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Where Does Kendrick Lamar's Durant/Westbrook Reference Rank Among Hip-Hop Sports Metaphors?

It's good, because Kendrick is good at rapping. But being memorable is not necessarily the same thing as being good. Ask Dennis Scott.

by David Roth
24 March 2017, 11:55pm

Thinking about those references.... Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The good news is that there is a new Kendrick Lamar song. It's called "The Heart Part 4" and I'll let you listen to it. As you do so, though, please do a sort of mental ctrl-f for Russell Westbrook's name and an extended parallel to Kevin Durant's jump to Golden State as a free agent last offseason. It will be important later. (It will not really be very important.)

Pretty good! Kendrick Lamar is good at rapping, and as is his way he does a whole lot of it here, but the whole Western Conference Beef Narrative bit is explicit enough in what it's about that it barely qualifies as metaphor:

Tables turned, lesson learned, my best look
You jumped sides on me, now you 'bout to meet Westbrook
Go celebrate with your team and let victory vouch you
Just know the next game played, I might slap the shit out you
Technical foul, I'm flagrant, I'm foul
They throwing me out, you throw in the towel

But there's more to selling a sports reference in a song than getting on-court dynamics right, which opens onto a different debate. It's one thing for a reference to be correct or astute or fitting, but it's a rarer and more difficult thing for it to be memorable. I won't pretend to have all the answers to what makes a reference memorable, but I think there are two ways it works.

One is for the reference to encompass everything, to the point where it becomes something like the subject of the song. There is a lot of variously excruciating rap-along storybook stuff like this out there, and a separate and much larger subgenre songs that use the name of some sports person or other as their framework, with those subjects ranging from permed-up Reagan-era wrestling heels to active NHL hockey stars; Action Bronson all by himself is responsible for somewhere between five and 700 songs like this.

Don Trip's "Allen Iverson" is different than that. It seems to swing between actually being about Iverson and feeling like Iverson and the general Iverson-ian vibe. I assume it would work even if you were someone who doesn't care about Allen Iverson, but as I am not that person and don't associate with people that don't care about Iverson as a rule I can only say that it works for me. Also it's funny to hear Michael Wilbon's voice in a song.

But I think the real to a memorable sports reference is not a matter of making it fit into the song's broader thrust or framework or whatever, but having it not. The more out of the blue, the likelier it is to stick. Think of the memorable drive-by punchline on Vinny Testaverde from Phife, the greatest sports-referencer in human history.

Very rude, very gratuitous, extremely accurate on the football merits, extremely memorable.

Or, for instance, Keith Murray proudly shouting out sleepy-eyed three-point gunner Dennis Scott as a smoking partner three years before the end of Scott's NBA career.

Or my personal favorite, which is Noreaga opting to mention Patrick Ewing's era-defining sweatiness for reasons that are honestly kind of hard to parse even by N.O.R.E. standards.

There's no wrong sports reference, really, although I at least hope Murray reached out to Dennis Scott's representation before that song came out. But, in art as in sports, sometimes it's the briefest, strangest moments that wind up being remembered the longest.

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