Essay: Hip-Hop Is Craving The Super Team
“We hustling together better than
Going in blindly/Expectations not met
Fools get ejected/Dropped like a Pharcyde record”
-Curren$y “This is the Life”
Hip-hop and basketball’s relationship is one of two childhood friends, holding hands and skipping down the block without a care in the world. Both are content with the lives they live but based on a mutual admiration, possess a need to change places. Hip-hop knows everything about basketball and basketball knows everything about hip-hop—their respective pasts, their superstars and prime money makers. The two spheres collide almost weekly: Lil Wayne igniting brief controversy with the Heat and then celebrating with those who showed them humility, LeBron James sharing a kindred relationship with Drizzy, Jay-Z serving as minority owner to the Nets (HELLO, BROOKLYN!), and every single rapper who released a mixtape and/or album in the past five years annually turning All-Star weekend into a Super Bowl matching extravaganza, are just a few of the many bridges which currently connect the two vibrant worlds.
One of the most important components that makes both the NBA and Hip-Hop so compelling, is competition. It’s the driving force that keeps us watching, and listening, with an insurmountable level of anticipation. Rivalries between two at the top of their game are developed from a mutual ambition—to be the best you must beat the best.
10 years ago, as mainstream rap was just beginning its slow, dark descent into the deep south, Jay-Z and Nas began a lyrical feud that would catapult them both into making some of the best music of their careers. One could argue The Blueprint and Stillmatic were each their respective best efforts, surely a product of each pushing the other into another stratosphere of wordplay.
(Their battle served as such a motivator, such a striking, joint obsession, that it forced Jay-Z, a calculated, extremely intelligent visionary, into making one of the most desperate moves of his career: Super Ugly. Ever since, the man’s made 20 right moves for each rare mistake, none of which have come close to being criticized at the level of that flailing, indirect jab at Nasir.)
In the world of rap music, battles are usually great for business. They attract attention, create conversation, and force fans to choose a side, jumping on board one rapper’s bus and defending him unconditionally throughout the hostility. But Jay-Z vs. Nas wasn’t great for rap because of its expressive, neck-snapping car crash level of magnetism. No, it was more about the two of them bringing out the best in each other. Once it all came to a peaceful conclusion, unofficially with the anticlimactic “Black Republicans”, everything didn’t crumble to shit, but there was a sense that neither one would recapture that 2000-2003 brilliance again. Critically speaking, they haven’t.
A decade later and the landscape is beginning to change. The most promising up and coming rap talent is looking less at his colleague as a rival and more in the form of a cooperating partner. In terms of creating beautiful music this isn’t a debilitating trend, but the path is certainly different.
In a few days, Jay-Z and Kanye West will release Watch The Throne, one of the most anticipated records of all time. In the weeks following its reception, it will be overwhelmingly judged in one of two ways: Interminable flop or instant classic. (I’m of the belief when expectations are this high on any form of entertainment, judgment comes in the black or white form. No gray area can exist; hate, love, reject, embrace.) On which end of the spectrum will the album fall? Last week, the first “single”, “Otis” was released to a lukewarm reaction, causing a personal flashback to Blueprint III‘s “Hate”—a truly terrible song—and making me brace myself for the possibility that Watch The Throne could fall flat on its face. I don’t think this is likely, but expectations have been tempered.
As two heavyweights conjoin, so their protégés follow: Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole are two preeminent talents who’ve so far combined to assemble only one studio release to date, Lamar’s Section.80, released in July. (J.Cole’s Cole World: The Sideline Story is set for mass consumption in late September.) In an online interview a couple weeks ago, Cole announced he was working on a joint album with Lamar. The two teaming up to create a bicoastal dynamic duo. During his interview, Cole, the first signing of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, spoke on the first time he received a verse from Lamar to place on a collabo. The utter rawness in the 23-year-old Compton native’s lyrics forced Cole to contemplate his own effort, go back and re-do what he’d already recorded. One young phenom unknowingly pushing another. It’s benevolent conflict; great for both their music and the fans savoring the small sample they’ve already tasted. But for whatever silly reason, the idea of their creating a joint album seems like a getaway. Instead of charting their own paths, continuing as hungry solo artists, who despite being friends, have no choice but to be seen as competitors, Kendrick Lamar and J.Cole are choosing the easy route. They’re probably not consciously opting to do so, but by working on an entire album together, the two might selectively rely on one another to carry alternating songs. This isn’t a definite fact, but the aftermath in them coming together so early in their careers could produce a let up in effort or—worse—a watered down, aimless project.
Since hip-hop’s dawning age, rappers have staked their claim in group settings—Ice Cube, Busta Rhymes, 2pac, Q-Tip, Lil Wayne, Ghostface Killah—before independently venturing out and finding even greater success on their own. Throughout the genre’s short history this was more often than not the career move strategy that skilled enough lyricists drifted towards. Today it’s reversing.
Wiz Khalifa, Curren$y, and Big Sean, hailing from Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Detroit, respectively, have decided to make a boastful, collaborative mixtape together. Over hard drums and calming, melodious marijuana smoke floating in the background, the three have a sequential chemistry, and their music isn’t disappointing. With Wiz on the opening verse (and then back to croon the hook), Curren$y in the middle, and Big Sean bringing up the rear, their collective sound is more seamless than overloaded. Each distinct flow fits into the bigger picture, however nothing bold is being done. Each of their verses in each of the five recently released songs aren’t breaking a mold or serving as experimental verbalism in any way. Big Sean continues his borderline annoying hashtag rap, Wiz sings about rare weed, beautiful women, and hand-stitched clothing, and Curren$y drips through each verse like a gifted lyricist slumped over on a studio futon, slowly going through every bag of Doritos in a two mile radius. They’re all good, and, more important, listenable, but nothing jumps through the speaker and forces your index finger to tripple click the play button on the cord of your ear buds to start the track over.
Apart from movements like the Native Tongues and the Wu-Tang Clan, 15 years ago this was inconceivable. Rappers existed to chart their own paths, indirectly inspire one another, and make as much money through international concert tours and album sales as humanly possible. One might say this is where the game changed for the worse; when selfishness overcame selfless roles that pushed strong egos to the electric chair, and rappers cared more about the music they were making than what would be the smartest move in order to proliferate their personal brand. This isn’t gospel I subscribe to, but the counter argument makes sense. Today, the best rappers are beginning to reshape their career moves. Oddly enough, in a parallel line with NBA players.
The prime example of this movement towards togetherness is the Miami Heat. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh deciding it was worth more for them to bypass personal gain, statistical glory, and the outward motivation that comes with direct competition against fellow All-Stars, for a unified string of championships. It’s a modern day strategy they copied after Boston won a championship with three All-Stars in the back half of Hall of Fame careers. Most believe it isn’t a matter of if, but when Miami breaks through to begin their league-wide tyrannical era of dominance. The plan has yet to find fruition.
Looking at the Knicks, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire are two amazing basketball players who perform side by side with a supposed single goal in mind. I say “supposed” because nobody nobody wants to be showed up. If Amar’e scores 40 one night and hits the game-winning three, deep in the recesses of Carmelo’s mind a kernel of envy is formed. He wants to be in Amar’e’s shoes the next night and out perform his teammate the very next opportunity he gets. So technically they aren’t competing against one another from an aspect of wins and losses, but they continue to push one another into becoming better basketball players. Theoretically this should help the Knicks; maybe it does, maybe it does not.
While it’s more difficult to gauge the long-term effect two (or more) popular musicians can have by forging a professional relationship—unlike basketball players, the artist’s career can literally last a lifetime—we can still tell if what they’re doing is good or bad. Curren$y, Wiz Khalifa, and Big Sean coming together and creating music should be welcomed with open arms. Each of them has at least one studio album under his belt and are reputed as tireless MC’s who genuinely love doing what they do (especially when it involves copious amounts of marijuana). If things don’t work out they aren’t bound together, forced to collaborate with one another for the next five years. They have their own careers to worry about, and the option of going back to their prolific solo ventures is still on the table. In the case of Jay-Z and Kanye West, these two are so highly regarded in the industry which made their name, that even if they announced Watch The Throne was to be entirely produced by Dr. Luke and contain seven Ke$ha features, we’d nod our heads, download/buy it, and force ourselves past at least a single run through.
When the best of the best come together to join forces, it peaks our interest. How will they get along? Can they meet expectations and set the bar even higher? How will they adjust as individuals in order to mold themselves into a new setting? Will they accept shared, reduced accolades? Whether involving beautiful music or aesthetically astonishing basketball, these are all questions that must be asked. Sometimes the answers don’t go down as smooth as we’d like.