Last week, Laker guard Kobe Bryant played his last professional basketball game. He capped off a 20-year career marked by five league championships, 18 all-star selections, and countless other accolades with a dazzling 60-point performance in a come-from-behind win against the Utah Jazz. To commemorate Kobe’s last game and the end of his career, Kanye West released a limited edition “I FEEL LIKE KOBE” t-shirt on his website. The shirt is a variation on the “I FEEL LIKE PABLO” shirt he wore at the YEEZY SEASON 3 premiere/The Life of Pablo listening party at Madison Square in February. But in lieu of the red and orange motif of the original shirt, the Kobe version is in Laker yellow with purple lettering. It’s a fitting gesture to a man whose behemoth imprint on basketball is rivaled only by the influence he has had on music, specifically late ’90s to early ’00s hip hop. Bryant was at the vanguard of an era of athletes and rappers whose admiration for and emulation of one another created cultural legacies that are being cashed in today.
Kanye’s Kobe shirt is an emblematic encapsulation of the aesthetic symbiosis that hip-hop and popular American sports have shared for the last twenty-plus years. Around the time of Kobe’s selection as the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA draft, the affinity for luxury and opulence that had began to—and continues to—dominate hip hop culture was just starting to take shape. It was a time in which a premium was placed on “ballin,’”—in other words, emulating the lavish life of the wealthy professional athletes who at that timewere the first people like them (primarily young black and Latino men) to penetrate the upper-class. Kids like Stephon Marbury went, in the span of two years, from walking the humble halls of Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School to being on the receiving end of a multi-million dollar contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Nowhere is this aesthetic more perfectly exemplified than in the masterpiece that is the music video for P. Diddy’s 2001 single, “Bad Boys for Life.” In the video, Diddy and his posse descend upon a quiet suburban neighborhood —“Perfectown, USA”—and unmitigated revelry ensues. The video shows just how tightly American sports culture had already woven itself into the hip hop oeuvre. It features: Diddy playing a game of pick-up basketball with Shaquille O’Neal, a fleet of boys in sweatbands and oversized Allen Iverson jerseys blazing down a street on motorized scooters, and an ending shot of the entire Bad Boy crew on a stage wearing matching Bad Boy basketball uniforms. It’s a visual formula common to the era: one that meshes images of upward social mobility with American sport culture to symbolize the “ballin’ lifestyle.”
Flash forward to 2016. While you’ll be hard pressed to catch Drake in an XXL Raptors jersey, you might notice that the colors of the Toronto Raptors 2015/16 alternate jerseys are the same black and gold as his October’s Very Own music collective’s. You might also recall that the Toronto-native was named the Canadian, NBA franchise’s “Global Ambassador” back in 2013; a year that also saw him sign a deal with Nike’s Jordan Brand.
The longstanding connection between hip hop and sports culture is steadily becoming a more explicitly commodified one. Hip hop has arrived, hip hop is selling, and if Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers “dabbing” their way to an undefeated regular season is any indication, sports’ interplay with hip hop culture is as present as it’s ever been.
Kanye’s “I FEEL LIKE KOBE” shirt and Kobe’s departure from professional basketball both, in a way, mark the end of an era. During the early to mid-00s—peak Kobe-dom—the hip hop aesthetic pose could be described as somewhat of an upward gaze. From lyrical allusions, to drinking Cristal, to Kanye’s iconic Louis Vuitton backpack, rappers signaled their desire for wealth and elite status through their lyrics, their videos, and the way they dressed themselves. Now, the conversation is about whose gated community mansion has a larger pool. Gone are the days of rappers worrying about infiltrating “Perfectown.” They live in “Perfectown” now, and they’re setting up pop-up shops.