The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s 2018 enshrinement ceremonies begin at 7 p.m. ET on Friday. Do you think that means we have enough time to get a plaque made up in honor of a seven-year-old rap song?
That’s right, you guys. The vaunted hip-hop collaboration between LeBron James and Kevin Durant — recorded during the NBA’s 2011 lockout while the two were working out together in Ohio, then surreptitiously stashed and smothered until ESPN’s Chris Haynes reported on its existence last summer — is now available for your listening pleasure. No, not just the snippet that Ohio’s Spider Studios released last year — the whole thing (or, at least, a suitable-for-work-and-radio-play, no-swears version on which you can safely press play below):
The track, titled “It Ain’t Easy,” hit Soundcloud last week, unveiled by producer and engineer Franky Stewart, a.k.a. Franky Wahoo. In an interview with Noisey, Stewart offered some insight into how the two NBA Most Valuable Players, rivals and friends came to wind up in his recording booth.
You may disappointed to learn that the story of a hush-hush hip-hop project crafted by two of the greatest basketball players of all time is … well, kind of boring:
Originally it was only going to be Kevin Durant that was going to record, cause he did music and stuff, but then LeBron James ended up showing up. So we turned on the Pro Tools setup, and Schigel recorded a couple of songs over 4 or 5 Watch the Throne beats — “N**** In Paris”, “Lift Off,” and “HAM” — and two [original] songs. The one LeBron song was the one that I was a part of. Then they left, didn’t hear anything of it. It was kind of cool, just this dude came in, there was no paperwork signed. Just recorded, hung out all night and left. […]
When I was there I would say, Kevin Durant raps and we already knew that. I knew he did music. But the LeBron thing, I think it was one of those things where you take the one friend that’s pretty popular and you gas them like, “Dude, you should rap, ’cause you’re pretty famous.” So I just looked at it like that. It made him pretty normal, to be honest.
It’s weird to see someone like LeBron, that big, really not know what he’s doing. You see this god of basketball and I’m sitting here like, “Wow, I’m showing this dude how to do something.” Like, imagine teaching Michael Jordan something that has nothing to do with basketball? They’re relying on you, like, “This is cool, right?” It was weird.
According to Stewart, the decision to fully release the song came after attempts to flip it into a gossip-site payday (“TMZ reached out offering $250,000”) or an entry on an “NBA 2K” soundtrack came up short, and after he started to hear other Cleveland-area DJs playing the track during sets at nightclubs. Rather than allowing the song to get spun without receiving any credit for his work on it, Stewart decided instead to make the song — or, at least, a version featuring the 2011 vocals over a new guitar-and-drum-heavy instrumental, a move aimed at avoiding a potential lawsuit from the producer behind the original composition (apparently, no one knew where Durant got the beat from) — available to the public so they could hear KD and LeBron spit for themselves.
Durant definitely comes off as the more confident and competent lyricist and performer; as was noted in this space last summer, and as Stewart detailed, Durant had written and recorded his own verses plenty of times in the past, and said a half-dozen years ago that he’d be open to releasing a project at some point. He acquits himself well, drops some crumbs for the NBA heads listening in (“pacing on your a** like Jamaal Tinsley) and foreshadows his future issues in dealing with the public criticism he’d face throughout his career:
I got the money, but that’s the root of all evil
I stayed the same, but it’s changing all the wrong people
Yeah, uh, and every hater’s all the same
I’m feeling like the world is Skip Bayless, and I’m LeBron James
Look, now I got a body full of tattoos
Everybody saying I’m changing, that is not true
Same dude that you met a couple years ago
Talk to the heart and you can see past the visual
After an R&B-tinged hook, James comes in at a decidedly slower tempo than Durant. (LeBron’s from Akron, but this sounds almost like a Houston chopped-and-screwed lilt.) He discusses the difficulties of walking the path he’s on, bigs up the “iron heart” that allows him to carry the burden, and talks about his family. It’s a fine enough performance for a non-rapper, but the verse confirms my suspicion that LeBron James does not, after all, have bars … which, to hear Stewart tell it, might explain why discussions over having the track one day receive a proper King-approved release never turned into anything concrete.
“This is the first time LeBron’s been human,” Stewart told Noisey. “He’s not good at this. That made him seem less of a superstar in the public eye; if you hear LeBron James rapping subpar, that would kind of take away from him a little bit to someone.”
You can understand that, to some degree, from a brand management perspective, but I’m here to tell you that my reaction was quite the opposite. For those of us who enjoy rap but can’t do it all that well ourselves, it’s hard to imagine something making us feel closer to LeBron James than learning that he’s one of us. Thanks, LeBron, and welcome.
Hat-tip to longtime friend of the program and ESPN reporter Dave McMenamin.
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