In sports, nearly everything ends on a downturn. We all know this, and yet when it happens in ways that are both mortifyingly ugly and reminiscent of our own existential impermanence, it's easy to flip the hell out. And there have been few players in the last quarter century who've earned more instances of artful, in-depth, next-stop-Temecula flipping out than Kobe Bryant. Teenage boy amongst men, Dunk Contest monster, staggering phenom, Shaq antagonist, highly motivated weirdo, shoot-first points machine, rape-trial defendant, two-time dynasty reviver, MVP, 20-year franchise cornerstone, philanthropist, injury casualty, burden contract, borderline punchline, borderline Greatest Ever—all the things Kobe's been over the past 20-plus years have, one by one, given a new facet to a man more complicated than any casual outside observer could probably ever really comprehend. So let's look at the one that seems, in retrospect, both inevitable and inexplicable: Kobe as a rapper.
The story of Kobe's abbreviated/mercy-killed rap career is as confounding as nearly any other one of those traits listed above. For one thing, it made him one of the only people who can say he's shared credits with 50 Cent, Destiny's Child, Black Thought, Beanie Sigel, and Tyra Banks. If you are arguably the best NBA star on Earth there is little to no reason you wouldn't be able to convince that group of luminaries to at least hang around a recording booth for a few hours, so maybe that's not as startling as it reads. It's still pretty weird in a way that only the last brightly-burning days of a pre-MP3 record industry could really be. But keep in mind that Bryant likely spent at least a few idle teenage hours dreaming of collaborating with Nas in a way that didn't necessitate a preexisting fame as the man who made the Lakers great again.
As highlighted in a 2013 Grantland piece, Kobe's hip-hop aspirations ran deep: he was part of a high school rap crew named CHEIZAW after the antagonist "Chi Sah" robber gang from a '79 Shaw Brothers movie, _Kid With the Golden Arm—_the same movie that inspired U-God's first alias. If this somehow isn't the most early '90s rap nerd thing you've ever heard, keep in mind that CHEIZAW is also an abbreviation for "Canon Homo Sapiens Eclectic Iconic Zaibatsu Abstract Words." Kobe explained this in the February '99 issue of Vibe to the extent that it actually made sort of sense: "Canon is the ruler of the spiritual body. Homo sapien is the [scientific] term for human beings. Eclectic means choosing the best of very diverse styles. Icon is a symbol. Zaibatsu is a Japanese word for powerful family. Abstract makes concentration extremely difficult. Words, meaning lyrics."
This was in the midst of an interview with hip-hop radio legend Bobbito during which (then) No. 8 also geeked out over an unreleased De La Soul/Pete Rock bootleg and plainly stated that "I love poetry. I love writing it."
Kobe being the NBA's preeminent backpacker wasn't quite enough, though—at the time of that interview, he'd already been signed to Sony by Steve Stoute and was holed up in Manhattan's Hit Factory recording with the Trackmasters. There, he was put on track to become the NBA's own analog to fellow Philadelphian Will Smith, only with slightly more edge and a somewhat better shooting percentage.
What that led to, at least in a tangible "available in stores" form, was a 1999 single—available as a 12" for the discerning DJ—that is as much a lost artifact as anything involving a star player of his caliber could be. The A-side, "K.O.B.E.," had Tyra on the hook. Flip it over and you get "Thug Poet," which featured a pre-shot-nine-times 50 Cent and a CHEIZAW crewmate with the supremely Philly alias Broady Boy. (Nas also gets a "ft.", but it's one of those Watch the Throne "Otis" credits where it's just his sampled voice.) And there was supposed to be more: a full-length album titled Visions set for a spring 2000 release and the possibility for some Trackmasters-abetted collabs with Nas, Noreaga, and Nature.
And who knows—it could've been decent. All indications were that Visions was going to feint at the Big Willie route with a pop-skewing single, then let Kobe go off during the rest of the album with his cipher-honed abstraction like some kind of purple-and-gold Pharoahe Monch. His weirdo flow on "Thug Poet" takes a multi-tiered Biggie lift—the "Who Shot Ya" beat plus "Kick in the Door" homage lyric—and hints at what could've come of that approach.
The self-penned "basketball terminology can mean other things" lines seem too half-finished to land square on the jaw like they should ("Think you can handle? Not get stripped when you rock?") but there's an engaging, if sloppy, giddiness to his voice that holds potential for a good diabolical-wiseass persona. Then there's obscure mixtape cut "Philly Live," an Illadelph-centric posse cut featuring Broady, Beanie Sigel, and Black Thought where Kobe gets the last verse and charges through internal-rhyming analogies with a largely apathetic regard for where his flow hits on the beat—which, if nothing else, at least puts him in with a lot of other battle-first rappers, and is a sort of prescient metaphor for his present of play. Sometimes his lines are kind of ass in a pro forma way—"I'm genuinely ill, serious skill/write rhymes like death wills"—but you can just about catch the potential Stoute and Sony saw in him. So what happened?
The Sportscore equivalent of Disco Demolition Night is what happened. Granted, it took place at halftime of the 2000 NBA All-Star Weekend instead of between games in a meaningless doubleheader featuring two of the American League's less-inspiring teams. Granted, further, that this was an accidental and metaphorical immolation rather than a literal one, and was intended to be a celebration of a genre instead of the damnation of one. But this right here was the end of the line for any future hopes of another Shaq-style sports-and-music crossover star. It was a trend that had already been waning as the perpetually ridiculous '90s faded into the bleaker and more bitter succeeding decade. But the trend died that halftime before Kobe had a chance to hop on it.
Visions might have been an interesting acquired-taste novelty, where an athlete who took rap seriously had a slate of beats and guest stars to help tamp down any potential ridiculousness. But watch that clip: even through the blurry haze of ancient streaming-video artifacting from a circa-2005 replay of the event, the spectacle of a leatherbound Kobe rapping about the struggle between his libido and his finances over a shrill pop-rap bloating of "7th Wonder" looks hard to salvage. See the jersey-clad backup dancers, and see Miss Tyra perform like she'd rather be busy concocting the concept for America's Next Top Model. See the welcome distraction of the news ticker rattling off player transactions ("Chicago Bulls re-sign G Chris Duhon") that happened five years after everyone realized this just wasn't going to work. Watch it again. That was the end.
That's the final culmination of a circa '98-'99 effort to groom Kobe Bryant for a hip-hop career. If Kobe had been a sixth man, he might have been able to define himself on a different kind of terms. Maybe his supposedly suppressed scientifical-metaphorical styles would have been at least worthy of an EP on Rawkus. Maybe he would've gone the Marquis Daniels route and released a bunch of mixtapes for yuks. But Kobe was already Kobe, and so that wasn't happening.
As an unexpected minor dose—in cameos on remixes of Brian McKnight's "Hold Me" and Destiny Child's "Say My Name," where he holds his own on a Timbaland beat—the "wait, what" nature of Kobe's appearances deliver the lingering celebrity weirdness and are over before the mediocrity sets in. Over the course of a whole album, he wouldn't have had that chance.
Whatever the case, Kobe's discography was bizarre but eventful while it lasted, a footnote in a career where nearly every footnote is its own overwhelming story. At least Kobe finally got the chance to prove he can write solid verses since then. Not every skill is destined to diminish, after all.