idols in technical mastery, even at the expense of team chemistry and song cohesion.
Kobe had the unfortunate luck of his basketball style trailing into an era it wasn’t suited to, which incidentally reflects his rap style’s opposing problem. Kobe rapped the way he played basketball. While his methodical, one-man-army approach to hoops became anachronistic in the modern space-and-pace era that mostly benefits free-flowing, flashy, high-scoring point guards like Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, and Trae Young, his similar, saber-rattling, syllable-packed rhymes just didn’t jive with the flashy, free-flowing, shiny suit-wearing rap that ruled radio in the late ’90s.
In the ’90s, the separation between entertainment disciplines was much more pronounced and stratified than it is today. Many rappers may have wanted to be basketball players, but hip-hop hadn’t yet broken out sufficiently that it made sense for the reverse to be true. Sure, a rapper seemed like a cool thing to be, but back then, multi-sport stars were rare at a professional level. Only Michael Jordan was able to switch from a career in basketball to baseball and even then, only at a minor league level, where he made a pretty average showing before returning to his original calling as the greatest basketball player to ever live. He also tried his hand at acting, and we all know how that turned out.
In fact, the only basketball star at the time to have successfully crossed over in multiple entertainment venues then was Kobe’s future Lakers teammate, Shaquille O’Neal, who was considered an anomaly. Shaq certainly wasn’t taken very seriously as a rapper, despite his first album, Shaq Diesel, being certified platinum by the RIAA three years before Kobe was drafted to the NBA (and a much friendlier reception in recent years). It garnered mixed reviews — as did its multiple followups — demonstrating just how hard it was to break out of the boxes public perception put players in at the time. There was no social media to demonstrate players’ personalities outside of the sport, so it was harder to imagine that they could have interests, skills, and aspirations outside of chasing the Larry O’Brien trophy. Basketball players weren’t “supposed” to rap, so very few believed they could.
Meanwhile, hip-hop itself was still seen as kind of dangerous back then, the domain of hustlers and thugs — the end result of a cultural shift away from the poetic forebears Kobe himself sought to emulate toward the rugged imagery of Tupac, Snoop Dogg, and NWA. Hip-hop was too “gangsta” for the family-friendly image embraced by the corporate-pushed superstars of the NBA, which included the then-babyfaced Kobe Bryant. Not only did the NBA itself shy away from supporting its players who pursued rap careers — like “Jewelz,” better known as the 76ers’ Allen Iverson — but NBA players who wanted to pursue those careers often had a steep uphill climb to shake off their squeaky clean images. Just look at the aforementioned Iverson, who had his debut album shelved after the league office complained about its street-centric and homophobic content when he went too far for street cred.
Kobe himself was fresh out of high-school with a biography awash in privilege. Decades before Degrassi golden boy Drake proved that such an archetype could make “hipsters get along with the hood n****s,” hip-hop wasn’t ready to embrace a rapper who’d never fit the stereotypical depiction of struggle. Never mind that many of the biggest rappers of the Golden Era were middle class college graduates, the mainstream populace wanted to hear about shootouts in the ghetto, not on the basketball court. No one believed that Kobe would have anything of substance to say. He could have proved them wrong, but again, timing reared its ugly head to torpedo his aspirations before they got off the launchpad, because the way he rapped was anything but what audiences wanted to hear at the time.
In 2013, Grantland (RIP) ran an in-depth profile on Kobe’s rap career and everything that went wrong with it. His raps are spoken of glowingly by former teammates and producers but the problem boiled down to one issue, really. Kobe wanted to spit metaphysical spiritual lyrical miracles at a time when the rest of the world wanted to get jiggy with it. He just wasn’t built for the shiny suit era. His verse on “3x’s Dope” is proof in the pudding: With a rap style most reminiscent of Canibus, Ras Kass, or Kurupt at his most intricate, Kobe’s preferred approach wasn’t going to work on the mainstream level that his existing celebrity warranted, fairly or not. But as we’ve seen with those names and so many more, trying to graft the backpacker style to modern production rarely works. Maybe Nas pulled it off with Trackmasters and “If I Ruled The World,” but he’d already proved his chops with Illmatic.
Which might explain why, despite Sony/Columbia Records commissioning that same production duo to helm Kobe’s debut, “K.O.B.E.” was a massive flop. It was like trying to shoehorn the older, methodical, isolation hound #24 Kobe into an offense made to run-and-gun, or perhaps taking the young, exciting, shoot-anything-from-any-damn-where #8 version and stuff him into a Princeton offense (or, hell, putting the #24 version into a Princeton offense). It curtailed his skillset, sounded unnatural, and paired him with a performance partner that just didn’t make sense — think Kwame Brown or Smush Parker, but knowing they’re destined to host America’s Next Top Model. Granted, “3X’s Dope” came out two years after “K.O.B.E.,” giving him plenty of time to polish his craft, but the growth showed that the talent was always there — it just needed to be refined by practice and experience, like any skill.
By the time enough of the game had changed to accommodate Kobe’s rappity-rap style, from the marketing infrastructure to the advent of streaming and social media, he was probably too old to attempt to pursue a career in hip-hop. Fortunately for the league’s rappers who came after him, thanks to his various adversities, it’s now perfectly acceptable for Damian Lillard to walk into a booth with a fire 16 after putting up 40+ points for the Portland Trailblazers. Because Kobe took all the heat, Iman Shumpert, Marvin Bagley, Lonzo Ball, and Lou Williams can all put out projects on the side as they train between seasons. Kobe might not have been the rap icon he wanted to be, but he still opened doors and set the bar high enough for his successors to have to step their games up.