â€œThe streets is watchingâ€?â€?â€”â€?hip-hopÂ proverb.
Most basketball debates are never-ending, as there isnâ€™t a tangible way to definitively prove one side of the argument over the other. The 72-win Bulls canâ€™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 wouldnâ€™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 thatâ€™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 â€” 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 weâ€™re not here to confirm or deny the accuracy of basketball lyrics in hip-hop. Instead, weâ€™re here to finally settle the Kobe vs LeBron debate, using the quality and effectiveness of references to them in music.
We will do this in a few steps. First, weâ€™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, weâ€™ll look at the meaning of the lyric itself, and whether it mocks or glorifies Kobe or LeBron, and to what degree (which weâ€™ll also score that out of 10). Finally, weâ€™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:
â€œI ball, I ball, likeÂ KobeÂ in the fall, put trophies on wall, rather trophies on my mantle, dog my shows be off the handle, take the proceeds go to gambleâ€? â€” J. Cole, ColeÂ World
Meaning:Â J. Cole is documenting Kobeâ€™s success, in particular, his championship pedigree. (8/10)
Context:Â I donâ€™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 25â€“57. As such, Kobe can ball whenever he likes, but by signalling out â€˜fallâ€™, Cole costs Kobe some points here. (7/10)
Artist Level:Â J. Cole is one of the more polarizing artists in Rap. Those who love him, love him. Those who donâ€™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, Iâ€™m going with to score this a 5â€¦ wait, I have just received a text that J. Cole did, in fact, go Platinum with no features. (7/10).
Kobe â€” Total:Â 22/30
â€œHood phenomenon, theÂ LeBronÂ of rhyme/Hard to be humble when you stunting on a jumbotronâ€? â€” Kanye, Devil in a NewÂ Dress
Meaning:Â Kanye imbues himself with the qualities of LeBron, implying not so subtly that LeBron is the greatest. (10/10).
Context:Â 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 â€˜greatestâ€™ conversation speaks volumes.Â (9/10)
Artist:Â 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 â€” Total:Â 27/30
â€œKobeÂ â€™bout to lose a hundred fifty Mâ€™s,Â KobeÂ my nigga I hate it had to be himâ€? Drake, StayÂ Scheming
Meaning:Â Drake doesnâ€™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:Â Itâ€™s hard to gauge this one seeing how very few basketball things are mentioned overall. Still, Drake wouldnâ€™t be found within a mile of admitting he likes something that hasnâ€™t been previously vetted, reviewed and deemed acceptable by popular culture, so him even mentioning Kobe is a net-positive (6/10)
Artist:Â Drake is probably one of the most accurate historians of our time, mostly because heâ€™s capable of taking a moment in history and then presenting it as his own invention. He latches on to anything thatâ€™s popular so his word is actually a very strong barometer of the pop culture zeitgeist. (9/10)
Kobe â€” Total:Â 43/60
â€œHo, shut your mouth when you in the presence of Kings/I ball likeÂ LeBronÂ but I got a couple more ringsâ€? â€” Diddy, Bout ThatÂ Life
Meaning:Â 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:Â Diddy has enjoyed a continued reign of dominance in hip-hop, but no one would necessarily consider him the greatest rapper alive. Heâ€™s created multiple hits and has overseen careers that have sky-rocketed into the hip-hop stratosphere. So him comparing himself to LeBron isnâ€™t as meaningful as say, Jay Z would be. (8/10)
Artist:Â 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 heâ€™s also managed to remain top-rapper-adjacent his entire career. (8/10)
LeBron â€” Total:Â 51/60
â€œAnd when it comes down to this recording, I must be Lebron James if heâ€™s Jordan. No, I won rings for my performance. Iâ€™m more of aÂ Kobe BryantÂ of an artist.â€? â€” Lil Wayne, Show Me What You GotÂ Remix
Meaning:Â Here, Wayne outlines the prerequisites for greatness and arrives at a very popular Twitter argument, known colloquially as â€œbut the ringz!â€? He decides that rings are enough and thus Kobe is greater than LeBron. (10/10)
Context:Â 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:Â Carter I â€” III Lilâ€™ Wayne is one of the top artists to ever pick up the mic and if youâ€™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 â€” Total:Â 72/90
â€œYou lookinâ€™ atÂ Lebron JamesÂ of the game/I could do anything that you nameâ€?Â â€”Â J. Cole, Heartache
Meaning:Â LeBron can do anything he wants. Heâ€™s at the highest pinnacle of his skill and anything your mind can imagine, LeBron can achieve it. Itâ€™s almost as if heâ€™s testing the ranges of human imagination. (10/10).
Context:Â LeBron is beyond skill classification, and is basically basketball personified. (10/10)
Artist:Â J.Cole raps like heâ€™s reading a Shakespearean soliloquy in the middle of a one-man show at a summer park. (7/10)
LeBron â€” Total:Â 78/90
â€œBitch I ball hard likeÂ KobeÂ or Ginobiliâ€? â€” Mack Maine, Kobe orÂ Ginobili
Meaning:Â 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:Â 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 2â€“3 players in the world. Iâ€™m fairly certain that if you even utter Lionel Messiâ€™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:Â A quick visit to Mack Maineâ€™s Wikipedia page shows three collaborative albums and not one solo one. Your own label doesnâ€™t think youâ€™re worth the investment.Â There should be a rule where you have to have at least one quotable song and a 7-song EP before youâ€™re allowed to reference an NBA playerÂ (3/10).
Kobe â€” Total:Â 82/120
â€œSee Iâ€™m sitting here chilling with this Rollie on my arm/What I paid for it, shouldâ€™ve came with an alarm/Yeah Iâ€™m tryna fuck, baby donâ€™t be alarmed/See I used to pay Kobe, but now I payÂ LeBronâ€? â€” Jeezy,Â 24/23
Meaning:Â 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:Â Again, Jeezy implies that paying LeBron is better than paying Kobe. Heâ€™s not talking about the players, but rather the number they choose to wear. (8/10)
Artist:Â 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 â€” Total:Â 101/120
â€œTrying to get thatÂ KobeÂ number, one over Jordan.â€? Kanye West, Swagga LikeÂ Us
Meaning:Â On the surface, you could argue that Kanye is referencing Kobeâ€™s megalomaniac obsession with chasing down Jordanâ€™s ring count. But in reality, heâ€™s just speaking about Kobe changing his number. (6/10)
Context:Â Putting Kobeâ€™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:Â Kanye Westâ€™s first three albums, as well as his production during that time, deserve to be in a museum somewhere. Itâ€™s extra points that this Kanye moment came during the â€œnot-crazyâ€? era. (9/10)
Kobe â€” Total:Â 102/150
â€œIâ€™m rapâ€™sÂ LeBron, Teflon Don/Baguettes on arm, the next Sean Johnâ€? â€” Lloyd Banks, If You SoÂ Gangsta
Meaning:Â 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 heâ€™d be less LeBron and more like Shawn Marion. (7/10)
Context:Â If you want to falsely imply that youâ€™re the best, you want to choose the best player for metaphorical comparison. As suchâ€¦ (10/10)
Artist:Â Lloyd Banks is the underrated punchline king of the group formerly known as G-Unit. Heâ€™s probably the most successful member not named 50 Cent, but similarly, he mostly works on mixtapes now. (6/10)
LeBron â€” Total:Â 124/150
Letâ€™s take a quick break, seeing as weâ€™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 â€œBest LeBron/Kobe references in hip-hop.â€? So, if you have a problem with the lyrics and artists chosen, I suggest you blame Rap Genius and/or Complex. Letâ€™s get back to it.
â€œKobeÂ doinâ€™ work, two-four on my shirt, he the greatest on the court, and Iâ€™m the greatest on the verse, going for the fourth ring like it was his firstâ€?Â â€”Â Lil Wayne, KobeÂ Bryant
Meaning:Â Wayne is pretty explicit here when talking about Kobeâ€™s greatness, clearly subscribing to the philosophy that Kobe is in fact the greatest on the court. Itâ€™s a clear-cut acknowledgement of Kobeâ€™s greatness (9/10)
Context:Â Lil Wayne literally called a song Kobe Bryant. There is no greater ode than to have a song named after you. (10/10)
Artist:Â Hearing Lil Wayne rap at his peak makes you want to slap a DMV worker. (9/10)
Kobe â€” Total:Â 130/180
â€œBut youâ€™ll never play me likeÂ LeBronÂ vs Jordan/20 years, wonder who they gonâ€™ say was more important/Both changed the game, came through and made a lane/Whoâ€™s to say whoâ€™s greater? All we know, they ainâ€™t the sameâ€? â€” J. Cole, SidelineÂ Story
Meaning:Â 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 â€” there are LeBron and Jordan and nobody else. (10/10)
Context:Â Cole acknowledges all of the similarities between Jordan and LeBron. Considering that this verse was written while Kobe was still, at the top of everyoneâ€™s memory, he could have easily been the comparison here if J. Cole had wanted to use him. But J. Cole values LeBronâ€™s impact on the game to the same level as Jordan. (10/10)
Artist:Â J. Cole is perfect â€œfall asleep toâ€? hip-hop if youâ€™re into that kind of thing. (7/10)
LeBron â€” Total:Â 151/180
â€œThey say G.O.O.D. Music like the new Miami Heat/Shit comparinâ€™ them to us, man, they gotta addÂ Kobeâ€? â€” Kanye, See MeÂ Now
Meaning:Â Here Kanye acknowledges the greatness of LeBron and other players, yet implies that they are somehow incomplete without Kobe Bryant. I donâ€™t believe that this is meant as a detriment to LeBronâ€™s talents, but it may say that LeBronâ€™s talents alone are insufficient. (7/10)
Context:Â 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 wouldnâ€™t need Kobe then, but still, Kanye speaks very highly of Bryant here. (7/10)
Artist:Â 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 â€” Total:Â 153/210
â€œItâ€™s the champion flow, the Jordan,Â LeBronÂ and Kobe/The Obi Wan Kenobi, of getting that guap-a-moleâ€? â€” Talib Kweli Violations
Meaning:Â 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:Â We donâ€™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:Â 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 â€” Total:Â 174/210
â€œGot a million dollars say LeBron donâ€™t win a ring/I knowÂ Kobe, I be on the floor, â€˜Kobe!â€™â€? â€” The Game, Bulletproof Diaries
Meaning:Â I donâ€™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.Â (10/10)
Context:Â I mean, he was wrong. Thatâ€™s an automatic two-point deduction. Also, as a piece of future advice, itâ€™s probably not wise to bet against the man who is built like a fridge. (7/10)
Artist:Â Iâ€™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. Iâ€™m pretty sure the Game fights people for fun. (7/10)
Kobe Total:Â 177/240
â€œNigga, I ainâ€™t crazy, bitches like me â€™cause Iâ€™m paid/They want me,Â LeBron, Kobe or Dwyane Wadeâ€? â€” 50, Okay, Youâ€™reÂ Right
Meaning:Â Fiddy ranks LeBron and Kobe on a similar level to himself while implying heâ€™s the greatest. Iâ€™m not entirely sure what Dwyane Wade is doing here, but Iâ€™m going to gloss over it. While this isnâ€™t specifically basketball-related, LeBronâ€™s name is first. (7/10)
Context:Â Adhering to the logic from the previous argument, 50 consciously puts LeBron ahead of Kobe, and in this case, there isnâ€™t even a rhyme reason for this. If anything, he separates LeBron and Wade in a sentence, where peopleâ€™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:Â Get Rich or Die Trying is a classic for its time and Curtis â€œ50 Centâ€? 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 isnâ€™t just a rapper, heâ€™s a cultural statement. (9/10)
LeBron â€” Total:Â 199/240
â€œMe and Top is like aÂ KobeÂ and Phil, a father figure play with him, you get killed, play with me and he will kill you himselfâ€? â€” Kendrick, UntitledÂ 2
Meaning:Â Kendrick is the best there is. Comparing himself to Kobe means he thinks Kobe is the best there is. (10/10).
Context:Â Consider that this lyric was written well past Kobeâ€™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 didnâ€™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:Â Kendrick Lamar is arguably hip-hopâ€™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 didnâ€™t even have to conceal a child to do so. His mention alone is akin to the word of God. (10/10)
Kobe â€” Total:Â 205/270
â€œIf Jeezyâ€™s payingÂ LeBron, Iâ€™m paying Dwyane Wadeâ€? â€” Jay Z, Empire State ofÂ Mind
Meaning:Â This ties back to Jeezyâ€™s line from 23/24 where he brags about paying less for cocaine than most people. To prove heâ€™s even bigger than Jeezy, Jay Z brags about how much less he pays, bringing Dwyane Wade into the discussion. (6/10)
Context:Â 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:Â I donâ€™t know how you would rank Hov, but he is arguably a top-5 rapper of all-time. (10/10)
LeBron â€” Total: 219/270
Final Score: LeBron 219 â€” KobeÂ 205
So here we are. After much consideration, discussion, and debate, the game has spoken. And the game donâ€™t lie. Itâ€™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.