Hip-Hop Fridays: The Rap on Kobe by Sam Walker

In the tawdry weeks to come, every facet of Kobe Bryant's character will be held up for examination. Naturally, this will include one persona most people know nothing about: Kobe the would-be rap star.

Back in 2000, during his fourth season with the Los Angeles Lakers, Columbia Records released "K.O.B.E.," an unlikely duet with supermodel Tyra Banks. At first blush, some of the lyrics are downright embarrassing. One line from the first verse: "I don't know, yo, these women come and go." But after a second and third look, the picture gets a lot more complicated. While Mr. Bryant, then a bachelor, openly boasts about his skills with "broads," most of the lyrics are pretty tame by the standards of the rap genre. And it's not clear how many of these words are really his: Kobe's only one of several registered authors.

Still, this debut single only reinforces the idea that behind his basketball talents and wholesome image, Mr. Bryant is a much more complex character. After growing up comfortably in Italy and a Philadelphia suburb, he skipped college for the NBA, where he was instantly thrust into the commercial spotlight as few teenagers have ever been. But while his polite behavior scored with mainstream sponsors like McDonald's, it also left him with a marketing blind spot: the urban youth market, which didn't seem to find him edgy enough. His latest Adidas sneaker, with its European styling, ended up in markdown bins. And his musical debut met a similar fate, selling just 1,200 copies.

A Tortured Work

Overall, this song is a tortured piece of work that sways between cuddly lyrics about "real love" and bits where he brags about dating actresses and chasing after babes with "hourglass figures." In one line, he describes himself as a hunter "preying" on an attractive woman. For her part, Ms. Banks testifies to his supreme studliness, playfully asking Kobe how many girls have begged him to marry them. "You're sweet," Mr. Bryant replies. Later in the chorus, she takes to fawning all over him with lines like "I believe you are very fine."

Though Columbia scrapped its plans to release an entire Kobe album and eventually dropped him altogether, the lyrics to another song he helped write, "Thug Poet," have also surfaced. Apparently, this was Mr. Bryant's attempt at tackling gangsta rap and, perhaps, to toughen his image a bit. But while he makes oblique references to cocaine and handguns, he stops short of using any explicit language. Instead, he allows a trio of collaborating rappers to do the dirty work for him, rhyming about murder, drugs and prostitutes and all but ensuring that the song would have warranted a parental advisory sticker.

But for the most part, this music is derivative and harmless. While most rappers spare no detail bragging about their expensive cognac, designer clothes and tricked-out Hummers, Mr. Bryant prefers to rap about stocks, bonds, platinum credit cards and his Mercedes, which, he points out, has a wooden dashboard. Even when it comes to the oldest rap tradition of all -- putting down other artists -- the toughest dis that he can come up with is this: "I'm CIA, ya'll nuttin' but beat cops."

Of course, Mr. Bryant isn't the first NBA star to take a shot at the rap game, and his work falls well short of the extremes. Ten years ago, his Laker teammate Shaquille O'Neal cut a single called "I Know I Got Skillz," in which he makes silly karate noises and uses nothing stronger than the words "heck" and "damn" (it sold 450,000 copies, mostly to kids). On the other end of the spectrum: Philadelphia's Allen Iverson. His 2000 rap debut, "40 Bars," was so graphic and offensive that it was never released. He later apologized.

Still, it's pretty clear that Mr. Bryant, together with his record label, took his music career seriously. One of the collaborating writers on the project was Samuel Barnes, an industry pro who's worked with the likes of Will Smith and Jennifer Lopez. As his own single was hitting the market, Mr. Bryant was invited to appear in a remix of the chart-busting song "Say My Name" by Destiny's Child. And later in the summer of 2000, even after the Lakers had won the first of three consecutive NBA championships, Mr. Bryant cared enough to perform his music live at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. Tickets were $15.

In the end, this foray into music is just a footnote from a carefree chapter of Kobe Bryant's life. But instead of bridging the gap between Madison Avenue and the urban audience that eluded him, his debut single only sat on store shelves, appealing to nobody. And that's the real shame of this thing: Kobe Bryant could use a few more fans right now.

Sam Walker writes the "On Sports" column for The Wall St. Journal. Mr. Walker can be reached via e-mail at: sam.walker@wsj.com

This column first appeared in the August 8, 2003 edition of The Wall St. Journal

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Friday, August 22, 2003