Settling the Kobe vs LeBron Debate, Using Hip-Hop References

After LeBron lost yet another Finals appearance, the Kobe vs. LeBron debate resurfaced. So, let’s let the streets be the judge.

“The streets is watching??—?hip-hop proverb.

Most basketball debates are never-ending, as there isn’t a tangible way to definitively prove one side of the argument over the other. The 72-win Bulls can’t play the 73-win Warriors to determine the best team of all-time, because the 72-win Bulls are all in their 40s and 50s, and their margin of victory (approximately 5 points) right now wouldn’t be an accurate representation of their margin of victory at their peak (approximately 25 points).

Yet, we insist on still having these debates. Perhaps we just enjoy the satisfaction that we can never be proven wrong (or right, but that’s irrelevant), regardless of what side we take. Even after both sides have exhausted their list of regular proof points, they can latch onto something (but the rings!) or something else (but the stats!) to make them feel like they did indeed win the argument.

Lucky for us, however, the historians of culture have documented the rise and fall of basketball giants through one consistent and comparable medium — music. Hip-hop ballads often reflect the current state of sports, bestowing accolades on those that are deserving and slighting those who are not. The link between basketball and rap has always been strong, as rappers regularly use feats on the hardwood as a metaphor for their own greatness in the rap game.

Unlike our previous endeavour, this time we’re not here to confirm or deny the accuracy of basketball lyrics in hip-hop. Instead, we’re here to finally settle the Kobe vs LeBron debate, using the quality and effectiveness of references to them in music.

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We will do this in a few steps. First, we’ll look at the artist performing the song, and their place in the Rap Pantheon (Jay Z) or Rap Basement (whatever mumble rapper with Twizzler hair is popular right now), and give them a score out of 10. Next, we’ll look at the meaning of the lyric itself, and whether it mocks or glorifies Kobe or LeBron, and to what degree (which we’ll also score that out of 10). Finally, we’ll examine the context in which the lyric is delivered, and score that out of 10, for a total of a possible 30 points scored per song reference. Whichever player has a higher score at the end will be deemed the better of the two.

And so, without further delay:

“I ball, I ball, like Kobe in the fall, put trophies on wall, rather trophies on my mantle, dog my shows be off the handle, take the proceeds go to gamble? — J. Cole, Cole World

Meaning: J. Cole is documenting Kobe’s success, in particular, his championship pedigree. (8/10)

Context: I don’t know if J. Cole watches basketball, but the fall is probably the least consequential stretch of the NBA regular season, as proven by the Orlando Magic who held an undefeated record at one point in the fall, before ultimately finishing the season 25–57. As such, Kobe can ball whenever he likes, but by signalling out ‘fall’, Cole costs Kobe some points here. (7/10)

Artist Level: J. Cole is one of the more polarizing artists in Rap. Those who love him, love him. Those who don’t generally consider a J.Cole lyrical performance akin to a midsummer night spent reading an essay on the separation of power in liberal democracies and the needs for checks and balances. So in fairness to both sides, I’m going with to score this a 5… wait, I have just received a text that J. Cole did, in fact, go Platinum with no features. (7/10).

Kobe — Total: 22/30

“Hood phenomenon, the LeBron of rhyme/Hard to be humble when you stunting on a jumbotron? — Kanye, Devil in a New Dress

Meaning: Kanye imbues himself with the qualities of LeBron, implying not so subtly that LeBron is the greatest. (10/10).

Context: Kanye has always latched onto the idea that he himself is the greatest, and the fact that he would even consider someone else in the ‘greatest’ conversation speaks volumes. (9/10)

Artist: I once created a Kanye fashion line from the clearance section of Value Village, but in his prime, he was the most in-demand, soulful producer in the game. (9/10)

LeBron — Total: 27/30


Kobe ’bout to lose a hundred fifty M’s, Kobe my nigga I hate it had to be him? Drake, Stay Scheming

Meaning: Drake doesn’t really talk about basketball here, but he does affiliate himself with Kobe frequently, as well as demonstrate a measure of regret that something bad is happening to Kobe. (6/10).

Context: It’s hard to gauge this one seeing how very few basketball things are mentioned overall. Still, Drake wouldn’t be found within a mile of admitting he likes something that hasn’t been previously vetted, reviewed and deemed acceptable by popular culture, so him even mentioning Kobe is a net-positive (6/10)

Artist: Drake is probably one of the most accurate historians of our time, mostly because he’s capable of taking a moment in history and then presenting it as his own invention. He latches on to anything that’s popular so his word is actually a very strong barometer of the pop culture zeitgeist. (9/10)

Kobe — Total: 43/60


“Ho, shut your mouth when you in the presence of Kings/I ball like LeBron but I got a couple more rings? — Diddy, Bout That Life

Meaning: Here, Diddy compares himself to LeBron and names them both Kings (although, he may be talking about the Sacramento Kings, which would be the most shocking turn in the history of turns). At the same time, he also manages to devalue LeBron a little bit by putting himself above him and implying there is room to be better. (8/10).

Context: Diddy has enjoyed a continued reign of dominance in hip-hop, but no one would necessarily consider him the greatest rapper alive. He’s created multiple hits and has overseen careers that have sky-rocketed into the hip-hop stratosphere. So him comparing himself to LeBron isn’t as meaningful as say, Jay Z would be. (8/10)

Artist: Diddy has been around for as long or longer than anyone on this list. While a capable lyricist himself, he is known more as a businessman and a brand than a rapper at this point, but he’s also managed to remain top-rapper-adjacent his entire career. (8/10)

LeBron — Total: 51/60


“And when it comes down to this recording, I must be Lebron James if he’s Jordan. No, I won rings for my performance. I’m more of a Kobe Bryant of an artist.? — Lil Wayne, Show Me What You Got Remix

Meaning: Here, Wayne outlines the prerequisites for greatness and arrives at a very popular Twitter argument, known colloquially as “but the ringz!? He decides that rings are enough and thus Kobe is greater than LeBron. (10/10)

Context: This is huge. Weezy Baby himself begins by comparing himself to LeBron before taking a brief interlude to rethink his previous statement. He then changes himself to Kobe, stating that in the eyes of the streets, trophies are what matters. The change is significant considering Wayne took a very necessary and deliberate moment to make sure that he is referencing himself to the highest possible option. (10/10).

Artist: Carter I — III Lil’ Wayne is one of the top artists to ever pick up the mic and if you’ve been able to listen to Tha Mobb throughout without having to faint at least three times due to sheer lyrical power, why are you lying to me right now? (9/10).

Kobe — Total: 72/90


“You lookin’ at Lebron James of the game/I could do anything that you name? — J. Cole, Heartache

Meaning: LeBron can do anything he wants. He’s at the highest pinnacle of his skill and anything your mind can imagine, LeBron can achieve it. It’s almost as if he’s testing the ranges of human imagination. (10/10).

Context: LeBron is beyond skill classification, and is basically basketball personified. (10/10)

Artist: J.Cole raps like he’s reading a Shakespearean soliloquy in the middle of a one-man show at a summer park. (7/10)

LeBron — Total: 78/90

“Bitch I ball hard like Kobe or Ginobili? — Mack Maine, Kobe or Ginobili

Meaning: I think Mack Maine hurts his own cause here because Kobe and Manu ball in two very different ways if you really think about it. (5/10)

Context: No offence to Ginobili, but this one really hurts Kobe. The true greats should not be comparable to any outside of a very select group of 2–3 players in the world. I’m fairly certain that if you even utter Lionel Messi’s name next to someone like Charlie Adam, you actually spontaneously-combust where you stand. Way to devalue a great, Mack Maine. (2/10)

Artist: A quick visit to Mack Maine’s Wikipedia page shows three collaborative albums and not one solo one. Your own label doesn’t think you’re worth the investment. There should be a rule where you have to have at least one quotable song and a 7-song EP before you’re allowed to reference an NBA player (3/10).

Kobe — Total: 82/120


“See I’m sitting here chilling with this Rollie on my arm/What I paid for it, should’ve came with an alarm/Yeah I’m tryna fuck, baby don’t be alarmed/See I used to pay Kobe, but now I pay LeBron? — Jeezy, 24/23

Meaning: These lyrics might only be a reference to jersey numbers, but it could also be argued that LeBron is better than Kobe based on a simple mathematical estimation that paying less for a thing is better than paying more for a thing. (7/10).

Context: Again, Jeezy implies that paying LeBron is better than paying Kobe. He’s not talking about the players, but rather the number they choose to wear. (8/10)

Artist: Jeezy is basically the pioneer of Atlanta trap-rap. His first album sounds like something you most definitely listen to on your way to a drug deal. (8/10)

LeBron — Total: 101/120

“Trying to get that Kobe number, one over Jordan.? Kanye West, Swagga Like Us

Meaning: On the surface, you could argue that Kanye is referencing Kobe’s megalomaniac obsession with chasing down Jordan’s ring count. But in reality, he’s just speaking about Kobe changing his number. (6/10)

Context: Putting Kobe’s name next to Jordan is a very straight-forward acknowledgement that yes, they may belong in the same sentence, but limiting the analogy to just jersey numbers over actual stats is pretty damning. (5/10)

Artist: Kanye West’s first three albums, as well as his production during that time, deserve to be in a museum somewhere. It’s extra points that this Kanye moment came during the “not-crazy? era. (9/10)

Kobe — Total: 102/150

“I’m rap’s LeBron, Teflon Don/Baguettes on arm, the next Sean John? — Lloyd Banks, If You So Gangsta

Meaning: This is just pure bragging about his greatness. As is the case with Diddy, Lloyd Banks is objectively not the greatest at hip-hop, so him comparing himself to LeBron brings down the score, because if LeBron was the Lloyd Banks of basketball he’d be less LeBron and more like Shawn Marion. (7/10)

Context: If you want to falsely imply that you’re the best, you want to choose the best player for metaphorical comparison. As such… (10/10)

Artist: Lloyd Banks is the underrated punchline king of the group formerly known as G-Unit. He’s probably the most successful member not named 50 Cent, but similarly, he mostly works on mixtapes now. (6/10)

LeBron — Total: 124/150

Let’s take a quick break, seeing as we’re at the halfway point. So far, LeBron has a pretty sizeable lead of 124-102, which is what happens when Mack Maine becomes involved. As a reminder though, the ten songs chosen here were the culmination of feverishly googling “Best LeBron/Kobe references in hip-hop.? So, if you have a problem with the lyrics and artists chosen, I suggest you blame Rap Genius and/or Complex. Let’s get back to it.

Kobe doin’ work, two-four on my shirt, he the greatest on the court, and I’m the greatest on the verse, going for the fourth ring like it was his first? — Lil Wayne, Kobe Bryant

Meaning: Wayne is pretty explicit here when talking about Kobe’s greatness, clearly subscribing to the philosophy that Kobe is in fact the greatest on the court. It’s a clear-cut acknowledgement of Kobe’s greatness (9/10)

Context: Lil Wayne literally called a song Kobe Bryant. There is no greater ode than to have a song named after you. (10/10)

Artist: Hearing Lil Wayne rap at his peak makes you want to slap a DMV worker. (9/10)

Kobe — Total: 130/180

“But you’ll never play me like LeBron vs Jordan/20 years, wonder who they gon’ say was more important/Both changed the game, came through and made a lane/Who’s to say who’s greater? All we know, they ain’t the same? — J. Cole, Sideline Story

Meaning: There are only two names here, Jordan and LeBron. One, arguably the greatest player of all time, and the other is subject to increased debate about being the greatest player of all time. J. Cole isolates two names and allows for no others to enter this argument. The point is pretty clear here — there are LeBron and Jordan and nobody else. (10/10)

Context: Cole acknowledges all of the similarities between Jordan and LeBron. Considering that this verse was written while Kobe was still, at the top of everyone’s memory, he could have easily been the comparison here if J. Cole had wanted to use him. But J. Cole values LeBron’s impact on the game to the same level as Jordan. (10/10)

Artist: J. Cole is perfect “fall asleep to? hip-hop if you’re into that kind of thing. (7/10)

LeBron — Total: 151/180


“They say G.O.O.D. Music like the new Miami Heat/Shit comparin’ them to us, man, they gotta add Kobe? — Kanye, See Me Now

Meaning: Here Kanye acknowledges the greatness of LeBron and other players, yet implies that they are somehow incomplete without Kobe Bryant. I don’t believe that this is meant as a detriment to LeBron’s talents, but it may say that LeBron’s talents alone are insufficient. (7/10)

Context: Even at the peak of the Heatles era, LeBron was still arguably not the complete world-destroying machine that he evolved into upon returning to Cleveland (clever to hide the final infinity stone in Ohio where no one would ever look). So perhaps you wouldn’t need Kobe then, but still, Kanye speaks very highly of Bryant here. (7/10)

Artist: Kanye West used to make beats to warm the soul, and then quickly became everything he rapped against within two years and one Kardashian. (9/10)

Kobe — Total: 153/210

“It’s the champion flow, the Jordan, LeBron and Kobe/The Obi Wan Kenobi, of getting that guap-a-mole? — Talib Kweli Violations

Meaning: All three of Jordan, Kobe and LeBron are mentioned here, so at least Talib recognizes that they all belong in the same conversation. This cheapens the argument for LeBron though, as he equates him to Kobe (7/10).

Context: We don’t really have much else to go on here other than the order. I would imagine that Talib sat down, looked at the rhyme scheme and decided that LeBron should precede Kobe. Sure, that makes the next rhyme easier, but it also establishes a line of thinking of putting LeBron ahead of Kobe. (8/10)

Artist: BlackStar is one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time and if you decide to say otherwise please kindly provide me with your address so I can report you to the appropriate authorities. (8/10)

LeBron — Total: 174/210


“Got a million dollars say LeBron don’t win a ring/I know Kobe, I be on the floor, ‘Kobe!’? — The Game, Bulletproof Diaries

Meaning: I don’t know if the Game made this bet, but he owes someone at least three million dollars if we count each ring LeBron has in his possession. (10/10)

Context: I mean, he was wrong. That’s an automatic two-point deduction. Also, as a piece of future advice, it’s probably not wise to bet against the man who is built like a fridge. (7/10)

Artist: I’m not sure if the Game is more known for his rapping or the infamous thirst-trap photo that made me feel much less of a man, but among the hip-hop circles he is considered one of the key OGs of the game at this point in time. I’m pretty sure the Game fights people for fun. (7/10)

Kobe Total: 177/240


“Nigga, I ain’t crazy, bitches like me ’cause I’m paid/They want me, LeBron, Kobe or Dwyane Wade? — 50, Okay, You’re Right

Meaning: Fiddy ranks LeBron and Kobe on a similar level to himself while implying he’s the greatest. I’m not entirely sure what Dwyane Wade is doing here, but I’m going to gloss over it. While this isn’t specifically basketball-related, LeBron’s name is first. (7/10)

Context: Adhering to the logic from the previous argument, 50 consciously puts LeBron ahead of Kobe, and in this case, there isn’t even a rhyme reason for this. If anything, he separates LeBron and Wade in a sentence, where people’s natural reaction would be to put their names together due to their camaraderie. He finds it important to say LeBron first. (9/10)

Artist: Get Rich or Die Trying is a classic for its time and Curtis “50 Cent? Jackson has managed to use his savvy marketing skills, interest in Vitamin Water and pop culture presence to remain relevant for over a decade. He isn’t just a rapper, he’s a cultural statement. (9/10)

LeBron — Total: 199/240


“Me and Top is like a Kobe and Phil, a father figure play with him, you get killed, play with me and he will kill you himself? — Kendrick, Untitled 2

Meaning: Kendrick is the best there is. Comparing himself to Kobe means he thinks Kobe is the best there is. (10/10).

Context: Consider that this lyric was written well past Kobe’s prime and during (or shortly thereafter) the Kobe Bryant geriatric 82-game retirement parade. LeBron was easily available. I will deduct two points for the fact that LeBron never had anyone as good as Phil Jackson coaching him and Kendrick probably didn’t want to insult his manager by comparing him to someone whose career highlight is getting stepped over on national television (8/10)

Artist Level: Kendrick Lamar is arguably hip-hop’s top dog right now. Sure, Jay Z has the historical significance and the girlfriend, but Kendrick has the streets on lock. He has been doing circles in a hooptie around the competition for years now and he didn’t even have to conceal a child to do so. His mention alone is akin to the word of God. (10/10)

Kobe — Total: 205/270


“If Jeezy’s paying LeBron, I’m paying Dwyane Wade? — Jay Z, Empire State of Mind

Meaning: This ties back to Jeezy’s line from 23/24 where he brags about paying less for cocaine than most people. To prove he’s even bigger than Jeezy, Jay Z brags about how much less he pays, bringing Dwyane Wade into the discussion. (6/10)

Context: Similar to the Jeezy analysis, we have to look at the order that the names are listed in. The natural conclusion is that Dwyane Wade is, in fact, better than both LeBron and Kobe because his number is lower and this he signifies the best possible financial value. It is also possibly the most famous Dwyane Wade lyric ever rapped, and as such he gets most of the shine here. Sorry Bron. (4/10)

Artist Level: I don’t know how you would rank Hov, but he is arguably a top-5 rapper of all-time. (10/10)

LeBron — Total: 219/270


Final Score: LeBron 219 — Kobe 205

So here we are. After much consideration, discussion, and debate, the game has spoken. And the game don’t lie. It’s settled. According to hip-hop, LeBron James is a better basketball player than Kobe Bryant, and we can finally put the Kobe vs. LeBron debate to rest.

Serge Leshchuk
Serge Leshchuk
Serge Leshchuk is a senior writer at Grandstand Central, number one Process devotee and nihilist Raptors fan who also does video production. You can send your complaints about any Celtics related articles to him directly on Twitter.


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