Off the Head like Decapitation
I reckon that most of us that have grown up listening to rap music have, at some point in our lives, known our fair share of miraculously talented freestylers. While the art of improvisational freestyling has, for all intents and purposes, lost most of its relevancy in contemporary hip-hop (for better or worse), it’s still a relatively popular social activity in certain circles and, it’s still pretty darn impressive to see someone rattle off some clever shit for a minute or so.
What’s always been sort’ve mindboggling to me is how so many of these incredibly talented freestylers were totally incapable of translating their abilities into the written rap world. And, of course, this freestyler-can’t-write-written-rap-to-save-his-life phenomenon was not confined to the realm of the unknowns. All of the fabled freestylers of incredible improvisational talent couldn’t make a good rap song to save their lives--Supernatural, Juice, Adeem, etc. How the hell was it possible that these dudes who could rap so well when they had almost no time to prepare could be so god awful when they had plenty of time to prepare?
While listening to a good friend of mine freestlying a couple years ago, it finally struck me why these dudes could freestyle their asses off, but couldn’t write a compelling verse if their little sister’s virginity depended on it: the two--freestyling and writing raps--are two completely different worlds. The dudes that are good at freestyling usually are because, besides just being clever, have a natural sense of rhythm that is expressed effortlessly when they are forced to let go of structure and just spit. They are just instinctually good rappers that find themselves incapable of tapping into that nature when they have to sit down and somehow mold their natural, structureless rhythm and flow into a rap song--something that is, by definition, based on structure.
What sort’ve drove this point home to me in further is the now confirmed rumors of folks like Jay-Z and Biggie never writing verses down. This previously struck me as relatively hard to believe, given that they were both relatively complex rappers, not just lyrically, but also rhythmically and in their deliberate cadences. But, then after stumbling upon the “great freestylers stink at writing raps because of the different structural constraints” realization I mentioned above, it made perfect sense to me that two of the most compelling rappers of the last decade wouldn’t be writing their verses down. In fact, I think a big part of what has made BIG and Hova such compelling rappers was their ability to capture their natural sense of rhythm and cadence (instead of compromising it) by spitting without worrying about writing the shit down. While it is probably impossible to prove this argument in any real convincing way, I think the fact their verses were the perfect combination of intentionality and improvisation is a huge part of what gave the two legends their incomparable swagger and skill.
Now for basketball talk.
Basketball is a game of constant improvisation. There is not one play in any game that is not at least slightly dependent on players making split-second “decisions”/responses every step of the way. In other words, the game is just one big freestyle performance with each and every player on the court improvising a verse from scratch, relying on his cultivated basketball instinct (whether “natural” or trained through practice) to make the performative decisions for him.
The one point in the game where improvisation breaks down and the game looks more like “writing written raps” than it does “freestlying” is when a team is protecting a small lead in the final minutes of a game. As a Sixers fan, I’ve witnessed time and time and time again (within the past two weeks alone) that the Sixers have gone into the final minute or two protecting a small lead, and then they wind up blowing that lead and losing the game in a heartbreaking (but, by now, predictable) manner. The reason this happens is simple enough to explain: the Sixers, lead by Allen Iverson’s primarily improvisational play, freestyle for 47 minutes or so and then decide to write a song the last minute of the game and, of course, everything falls apart.
Fact of the matter is, as much heart, guts, and sheer basketball ability that someone like Allen Iverson has, he’s simply not capable of consistently “writing a song” the same way Jordan could or Kobe can. AI’s the type of player that, at any given moment, can create a beautiful, imaginative something-outta-nothing play that leaves you as stunned as the defense, but this type of play just isn’t that effective when the Sixers want to use up 18 seconds of the shot-clock before starting their offense to protect their measly one-possession lead. (And, as an interesting side-note, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that AI went twenty-some odd years without having a “winning shot” on his basketball resume) I get the feeling that the Sixers would win a heck of a lot more games if the winner was determined by the first team to score 100 points like an extended playground game with refs.