If You Don't Look Good, I Don't Look Good
This morning, my distinguished colleague twitted the following about everyone's favorite char-broiled NBA lightning rod, and sub-rosa racial interloper:
lingering thought-did kobe really say "i'm an 80s baby" when asked about the artest foul? what type of bs cred is he trying to buy? (and, my standard qualification: i still LOVE kobe...it's just...what a nerd)
Now, without taking anything away from Dr. LIC's intuition—yes, this sounded contrived, and almost made you think that Kobe had planned out a semi-youthful, semi-traditionalist way of framing the situation in advance. But whatever persistent reason you may have settled on for mocking Bryant (his fake-ness, his cultural uncomfortable-ness, his personality, his self-consciousness), we're all assuming that Kobe doesn't understand where Jay-Z stands these days. It's entirely conceivable that Bryant knows that, these days, Jay is pop culture detritus, not the lingua franca of street cred. The remark was fun, flippant, and knowing, an admittedly nerdy way of evoking Jay-Z as both foundational and cliched. Being goofy with hip-hop is dangerous territory, especially for Bryant, but does the alternative—that he cluelessly tried to channel the streetz and fell flat—is to give the guy way too little credit. The only thing worse than caricaturing players is caricaturing ourselves as fans.
This feeds into what might be the most compelling mano y mano rivalry of the playoffs. No, it's not Kobe/Bron; that 1 point/minute average for James has him in a stratosphere all his own for now, especially given how easy it's looked for him. It's this Kobe/Ron Ron binary that's emerged not so much on the court (all elbows aside), but in the imagination of the public. If Bryant's slammed for tip-toeing around hip-hop, Artest is lionized as a man who walks with a cloud of Mobb Deep samples over his head whether or not he ever explicitly makes the connection. If he did an entire post-game interview with Kool G Rap quotes, bloggers would faint from glee. Never mind for a second that if you want to get aesthetic about it, Artest's hip-hop analogue is M.O.P., while Kobe can tap into a far more substantial lineage of self-serious, style-laden masters. Or that Artest is going out of his way to repaint himself as a tough player, not a hood one, going so far as to suggest that there's no essential connection between the two.
And then you have Artest faintly conspired against by the league, and Kobe riding a wave of whispers about a rigged Lakers/Cavs Finals. Not to say this has turned into a study in racial or cultural contrasts—or that it should be either—but once again, Kobe's being cast in, pardon my pun, a black/white situation. Maybe Kobe isn't as "real" as Artest, but is Artest a player driven solely by what he learned from Kool G Rap fantasies? Isn't Artest way more Bad Boys than Kobe? If all this boils down to is "Artest saw friends die on the basketball court and Kobe grew up rich," then we might as well ignore everything they've accomplished, and asserted, as professional athletes—and admittedly convoluted adults.
Do that, then you can start arguing about who belongs to hip-hop, or who hip-hop belongs to, in the NBA.