A deep dive into NBA rappers

By Sammy Bovitz

The National Basketball Association is one of the biggest international juggernauts, dominating the gigantic basketball landscape. If you can “make it” in the NBA, say hello to multimillion dollar contracts, ridiculous endorsement deals, stratospheric levels of fandom, and a license to do basically anything you want. And what many NBA players want to  do is rap. But can they do it well? That question is often skipped over because, again, these athletes can do whatever they want. However, that doesn’t mean these projects are free of any criticism. I, a thoroughly unqualified but highly opinionated music critic, decided to listen to a few basketball rappers and see how they match up to the professional rappers of the world.

For this adventure, I looked at three different basketball rappers. First up is All-Star point guard Damian Lillard, possibly the most well-known of the current NBA rappers. His stage name Dame D.O.L.L.A references a nickname he was given earlier in his basketball career. He’s considered to be one of the best NBA rappers, and has gotten some pretty solid gigs too, even featuring on the new Space Jam soundtrack alongside the likes of Lil Wayne and Chance the Rapper. Luckily for us, he’s also recently released a studio album titled “Different on Levels The Lord Allowed.” Next is Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges. He’s known for his dunking skills and solid production on a rising Charlotte team, but on the rap scene he’s taken on the name RTB MB. He recently released his second album, “Halftime,” so we’ll have plenty to take a look at. Finally, Chicago Bulls point guard Lonzo Ball has made a name for himself whether the basketball world wanted him to or not, largely due to his attention-grabbing father LaVar making sure Lonzo and his brother LaMelo are never too far from NBA fans’ minds. He’s decided to use his nickname, “Zo,” as his stage name. While he hasn’t blessed us with a full-length album this year, he has released several singles that we can try out. 

But since we need a bit of a reference point on what professional rapping looks like, I took a look at three pro rappers from different styles on top of our athletic friends. To represent the rapidly growing subgenre of “sing-rap,” I went with the definitive member of this style in Drake. To represent rappers mainly focused on the sheer skill of their lyricism and flow, I chose NBA fan J. Cole. Finally, for rappers more known for the production side of their work, I went with Kanye West. Is comparing people who decidedly do not rap for a living to Drake, J. Cole, and Kanye West unfair? Absolutely! But I’m not trying to be nice here, I’m trying to give an honest review. Besides, I’m pretty sure LaVar Ball stopped reading my articles a few months ago. 

I took a look at two songs from each of these rappers, who all released new material in 2021. For the rappers that released albums (that is, everyone except Lonzo Ball), I randomly selected the third and eighth tracks on each one. For Ball, I simply listened to the third and eighth singles he put out this year. Here’s how it went. 

Let’s start with our controlled variables. While Drake’s most recent album, Certified Lover Boy, has rightfully been criticized for not evolving his signature style of mostly chill sing-rap, no one can deny that this style works, and has been working for some time despite not necessarily being interesting. The first of his two songs I ended up listening to was “Girls Want Girls,” which features one of the most absurd and disgusting lines I’ve ever heard just 15 seconds in. He raps about love, fans, and money before featured artist Lil Baby gives a more fast-paced verse. The beat is mostly stagnant and the lines are not particularly memorable; the same applies for “TSU.” But again, these songs do exactly what the target audience needs them to do– be chill songs that you can play in practically any setting. The beats are just dynamic enough, and the verses just witty enough that they’re pretty easy crowd-pleasers.

As for J. Cole, you probably don’t need me to tell you that his latest project The Off-Season absolutely knocks it out of the park if you’re looking for songs with sharp lyrics and solid hooks that don’t overstay their welcome. The songs I listened to, “My Life” and “Let Go My Hand,” have memorable, flowing lines, solid production, interesting hooks, and are easy additions to a rap fan’s playlist. There’s not much else to say here– J. Cole is an extraordinarily talented rapper.

J. Cole performing at the 2019 NBA All-Star Game.

Finally, Kanye West’s Donda. The songs I listened to for this piece were “God Breathed” and “Ok Ok.” These are incredibly experimental tracks, with elements that are at times beautiful and at other times make you want to throw your headphones into the ocean. Still, you can’t find production, features, and verses like this with any other artist. Say what you will about the music itself, but you can’t deny that Kanye West’s albums are very distinct from the rest of the industry. 

All in all, these three professional artists aren’t perfect, but they certainly all have a certain level of quality to their tracks. Flowing verses, solid features, distinct production, and stylistic choices all make these artists into talented professionals. It may not come as a surprise, but NBA players do not have the same standard of rap quality as the pros. 

Let’s start with Dame D.O.L.L.A, who clearly is the most experienced and dedicated to this craft. The songs I listened to are from his fourth studio album in six years, a fairly impressive feat. He’s worked with the likes of Jamie Foxx, Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, BJ The Chicago Kid, Snoop Dogg, and Jeremih on music and clearly wants to be seen as more than just a gimmick rapper. It’s too bad his music is painfully generic! Overproduced beats, passable but unremarkable rhyming, and random name drops flood his tracks. He’s solid at developing a rhythm in his verses and is moderately interesting, but there are no lines that are particularly memorable. As background music for playing basketball or doing a workout, these songs would be fine, but it’s clear that if this is the best music the NBA has to offer, we might have a bit of a problem. 

Miles Bridges, aka RTB MB, at his day job.

As for Miles Bridges’ venture, RTB MB has different strengths, but unfortunately falls to similar weaknesses. His instrumental intros and outros are solidly intriguing (with the exception of the lazy fadeout on “AF1”), but still makes sure to launch us into his verses fairly quickly. He is fast-paced and admirably confident in himself. But once again, the beats are overproduced and RTB MB refuses to stop name-dropping people.. Certain lines are more memorable than anything Dame D.O.L.L.A. shares, but there are also several moments where I could not understand a word Bridges was saying. Take a look at Genius, the most popular source of song lyrics across the Internet, and you’ll see question marks littered throughout the lyrics. To his credit, RTB MB does not rely on features as much as Dame, and his songs don’t really overstay their welcome– there’s only one song on Halftime longer than 3 minutes– but that doesn’t excuse these songs from being bland and unmemorable. Despite this, RTB MB is probably the best athlete rapper I’ve ever listened to. 

Finally, let’s talk about Zo. While he hasn’t put out a full-length album this year, I don’t think we should be too broken up about it after experiencing some of his singles. The two I listened to, “Stepped On” and “Who’s That,” are probably two of the worst tracks I’ve heard all year. The former track starts with a relatively interesting instrumental, and then Zo starts rapping on the most overproduced beat I’ve ever heard. His rhyming is uninteresting, he also doesn’t know how to enunciate, and despite being one of the shortest songs I listened to for this piece, it had me checking how much time was left in it more than any of the others. “Who’s That” was just two minutes, but again that didn’t help the song’s quality. While the introductory instrumental and opening sequence is a little interesting, there’s a frequent and irritating popping noise that makes the screaming on “God Breathed” sound like a sweet summer day. Once the drum machine comes in, it becomes clear this song is a mess. It isn’t really a traditional rap song. Zo only has one traditional “verse,” and it lasts about 25 seconds. It’s certainly unique to the rest of the NBA tracks, but that’s all the track has going for it. Overall, this song serves as a good reminder that unique doesn’t always mean good. While “Stepped On” was the worst song I listened to, “Who’s That” just feels unnecessary. Zo’s music, due to its short length, uninteresting production, and generic lyrics, feels the least professional out of our basketball trio. If Ball wasn’t a professional basketball player, I guarantee that these songs would not garner any significant attention. 

This may come as a shock, but my verdict is that NBA players are not as good at rapping as professional rappers. Even the blandness of “TSU’ by Drake is better than any NBA rap song I heard. 

But I didn’t want to submit my findings without a second opinion, so I consulted Beacon junior and J. Cole advocate Jason Ramsay for his thoughts on the tracks. Overall, he similarly thought that there was a general feeling of shallowness to the tracks, saying that “the words don’t really reach you in the way that they do with regular rappers, especially with like Kanye, J. Cole, and Drake. I feel like it’s artists like them that do a really good job about hooking you into their song and being satisfying, actually reaching you when you listen to it. When you hear Dame D.O.L.L.A, Miles Bridges, and Lonzo Ball, you don’t really get that sense.”

As for his favorite of the NBA rappers, he didn’t hesitate to choose Dame D.O.L.L.A.,  highlighting his song “Right One,” as it was “catchy, had a nice beat, and had Lil Wayne on it.” Dame’s songs in general seemed to resonate more with Jason, as he said his relative experience made it so that he knew “how to produce a song, make it catchy, make you want to listen to it again.” He even went as far as to say that it was possibly close in quality to one of the weakest of the rapper tracks in “Girls Want Girls.” 

Damian Lillard, aka Dame D.O.L.L.A.

The other two NBA rappers “don’t sound like what they’re doing as much,” to Jason. He brought up an interesting point on this when he said that their songs don’t sound like they were actually made in a studio, but instead were “homemade,” making it sound like “they don’t know how to produce a song.”

As for what the NBA players should improve for next time, Jason decided to highlight the writing, saying: “It’s just a matter of going back to your lyrics and adding something that will interest or touch your listeners. ‘Stepped On’ by Zo is just a bunch of words placed on a beat, and that’s not gonna cut it.” He also said that more time in the oven in general for these songs may be better, as the NBA tracks sounded rushed. 

Chicago Bulls point guard Lonzo Ball on the mic.

But while Dame D.O.L.L.A. was surprisingly okay and I had a good chunk of fun with an RTB MB verse or two, it wasn’t necessarily the most amazing experience. Jason summed up my feelings on the basketball rap scene almost perfectly with just three words. When I asked him if there were any NBA rappers or songs that he would say were better than their professional counterparts, he stopped for a second and then said “In realness… no.” 

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