How Kobe Bryant Got Hip-Hop to Embrace His Mamba Mentality
As hip-hop continues to experience the loss of its own artists more times than not in recent years, with the tragic passings of Nipsey Hussle, XXXTentacion and, more recently, Juice Wrld, and honors the departed posthumously, the genre has also never forgotten those people who've impacted the culture immensely while existing outside of it. On Sunday (Jan. 26), hip-hop was shocked by the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, a basketball icon, global icon and revered icon in the hip-hop space.
The former Los Angeles Lakers superstar died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Ca. on Sunday. Bryant, 41, along with nine others, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna Bryant, were aboard a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter traveling to a basketball game when the crash occurred, shortly before 10 a.m. PST. An investigation is ongoing, but reports of inclement weather in Southern California at the time of the flight may have contributed to the crash, according to officials and aviation experts.
News of his passing spread like wildfire, initially leaving many fans and the hip-hop community in utter disbelief and denial. As a result, trending topics on Twitter dedicated to Kobe Bryant took over. Bryant was positioned in five of the top trending Twitter topics within the hour that the news broke: "Kobe Died," "Kobe," "Helicopter," LeBron James passing Kobe on the NBA's all-time scoring list and "Did Kobe." Hip-hop sharing its shock and sadness of Kobe's death in real time on social media attributed to this.
The Black Mamba's death struck a chord amongst the rap game's biggest stars, who voiced their respect for him as an athlete and a person. Social media reactions from established artists like Drake, Kanye West and Lil Wayne, to younger, rising artists like Polo G, Guapdad 4000 and Kap G proved Kobe Bryant had an immeasurable impact on hip-hop. For the rap community, Bryant represented excellence in all its forms. Rappers young and old watched him break records on the court, inspiring them to pursue their own dreams with as much fervor and accomplishment. They saw themselves in Kobe Bryant in more ways than one thanks to embracing his Mamba Mentality. The fearless pursuit of being your best self. How did Bryant do this? By shooting his shot no matter the cost.
A five-time NBA champion, former NBA MVP and perennial NBA All-Star, Kobe Bryant's legacy within basketball circles is solidified and well-documented, but his impact on rap music and hip-hop culture is also one to be celebrated. Bryant has long been regarded as a hero and a source of inspiration to a number of rap artists and producers. In addition to his accolades on the hardwood, winning an Academy Award for the short film Dear Basketball, becoming an author and his other endeavors, Kobe had a long-running relationship with hip-hop that preceded his meteoric rise to fame.
Born in Philadelphia, Bryant, whose father, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, was a professional basketball player, lived abroad for much of his childhood before returning to his hometown during his teenage years. This is when Bryant's affinity for rap music created common ground for him and his classmates at Lower Merion High School. When he wasn't busy assaulting rims with his high-flying exploits and establishing himself as one of the premier high school basketball players in the country, Bryant was moonlighting as a rapper as part of CHEIZAW, a group he formed with a few of his classmates.
However, his decision to forgo college and enter the 1996 NBA Draft straight out of high school put his hoop dreams at the forefront, making a foray into rap an unlikely one. Unbeknownst to him, his aspiration to ball at the highest level and fast-track the process due to his sheer talent was viewed as bucking the system and status quo, which was something that rap fans and artists—many of which were also die-hard basketball enthusiasts—could respect and relate to. And the fact that Bryant brought R&B and television star Brandy to the prom as his date was the equivalent of having the baddest chick in the game rocking his chain in 1996. This net him additional cultural kudos before he'd even played a professional game.
He wowed fans with his victory at the NBA Slam Dunk Contest in 1997, but Bryant's rookie year would be unremarkable. However, his sophomore season saw the phenom break out, becoming the youngest player in NBA history to start an NBA All-Star Game, after being voted in by the fans in 1998. This was a testament to his approval rating amongst the youth. He also kept close to his rap roots, rhyming at a concert thrown by Los Angeles DJs Sway and King Tech, which put the spotlight on his rap skills and further ingratiated him to the City of Angels. This visibility and fanfare piqued the interest of music executive Steve Stoute, who signed Bryant and the group CHEIZAW to Sony Records. At the time, it seemed as if there were dreams of transforming No. 8 into the new Will Smith.
The idea of an athlete or entertainer capitalizing on their fame to attempt to cash in on a music career was familiar territory, but Bryant took developing his skills on the mic as seriously as refining his skills on the hardwood. Striving to be an elite lyrical genius in the vein of rappers like Canibus, with influences ranging from Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G. and A Tribe Called Quest, Bryant's plans to become the next rap savior were thwarted by Stoute and Sony, who ultimately billed Bryant as a pop-friendly, solo artist.
Kobe's rap career found him first appearing on a remix of R&B star Brian McKnight's "Hold Me," as well as an uncredited feature on Shaq's fourth studio album, Respect. His introductory single, "K.O.B.E.," was critically panned. He performed the track, which featured model Tyra Banks on the hook, live at NBA All-Star Weekend in 2000, proving that Bryant was all systems go with his rap career despite detractors. Then Sony axed Bryant's Hype Williams-directed music video for "K.O.B.E.," shelved his debut album, Visions, and ultimately dropped him from the label. But this career setback didn't knock his hustle on the court nor find him losing respect from his peers and other rappers.
Despite winning his first NBA Championship later that year and earning even more respect from the general public for his play on the court, Bryant had some competition with fellow NBA All-Star Allen Iverson. A.I. had emerged alongside Kobe and the two young stars would help usher the league into the new millennium and the post-Jordan era. In contrast to Iverson, whose cornrows, baggy attire, tattoos and demeanor resonated greatly with the hip-hop community and positioned him as a rebel, Kobe's look and image was pristine and more akin to his idol, Michael Jordan.
Iverson, who had intended to release a rap album of his own under the name Jewelz before it was blocked by the league, was viewed as the poster child for hip-hop's influence on professional athletes. This put Kobe Bryant in a precarious position and seemingly compromised his street cred in the eyes of rap fans, who admired Bryant's game on the court, but didn't associate him with being one of their own. However, Bryant's name was already a familiar one in hip-hop, with a number of artists complimenting his game and comparing Bryant's skills on the court to a rapper's own level of mastery in the booth.
One of these artists was Jay-Z, who famously referenced a photo of Shaq cradling Kobe Bryant in his arms in a line from "Breathe Easy (Lyrical Exercise)" on Hov's 2001 album, The Blueprint. Already privy to Bryant's chops as a rapper, Jigga, who met the Los Angeles Lakers star on the set of Mariah Carey's "Heartbreaker" video, had worked with Bryant's producer Russell Howard on Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter album. Howard produced the beats for "S. Carter" and "There's Been a Murder."
In addition to being mentioned in various raps, Bryant also founded Heads High Entertainment, an indie rap label focused on promoting lyrically-driven artists, around that time. Unfortunately, the label, which housed a number of artists, including New York female rapper Uneek, folded a year later.
Throughout his rise in the NBA, more championships were secured and Kobe continued to be hailed as the second coming of Jordan, but his reputation within hip-hop culture hadn't changed much. However, after Shaq's bitter split from Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004, as well as legal troubles, Bryant began to come into his own as a man and an athlete. He shed what many perceived as a contrived caricature of who he was and gave a glimpse of the man behind the mask. Bryant began getting tattoos and wearing them visibly. He was more transparent and let his feelings be known with less of a filter or regard for anyone's interpretation or feelings. And, perhaps most importantly, Kobe Bryant began publicly embracing and celebrating rap music and its artists like never before.
At the onset of his quest to win an NBA title as the unquestioned alpha and leader of a team, Kobe Bryant rechristened himself as the "Black Mamba" around 2004, likening his precision with a basketball with the snake's deadly striking accuracy. Branding his storied work ethic, discipline and determination as the "Mamba Mentality," Bryant's fixation on greatness and pushing his limits transcended basketball and athletes. He inspired creatives and talents from all industries to strive for excellence. Hip-hop most outwardly accepted him and praised his feats, both on and off the court.
One of the most vocal disciples of this way of thinking was Lil Wayne, who was evolving into a legend and leader of men around the time of Kobe's own awakening. Once perceived as a cog in an unstoppable machine before putting Cash Money on his back and staking his claim for being the best rapper alive, Lil Wayne's affinity for Kobe Bryant has been well-documented, even going as far as touting him as the greatest NBA player to ever live, ahead of Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
According to Weezy, this is largely due in part to Bryant's insane level of focus and attention to detail, which the MC mirrored during his historic mixtape run and ascension into icon status during the latter half of the aughts. As Bryant was in the gym, day after day, putting in work, so was the self-proclaimed Best Rapper Alive, who credits Bryant with helping inspire and fuel his relentless drive. The pair have spent the last decade supporting and singing one another's praises, with Weezy recording the tribute track "Kobe Bryant" in 2009, while Bryant revealed the initial cover art for Wayne's Carter V album back in 2014 on Instagram. Kobe Bryant also listed Lil Wayne among his favorite rap artists on number occasions.
The friendship between Lil Wayne and Kobe Bryant showed a change of the times. Michael Jordan's will and competitive nature were legendary in their own right, but for a generation of artists who never got to see him play in live time, yet witnessed the majority of Kobe Bryant's career and were coming of age during his prime years, No. 24 will forever trump No. 23 in their hearts, particularly when looking at Bryant's proximity to the culture.
The past decade saw Kobe Bryant's impact on hip-hop shine more than ever, with artists and fans of all ages paying homage to the Black Mamba and having the favor returned. When Kobe Bryant's final game as an NBA player in 2016 fell on the same day the Golden State Warriors were in position to set the NBA regular season record for wins, the Lakers were considered the hotter ticket by far—despite being out of playoff contention and one of the worst teams in the league that year.
In front of a crowd that included hip-hop heavyweights and close friends like Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q, and with countless other stars tuning in, Kobe Bryant did what he did best and dominated in his final game. The baller scored 60 points in a winning effort, which was a testament to his assassin's mentality and ability to perform under the brightest lights.
Following his retirement from the NBA, Kobe Bryant continued to keep in touch with various members of the hip-hop community. He and Kendrick Lamar sat down for an interview on personal growth and pursuing greatness. Snoop Dogg, who once appeared alongside Warren G in an Adidas commercial for Kobe's signature shoe back in the 1990s, gifted him with a custom car in celebration of his retirement. Drake, who shouted out Kobe amid turmoil in his marriage on the French Montana track "Stay Schemin'," has voiced his admiration for Bryant many times. And prior to his own death last year, Nipsey Hussle and Bryant connected at Crenshaw High School to support the parents of the late Trayvon Martin, proof that Bryant was truly in tune with the culture and willing to give back to it on various levels.
Kobe Bryant will remain one of the most influential athletes to impact hip-hop culture. Not only has he entertained rappers with his skillful play and awe-worthy highlights on the court, but he has motivated and encouraged the hip-hop community to reach deep down within themselves to put in the work and develop a relentless attitude and mentality—no matter the end goal. He got hip-hop to embrace his Mamba mentality by being himself.
For this, Black Mamba will always be remembered and held in high regard. The late Tupac Shakur once waxed poetic about living and dying in L.A., and while Shakur never got to fulfill that tragic prophecy, Kobe Bryant lived up to the famed rapper's words with honor and respect.
R.I.P. Kobe Bryant.
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