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Ball Don't Lie

Inside Kobe Bryant’s short-lived rap career

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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Kobe Bryant performs at his first solo live show in 2000 (Steve W. Grayson/ Getty).

Kobe Bryant has a well-earned reputation as an exceedingly serious basketball player, the sort of guy who would eschew normal levels of human contact to train and ensure he would not see the drop in production that typically comes with age. These are exaggerations, clearly, but there is always a sense that Kobe is fanatically focused on basketball. The cliched distractions of celebrity don't seem to infect his determination to remain relevant on the court.

It can be difficult to remember, then, that Mr. Bryant was once a rapper. Best remembered for the 2000 single "K.O.B.E." (featuring Tyra Banks, of all people), Kobe's recording output is largely a footnote to his time in the NBA.

But there is much more to the story, including a love of battle rap and a stint as a member of a collective named CHEIZAW. In a new piece for Grantland, Thomas Golianopoulos delves into the history of Kobe's life in music:

Bryant was in love with the purest form of hip-hop, and he wanted a challenge: to battle the pros.

He got his wish one night at the Hit Factory, when he teamed with CHEIZAW member Broady Boy to take on Punch and Words. Bryant, typically unflappable, maintained his composure at the outset. Upon entering the fray, he rapped: "I quantum leap into the future and battle myself." After a few rounds, Broady ran out of lyrics and the sparring session wound down. Kobe then chided his teammate. "Yo, you got to be in lyrical fitness, man," Bryant told Broady, referencing a well-known lyric by the rapper Canibus. [...]

"You know what's funny? He sounds dope," [rapper Sonja Blade] says afterward. "Compared to the rappers today, he's dope. He sounds like an underground backpack rapper. It don't even sound like Kobe Bryant. I would want to hear more from this kid if I didn't know who he was. That's funny. Nobody raps like that anymore. Yo, he came there to prove a point. He put thought into that. I couldn't hear it for years when everyone joked about it. Now hearing it, he doesn't sound bad."

Clark Kent has a different take on Bryant's performance. "He just seemed like one of those guys that wanted to be good so bad that he was trying to use the most intelligent [words] and have the sick vernacular. It was like, 'Calm down, duke. Just rap.' He was the lyrical-miracle-genius-type rapper." [...]

With Bryant camped out in the studio, Sony continued to emphasize the marketing campaign. The label sought ways to capitalize on his youth, NBA fame, and growing music industry ties — escorting Brandy to his prom and appearing in the Destiny's Child video for "Bug A Boo." (To secure his bona fides, Bryant was willing to take on all comers, including Toronto Raptors point guard Alvin Williams at All-Star Weekend.) The crux of the label's plan, however, was eliminating the group.

The project gradually shifted, from a CHEIZAW album to a Kobe Bryant featuring CHEIZAW album to a Kobe Bryant solo album. Sony also steered Bryant toward a radio-friendly pop sound. Like most battle rappers, notably his hero Canibus, Bryant struggled with the shift. He made odd choices, like attempting to rhyme over "The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme)" from Star Wars. Sean "S-dot" Francis, a producer from Philadelphia, was brought in to provide a sleeker sound. Stoute and Jay-Z were fans of S-dot's work.

The full article is worth your time, because Golianopoulos drops so many casually surreal details — Kobe rapping about the Mario Van Peebles movie "Solo"! — that it's a little hard to communicate them in this short blog post. It's a little hard to imagine that all of it exists.

However, the course of the story should be quite familiar to music fans: artists develop a pure love for the form, an executive signs the group, the label starts to focus on the most marketable member, the rest of them fall out of favor, everything falls apart, etc. It's a tale as old as time, a cliche that exists largely because it keeps happening in real life over and over again. This version just happens to be more shocking because it involves one of the best basketball players of all-time.

It also helps to cast Bryant's music career in a new light. While Clark Kent is right that Kobe's tracks sound like the work of someone trying a little too hard to sound like a capable rapper, his involvement with CHEIZAW suggests that he got involved in music for reasons other than wanting to be a multidimensional celebrity or a more marketable athlete. Kobe really was sincere about his love of rap, and the fact that it turned into an extension of his basketball life might have even become a disappointment. Maybe an aspect of his career that many of us have treated as a joke was much more serious.

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