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Music

Kobe Bryant: Basketball star, Oscar winner and ... rapper? Remembering his music career

Kobe Bryant onstage at the House of Blues in West Hollywood in 2000.
Kobe Bryant raps at West Hollywood’s House of Blues in 2000.
(Clarence Williams / Los Angeles Times)

Lakers legend Kobe Bryant was a powerhouse on the basketball court, with five championships, two Olympic gold medals and 18 All-Star titles to his name. In cinema, he was a budding storyteller, winning an Oscar in 2018 for his autobiographical debut short film, “Dear Basketball.”

And a lesser-known fact is that that the late NBA icon even dribbled in the music realm as a fledgling rapper two decades ago.

In the late 1990s, Bryant was just beginning to make a name for himself with the Lakers, where he would remain for two decades, alongside longtime teammate Shaquille O’Neal. Off the court, Bryant had signed a deal with Sony Records in 1999 to release his own studio album.

Before his first hip-hop collection reached the time of its scheduled release in 2000, Bryant had already collaborated with Destiny’s Child, remixing the R&B girl group’s 1999 hit “Say My Name.” He contributed a vocal and video cameo to Brian McKnight’s “Hold Me” in 1997. And Bryant recruited 50 Cent, Nas and Broady Boy for Bryant’s song “Thug Poet.” (The preceding link contains strong language.)

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At one point, he even joined lyrical forces with fellow up-and-comer O’Neal, who tossed his NBA colleague a feature on 1998’s “3X’s Dope” from Shaq’s album from that same year, “Respect.”

Bryant’s solo single, “K.O.B.E.,” which debuted at the 2000 All-Star game, featured supermodel Tyra Banks and referenced his baller reputation in the lyrics.

“What I live for? Basketball, beats and broads,” he raps on the track, his flow not particularly smooth or lyrical. “From Italy to the U.S., yes, it’s raw.”

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Writing for The Times in 2015, Dexter Thomas wasn’t exactly impressed by the song.

“It’s embarrassing. That cheap-sounding beat, the uninspired hook, the awkward chorus — this is more off-target than those three airballs he threw in 1997 against the Utah Jazz,” he wrote.

Once he steps off the court, Kobe needs to put in some time on the mic. Kobe is a renaissance man.

While shooting an accompanying video for the splashy release, directed by BET Award winner Hype Williams, Bryant met his wife, Vanessa. And though their personal relationship would continue to develop for the next 20 years, footage from their professional collaboration never saw the light of day.

Despite Bryant’s rising star power on the court, the song was not well-received, and “Visions,” the album it was slated to launch, was eventually shelved. Bryant officially got the ax from Sony soon enough, never to return to music again — except in a 2011 Taiwanese Sprite commercial and, of course, in other musicians’ lyrics, which often saluted the self-proclaimed Black Mamba and his larger-than-life legacy.

While his own hip-hop career was short-lived, his prowess in the sports arena clearly made a sizable impact on others’, inspiring industry titans such as Jay-Z, Drake, Diddy and Kendrick Lamar to name-drop the Laker in their verses.

Several artists even named entire songs after Bryant, and according to ABC News, variations of the phrase “Ballin’ like Kobe” have been featured in more than a dozen tracks from entertainers including Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, G Herbo, Juice WRLD, Rae Sremmurd, Meek Mill and Gucci Mane.

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In tandem with his 2016 retirement from the NBA, “DNA.” hitmaker Lamar released “Kobe Bryant: Fade to Black,” reflecting on Bryant’s time at Staples Center and contributions to L.A. culture.

Kobe Bryant rapping at the House of Blues in West Hollywood in 2000.
Kobe Bryant performing at West Hollywood’s House of Blues in 2000.
(Clarence Williams / Los Angeles Times)

“Day by day, season by season, 20, to be exact / Growing up watching him paint murals / Using this building as his first studio / Using L.A. as his canvas,” Lamar muses. “Restoring crowns back to where they belong / Under royal banners, purple and gold / The color of royalty / My one man L.A. king.”

In the wake of Bryant’s sudden death on Sunday, interest in his music has spiked online. On EBay, a copy of “K.O.B.E.” on vinyl is going for nearly $100, and similar products are currently sold out on Amazon. Audio of the one-off song has now amassed more than a million views on YouTube, with “R.I.P. Kobe” messages among the most recent and popular comments.

Alicia Keys, Lizzo, Lil Nas X and John Legend were among musicians who honored Kobe Bryant at Sunday’s Grammys. The Lakers legend died earlier in the day.

After news broke that Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter crash, the L.A. luminary’s impact on the music scene was more relevant than ever. The 62nd Grammy Awards — which took place that night at his home base, Staples Center — saw an outpouring of tributes to Bryant, starting with host Alicia Keys at the top of the show.

“Here we are together on music’s biggest night, celebrating the artists that do it best. But to be honest with you, we’re all feeling crazy sadness right now because earlier today, Los Angeles, America and the whole wide world lost a hero,” Keys said in a moving speech. “We’re literally standing here, heartbroken, in the house that Kobe Bryant built.”

“Tonight is for Kobe,” eight-time nominee Lizzo declared before launching into an elaborate opening medley — setting the tone for a night dominated by Bryant’s posthumous presence. From Run-D.M.C. to Lil Nas X, hip-hop performers across generations honored their own by featuring his Lakers jersey in their sets.

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Meanwhile in Burbank, West and Chance the Rapper reportedly saluted Bryant at a Sunday Service performance, during which the “Stronger” hitmaker rapped, “Kobe, it’s too far / Shoot it from where you are / Remember that you’re a star / You gotta do more, you gotta go hard / If Kobe was here, he’d maybe grab the mike / If Kobe was here … he here tonight.”

On social media, everyone from Diddy and Lil Wayne to Drake and 2 Chainz mourned Bryant and his daughter with solemn words and nostalgic photos.

“Heart broken and speechless,” 2 Chainz wrote on Instagram. “If you know me you know this is killing me right now.”


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