What’s the best hip-hop lyric to name-drop Kobe Bryant?
Kobe Bryant was many things: a husband, dad, coach, gold medalist, brand spokesman, role model and, of course, one of the greatest basketball players to ever grace the court. You know: a hero.
In the classical, Storytelling 101 sense, in fact, he was an archetype of the kind that writer Joseph Campbell described in his book about myths and narrative patterns, “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”: a person who embarks on a journey, faces seemingly insurmountable odds, comes out victorious and returns home transformed.
Starting with his Lakers debut in 1996, Bryant elbowed his way through the paint to become this ultimate archetype. And if Bryant was a recent incarnation of Campbell’s template, then rappers have been the awe-struck, and occasionally back-biting, poets of his adventure.
Just as epic poet Homer’s work “The Odyssey” documented the Greek hero Odysseus’ tribulations and homecoming, artists including Kendrick Lamar, Lil Wayne, the Game, Schoolboy Q, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj and dozens, if not hundreds, more, have drawn from Bryant’s legendary arc to tell their stories. His name has been uttered in so many songs that future historians may wonder on his God-like role in our collective imagination.
It’s hard not to think about Bryant’s journey in Campbell’s description: “A hero [Bryant] ventures forth from the world of common day [high school hoops] into a region of supernatural wonder [NBA]: fabulous forces are there encountered [Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, the media] and a decisive victory is won [the Five Rings]: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power [family, fame, fortune, wisdom, #girldad energy] to bestow boons on his fellow man [Kanye West, Chief Keef, Drake, NBA fans].”
Some of it is timing: Bryant matured as a player as rap was staking its claim as pop music’s dominant form. Some of it is location: L.A. has a way of amplifying its own. There’s also luck: “Kobe” is easily rhymed, especially loosely: words and phrases including goalie, hold me, Jodeci, snow me, trophy, Ginóbili and adobe have all been coupled with Kobe.
Still, the sheer volume of “Kobe” mentions hidden in rhymed couplets is notable, as are the variety of ways his name has been employed. Depending on the artist and the era, “Kobe” has been shorthand for characteristics including excellence, persistence, wealth, fame, temptation and success in the face of adversity. Even Bryant’s hairstyle has been tapped: “Used to be in Lake Forest with the Kobe ‘fro,” recalled Washington, D.C., rapper Wale in Logic’s song “100 Miles and Running.”
Chicago drill rapper Chief Keef simplified Bryant’s adventure in “Kobe,” his popular 2012 track: “I’ve been balling so damn hard, I swear I think that I’m Kobe (swish).” Kobe’s legend involves born-into-basketball birthrights and a relentless work ethic, as conveyed in Lil Wayne’s 2009 song “Kobe Bryant.” “Practice while you sleep / Practice in my sleep,” he raps. “Straight outta high school / The brackets ain’t for me / I will be jumping over you / Like I got a mattress at my feet.”
As these rhymed similes and metaphors accrue, many of the standard heroic traits reveal themselves. For those looking, it’s easy to spot connections to the so-called 17 stages in Campbell’s journey.
The most obvious one, of course, is the means by which Bryant used physical grace and skill through various on-court trials, quests, boons and rewards. Big Sean in “No More Interviews” referenced Bryant’s 1998 NBA all-star game star-turn by name-checking the brand of Adidas shoes that the player wore that night: “Going off like Kobe when he wore the Crazy Eights.” New York mogul 50 Cent addressed an adversary in 2002’s “Guess Who’s Back” with a threat: “You wanna get acquainted with me, you wanna know me? / From three-point range with a Glock / I shoot better than Kobe.”
Bryant’s tenacity both on and off the court has been harnessed by rappers to prove their own meddle: “Kobe Bryant mind-state — I’m shooting ‘til I’m accurate,” declared Jay Rock in a “Numbers on the Board” freestyle. Yung Thug likened his skills on the mike in “Check” to Bryant’s on the court when he said, “I promise I won’t ever quit, bitch I’m Kobe.” Injured? Play through it like Kidd Kidd of the G-Unit: “Kobe Bryant in the clutch / balling with my ankle sprained.”
For his part, Compton’s the Game once compared his dope-dealing capacity to Bryant’s court-length advances: “Dribble rock like Kobe Bryant bounce the ball.” Travis Scott in “Stargazing” told of an ability to rise above pettiness by referencing both Bryant and, er, the Japanese beef delicacy: “I’m way too gold for this beef, feel like I’m Kobe.” Migos in “Shooters” threatened to precisely target an enemy “like Kobe in the clutch.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper Lamar honed in on another key storytelling element — the mentor, often all-knowing, who guides our hero toward glory — in “untitled 02.” Name-checking former Lakers head coach Phil Jackson and Top Dawg label chief Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, Lamar rapped that “me and Top is like a Kobe and Phil / A father figure, f— with him, you get killed.”
Then there is the sheer scale of Kobe’s fame, which platinum superstar Drake described with uncouth fan-boy energy on his track “Views.” Given that there are few better ways for a Canadian to increase his stature in L.A. than a Kobe name-drop, it was a smart move: “Me and Kobe doing shots the night before the game / Still drop 40 with liquor in my system.”
For his part, West used Bryant’s juice to advance his own narcissism when, in a verse for the remix of Beyonce’s “Ego,” West rapped of meeting Bryant as being a kind of pinnacle: “I had dreams of the league / One day I’d play Kobe / I walk up to Puff and he already knows me.”
The hip-hop soothsayers also tell of the siren calls and various temptations that came with Bryant-level heroics. To be as powerful as Bryant, after all, was to face public trials both personal and professional. As understood by anyone who’s ever consumed the “Star Wars” franchise, read J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy or entered any of Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 chambers, enemies are everywhere.
In “Stay Schemin’,” Rick Ross referenced the once-rocky state of Bryant’s marriage and how its end could have affected his bank account: “Kobe about to lose $150 Ms / Kobe’s my [friend], I hate it had to be him.” New York rapper Nas didn’t earn any Lakers fans when he called out Bryant in one 2003 verse. Referencing the rape allegation against Bryant, Nas rapped, “I got gangsta hoes Kobe Bryant scared to sodomize.” Chance the Rapper in “Juice” delivered a backhanded compliment when he taunted a detractor’s seeming lay-up victory by writing, “You love being Kobe when you make the lay-er / ‘Til you realize everybody in the world [frickin’] hates the Lakers.” Ouch.
Kobe’s name, in fact, has been checked so often that it’s a cliche. To claim greatness akin to Bryant’s is to implicitly disprove your own point. Few narrators are a bigger threat to a hero’s longevity than the lazy. Chief Keef has rapped about Bryant so often that the nod has lost all meaning: “My favorite player Kobe / You be holy moly / That mean you be with police.” What? The L.A. rapper Blueface, in a verse on a song about having a particularly athletic round of sex, bragged that he “hit her with a pump fake / Turn around, pull off like I’m Kobe with the Lakers.” Swish?
Next time he should try rhyming about Giannis Antetokounmpo or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander instead.
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