Over the past couple weeks, much fuss has been made over the news that LeBron James took on the role of A&R for 2 Chainz’ latest album, Rap or Go to the League. It’s been said in the past that “every NBA player wants to rap, and every rapper wants to ball,” but the disastrous results of these misguided attempts at cross-pollination have been so well-documented, that it’s mildly surprising it’s taken this long for a rapper and an NBA player to carve out this mutually beneficial middle ground.
With favorable reviews of Rap or Go to the League indicating that 2 Chainz’ and LeBron’s experimental collaboration was a successful undertaking, it’s worth playing out the theoretical scenario in which this incites a trend.
Which specific duos of rappers and hoopers would make the most sense? What music would they create? Above all else, what would happen to the current crop of working A&Rs once all their jobs got outsourced to literal millionaires?
After a bit of brainstorming, here’s what DJBooth writers Matt Wilhite and Hershal Pandya came up with.
Eminem, A&Red by Russell Westbrook
Matt: Trying to understand Russell Westbrook is like trying to understand calculus. He's somehow amazing and maddening at once more than anyone else in the league. It is also impossible to understand if what he’s doing is even good or bad for him and his team. His polarity, however, has kept him in every basketball debate over the past eight years. We can both marvel at his existence and question if his existence is healthy for everyone else involved.
Eminem’s polarity has been his calling card since the birth of his Slim Shady alter ego. He is quite possibly both the greatest technical rapper of all-time and completely devoid of anything resembling fun as of 2019. Eminem has pivoted from being universally discussed as a pop culture figure and universally adored as a rapper, to an acquired taste that young men named Chaz and Trent guzzle down in ridiculous quantities.
An Eminem album A&Red by Russ would be equal to Westbrook going full Westbrook; an unnecessary display of effort just so everyone acknowledges just how hard he's trying. In other words, one giant lyrical miracle disaster with 12-minute tracks that rhyme things with “Michael Cohen.”
This might be the least fun album in the history of recorded music.
Hershal: You mentioned that it’s “polarity” that keeps Westbrook’s name in basketball conversations, and while that’s certainly true to an extent, I’d also add that casual fans of the game play just as important of a role in this regard. Russ is the favorite NBA player of the coworker from your office who “doesn’t watch basketball, really, but is in a fantasy league with their buddies,” not unlike how Eminem is the favorite rapper of the subconscious racist who corners you at a party to tell you that they “don’t listen to rap music, but love Eminem.”
Often the loudest voices of the room, these people may infuriatingly—through the sheer force of their collective will—push a theoretical Eminem album A&Red by Russ into the theoretical awards conversation the year it's released.
Who knows? It may even win a GRAMMY when, say, a hypothetical project A&Red by James Harden deserves it exponentially more.
Drake, A&Red by Kevin Durant
Hershal: Given his somewhat deserving reputation for hopping on and abandoning more artistic bandwagons than almost any other musician in history, it only makes sense that Drake would turn to the one player in the NBA whose legacy will forever be asterisked by his decision to abandon a flourishing ship in favor of a record-breakingly dominant franchise.
Just as Oklahoma City Thunder fans continue to tweet snake emojis at Kevin Durant to this day—keeping up the fight to brand him as a traitor nearly three years after his departure to Golden State—I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that fans of iLoveMakonnen and Ramriddlz spend their spare time doing the same thing to Drake.
In the sense that both of these entertainers appear to derive fuel from this largely unreasonable slander, there’s a palpable synergy between them. Any music they create in tandem would be filled with offputtingly aggressive lyrics that, by comparison, make the refrain “mafuckas never loved us” seem like a well-adjusted, proportional response towards reasonable criticism.
Matt: As painful as it is for me to admit as a diehard Warriors fan of 12 years, a Drake album A&Red by Kevin Durant makes painfully too much sense. They both exist within their respective realms as nomads, even if they don’t want you to believe that.
What is most ironic about their bandwagon behavior is that it isn't required. Both men are astronomically great at what they do, yet don’t seem comfortable having that responsibility. A Drake album A&Red by KD would hit an all-time record for most subliminal disses and, because it’s KD, every track would also have to include something nice about KD.
Hershal: How much do you think KD and Drake’s respective petty, moody, polarizing, and off-putting personas stem from the perception that exists in the public eye? My guess is a fair amount.
For as immensely talented and accomplished as he is, KD is decidedly uncool. I’ve never heard of anyone listing him as their favorite basketball player, and I’m thoroughly convinced that if I were ever to meet such a person, I’d later find out they were homeschooled as a child.
This isn’t drastically dissimilar to Drake, who has been the biggest artist in the world for almost 10 years now but is almost too ubiquitous to be anyone’s favorite; like how “The Macarena” is too ubiquitous to be anyone’s favorite song.
Thinking optimistically, maybe they’d be able to talk through some of these issues with one another in the studio, attain some necessary self-awareness, and then channel this introspection into Drake’s first universally regarded classic album. (Probably not.) In all likelihood, it’ll just be the album you described, filled with petty subliminals and weird boasts that awkwardly compliment KD for no reason, like “my stroke game smooth like KD’s jumpshot.”
J. Cole, A&Red by Kawhi Leonard
Hershal: J. Cole haters are an interesting breed of rap fan. They’re not preoccupied with the quality of his music, nor are they concerned with the magnitude of his cultural impact—all they care about, really, are the memes he provides fodder for.
Hypothetically speaking, if J. Cole was to spend the next year flawlessly mitigating the conflicts in the Middle East and then cap the year off by releasing the second coming of Illmatic, his detractors would still log onto Twitter to post pictures of strangers under anaesthesia with uninspired captions like “Listening to this J. Cole album like…” Hell, even some of his fans would get in on the action.
Unfortunately for Kawhi Leonard, this is a predicament he’s all too familiar with. He is a fringe MVP candidate who has, at times, single-handedly willed the Toronto Raptors into the NBA’s second-best record with his prodigious two-way play, yet the only discourse about him online is about his robotic public persona and sociopathic laugh.
If Kawhi Leonard were to A&R a J. Cole album, the pair would commiserate over this shared experience for hours, before proceeding to craft the most technically dazzling, yet somehow spectacularly unlistenable album of Cole’s career.
Matt: There would be no press release for this album, either. Hell, Kawhi might just upload it to a random SoundCloud page under an alias at four in the morning, and we all just find out about it six weeks later.
Young Thug, A&Red by Giannis Antetokounmpo
Hershal: As a committed fan who has been watching basketball for almost 20 years now, it’s exceedingly rare for a generational talent to come along and make me reconsider everything I’ve grown to believe is true about the game.
Watching Giannis Antetokounmpo traverse the length of the floor in three dribbles, it almost feels like he and his counterparts are playing on different sized courts. He navigates through space unlike any player I’ve ever seen, simultaneously nimble enough to maneuver around other players effortlessly, but also powerful enough to railroad through them when the situation requires it.
In many ways, this is exactly how Young Thug operates over an instrumental. He slithers around the beat while other rappers walk in a straight line, finding hidden pockets of rhythm and expanding my palate for melody in a way that challenges my formerly preconceived notions.
To a certain extent, Giannis might not even need to be in the studio to A&R Young Thug’s project. Thugger’s team can just play highlight reels of him in the studio for Thug to look at for inspiration whenever he feels dragged down to Earth by all the comparatively Shel-Silverstein-ass rappers he works with.
Matt: There are a few current NBA players who could fit the Young Thug mold. Steph Curry’s otherworldly, free-roaming dominance could translate with one of the most boundless hip-hop artists in history. I could even see an argument for someone like Kyrie Irving. You are right, though—the answer is Giannis for one simple reason: he understands the perfect balance of craft and entertainment value.
The best Giannis sequences on the court are when his athleticism collides with his craft, his instincts for flair and energy with genius basketball playmaking. Like Giannis, Young Thug is capable of simultaneously employing his charm and technical craft while also allowing his pure talent to run the show. He controls his vocals just enough to be coherent but transcends when it becomes clear he might just be more talented than the surrounding playmakers. It’s complete and utter chaos, in an extremely entertaining way, but it’s intended to be that way.
An album with these two at the helm would actually require very little legwork. It would take a humble player like Giannis to understand that ego would only constrain Thugger’s magic.
Pusha-T, A&Red by Joel Embiid, or Ben Simmons
Matt: A Pusha-T album featuring the wit and abrasiveness of A&R Joel Embiid would, theoretically, be the finest album we could create. As a player, Embiid might be the most underrated player in the league. He’s supremely versatile on the floor, and since finally becoming healthy has become one of the most consistent and skilled big men in the league. As a person, he’s hilarious, self-referential, charming, and conceited.
In Joel Embiid’s mind, he’s not only the best player in the league, but it would also be a huge mistake for you to ever consider anyone else as such. Both on and off the mic, this is Pusha-T's rap career in a nutshell.
Pusha-T’s music is a special blend of absurd and boastful coke raps mixed with pop culture metaphors and unrelenting charm. Just like every thing Joel Embiid does—in or outside of a game—is the best thing he’s ever done in his mind, every Pusha-T lyric feels self-assured of its own greatness. Knowing these two, they’d probably record one song with one verse.
Hershal: You bring up a lot of good points here, particularly in regard to how remarkably self-assured both Pusha-T and Joel Embiid appear to be at all times. Yet, where I depart from your take is in the granular details of how this characteristic actually manifests itself. Both parties are admittedly very self-assured, but Embiid is often self-assured to the point of delusion, leading to the occasional moments where his cocky Instagram posts come back to bite him in the aftermath of a tough loss or unfortunate posterization.
Conversely, Pusha-T’s self-assurance seems to stem from a humbler place. He appears to possess an acute awareness of where his artistic limitations lie, and he can afford to act self-assured accordingly because he never strays too far outside these bounds. He’s been the same artist for essentially two decades now, continuously making incremental progress, but never abandoning the tried and true formula that’s worked so well for him over the years.
He doesn’t sing; he doesn’t dance; he doesn’t make sexy songs for the ladies; he stays true to his brand and raps about cocaine. Can you think of a player on the Philadelphia 76ers who matches this description? I’ll give you a hint: opposing defenders give him so much space behind the three-point line that a casual witness might assume he has leprosy.
I’m talking, of course, about Ben Simmons.
Ben Simmons aversion to shooting from outside of the painted area has been well-documented. Would he be a more dangerous player if he could hit a jump shot? Sure. But even the most dogmatic believers in advanced analytics offer no rationale for a 10% three point shooter jacking up five shots a game. Simmons knows where his strengths lie on the court, and by sticking within these parameters, he gives the 76ers their best chance to win each game.
Hence, it’s Ben Simmons, not Joel Embiid, who would get Pusha-T to deliver the album of uncut coke raps his fans want from him.
Matt: These are great points, and maybe our difference in opinion here comes down to how we think both Pusha-T and Ben Simmons would view their own limitations. For me, Simmons’ self-awareness is the key difference.
In Pusha’s case, I’m not so sure he’s as careful to not overstep his abilities as it may appear. There have been plenty of overconfident Pusha mistakes in his career thus far. Remember when he rapped over that “Lunch Money” beat that sounded like someone turning the motor on in a fish tank? Or how he has a penchant for making terrible album names such as the drawn-out King Push-Darkest Before Dawn: the Prelude? These are the type of bold moves only an A&R like Joel Embiid could help steer into glory.
With Simmons, I fear we’d never get either.
Hershal: On the whole, Pusha-T possesses a lot more self-awareness than Joel Embiid, but you’re right to point out that his record isn’t spotless.
That said, I think you may have inadvertently neglected to bring up the single strongest piece of evidence for a logical creative kinship between Pusha-T and Joel Embiid: “The Story of Adidon.”
If one of the greatest distinctions between Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid is that Simmons wants to win basketball games, while Embiid wants to destroy his competitors’ lives, then it must be said that the person who released the aforementioned diss song shares more in common with the latter member of the 76ers roster than the former. Of the two individuals, it’s unambiguously clear that Embiid would be the player far more inclined to take to social media to post a picture of one of his competitors wearing blackface.
The worst imaginable outcome is that the two would form a two-headed monster, work together to craft an album that is essentially 20 songs of Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse, and then go full Ronan-Farrow-investigative-journalist on all the rappers Pusha mentions on the album, destroying dozens of lives in the process.