Rap and basketball are inextricably linked—the majority of entertainers in both fields typically hail from the same communities and grew up in the same culture. It’s more than likely that if you made it doing one, you probably had dreams and aspirations of doing the other too. As such, crossover is inevitable and endless. J. Cole’s recent stint as a pro player is an echo of the real run Master P tried to go in in the late ‘90s. Everyone from Kobe to Allen Iverson has a rap song or five to their name if not a whole project. Kevin Durant executive produced the latest Drake album. LeBron James, one of our most important music critics, also invented the deluxe track. The list goes on, but one take is universally held as fact: if we’re talking crossover success stories, Shaquille O’Neal is the Gold Standard. And he just hit everyone with a big reminder last night.
First, let’s back up: Rick Ross and Meek Mill are releasing a new album, called Too Good to Be True. The title is an accurate description of most collab projects, but this is a big deal—Ross and Meek’s reunion is as close as we’ll get to the halcyon early 2010s of Maybach Music Group, when they were one of, if not the hottest label squads out, with Ross’s roster spearheaded by Meek and DC rapper Wale minting club hits, street bangers and radio smashes with ease. It was a time when every Meek verse sounded like he needed to be extinguished after leaving the booth, Wale churned out melodic radio hits like it was nothing, and people of taste knew there was a real, credible argument to be made for Ross’ lifelong friend Gunplay being one of the best rappers out. French Montana, also at his peak, was a close family friend despite being formally beholden to Bad Boy Records. Even bemusing decisions like signing Omarion yielded an undeniable track or two (and later, in true Ross fashion, A1 punchlines admitting it didn’t work out.)
Alas, all good crews come to an end. Ross and Meek had a brief (and thankfully never that serious) period of estrangement, Wale has since departed for Def Jam, Gunplay is in and out of trouble and endorsing Donald Trump amongst other problematic behavior, and so on.
All of that is to say, while Ross and Meek have been no stranger to featuring on each other’s albums still, it’s a thrill to see them really back together, trading verses over a mean, gritty beat for “Shaq and Kobe,” mean-mugging in a music video that feels like Michael Mann directing Bad Boys 4 and in full album rollout mode up at radio stations with Funk Flex like it’s 2011 again. They kept the momentum going with an only slightly-less-hard album cut that flips Jay-Z’s classic “Lyrical Exercise.” And last night was their biggest coup yet, with a “Shaq and Kobe” remix that gets one of its namesakes back in his rapper bag. (The original song, save a “hustling 24 hours” double entendre, is light on overt NBA references and moreso just alludes to the duo’s historic dominance. Rap and ball, linked as ever.)
Nineties babies and NBA/hip-hop fans alike are all too familiar with Shaq’s rap career, which began not long after his 1992 draft to the league, peaked with his 1996 album You Can’t Stop the Reign, and petered out right before the start of the new millennium. The annals of rap history are littered with aspiring-rapper-athletes—All-Stars who despite their achievements on the court couldn’t resist the urge to be an entertainer of a similar but different cloth. Most of the music merits participation trophies at best; few ballers came as correct as Shaq did in the 90s, with albums graced by production from the likes of RZA and Erick Sermon and features from the hottest singers and rappers of the moment. Who else can boast having the first track with Jay-Z and Nas together (in ‘96 no less, what taste) or delivering a true-blue rap classic alongside prime-era Notorious B.I.G. with the titanic yet still smooth “You Can’t Stop the Reign.” It’s not even a case of letting the smooth beat ride out until you get to Frank White’s verse—Shaq is actually spitting. (Extra Credit homework: the late, great DJ Kay Slay’s underrated 2006 flip with Shaq, Papoose and Bun B.)
Google tells me Shaq’s musical output hasn’t exactly waned as much as one might think—apparently he dropped an EDM album this past summer. That’s all well and good, but Rozay and Meek have No. 34 reactivated in Shaq Diesel mode. Stylistically, Shaq was always something of a chameleon—Reign was full of laid-back Biggie-esque boasts, whereas 1994’s “Biological Didn’t Bother (G Funk Version)” pretty much telegraphed itself as a 2Pac homage right there in the parenthetical– but if there’s anyone well-suited to try on Rick Ross’s booming grandiosity for size, it’s Shaquille, and that’s exactly what he does with a verse that from the sounds of it, may have had some help from Ross (an underrated ghostwriter in his own right) himself. But don’t worry if Shaq writes rhymes, because the bars are full of heatchecks he’s more than capable of cashing.
Diesel wastes no time getting to brass tacks, starting off with “While I sit on my throne/ I reminisce at how long I been in my zone” and skating to Rozay-esque shit-talking like “Foreign ’round, flyin’ spurs like when I bullied Duncan.” (He didn’t have to do JNCO Tim like that.) By the time he’s bragging about getting cars “custom at the dealer so I fit the wheel” and vowing to “bring the drama til he’s with the Mamba,” it’s clear Rick and Meek had Shaq in the studio summoning his ‘90s Diesel days in between bottles of Belaire. To honor the moment, Ross, ever the savvy marketer, delivered the verse to Flex for a trademark bombed-out premiere, and also visited the Inside the NBA studio to ice Shaq out with an MMG chain.
True to the spirit of the single, Shaq’s veteran big-man energy is buoyed by a hungry young shooter still in his prime: Damian Lillard plays Meek to Shaq’s Ross with a pretty impressive verse. Dame may not have a “Reign” to his name (yet), but in terms of pure technical skill he’s probably up there as one of the best NBA rappers, not just right now but historically; his approach to the craft is as serious and straight-faced as he treats his game. It’s an impressive showing from the new Milwaukee Buck—I’m always here for a “Kick, Push” reference—but Shaq’s shadow on this one is, rightfully so, inescapable.
Fun, obvious-but-clever moves like asking Shaq to rap on a song referencing him are the kind of moves only afforded by engaging in an actual album rollout. If Too Good to Be True dropped out of the sky, the conversation would’ve burned bright and fast; instead Rick and Meek have made this a hot fall. What do they have up their sleeves next? My personal moonshot is that they grabbed the GOAT to try and recreate some of this magic—but so far, their album is living up to the title.