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Pitchfork writer Alphonse Pierre’s rap column covers songs, mixtapes, albums, Instagram freestyles, memes, tweets, fashion trends—and anything else that catches his attention.
Hip-hop and high school basketball are perfect for each other
The intersection of hip-hop and high school basketball runs deep. The current close ties between the two can be traced back to 2002, when Sebastian Telfair of Coney Island, Brooklyn’s Lincoln High and this other guy named LeBron of St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio were the first high school basketball stars to appear on the cover of SLAM magazine. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s SLAM became a premier alternative destination for basketball coverage, partially through its willingness to embrace the stylistic influences hip-hop culture was having on the sport. (Around the same time, the NBA was trying to minimize that same influence.) So there were Telfair and LeBron staring out of the glossy cover with icy chains dangling from their necks alongside a headline that referenced JAY-Z’s “Takeover.” By the next year, Jay himself was in the crowd watching Telfair and Bron playing some of their final games as high schoolers.
With the introduction of YouTube high school basketball and rap became even more intertwined. Around 2008, YouTube channels HoopMixtape and Ballislife began to feverishly cover high school stars with sharply edited highlight reels soundtracked by generic hip-hop instrumentals and occasionally featuring rapper cameos. Instagram made these reels even more potent and ubiquitous: Condensed into short bursts, the clips are personally expressive and ridiculous. They also provide a better reflection of what’s popular in hip-hop—nationally and regionally—than any chart or playlist.
Take 16-year-old Mikey Williams, the third-ranked player in ESPN’s class of 2023, and now a legit celebrity. With over two-and-a-half million followers, his clips—usually set to whatever his favorite rap song of the moment is (like a Lil Uzi leak or Lil Baby’s “No Friends”) and seemingly cut together by Michael Bay’s personal editor—have become a part of following both high school basketball and rap. The same could be said for players less visible than Mikey, too. It doesn’t matter if their popularity is national, regional, statewide, or citywide, the videos will come.
And unlike Jay in 2003, it’s hardly even newsworthy to see rap stars like Drake or Trippie Redd clapping along courtside at a Sierra Canyon game now. There may no longer be a magazine cover that’s able to do the relationship between high school basketball and rap justice, but it’s still there, and it’s still growing. Here are a few of my personal favorite Instagram highlight reels from this year.
Spike Lee used a sweeping Aaron Copland score to make the basketball scenes in He Got Game feel like a dramatic outlet for the characters’ struggles. The best high school basketball highlight clips on Instagram hit a similar note. Future Syracuse point guard Dior Johnson’s finest hour may feature jelly layups, fancy passes, and Quavo courtside looking on in awe, but the mood is kept serious by G Herbo’s “Sessions.” The song includes the type of motivational lyrics high school basketball players live by: “I just ran it up, couldn’t even complain, I was built to win.”
Almost every high school basketball star loves a song about finding success amid pain and nobody having faith in their divine talent, which is why the grief-stricken rappers of the Deep South have become the perfect choices to accompany their videos. Here, lanky No. 1 recruit Chet Holmgren alley-oops and does elaborate handshakes with benchwarmers (cool handshakes are often more important than actually playing basketball in these clips) while backdropped by Jacksonville rapper Yungeen Ace’s moody single “Step Harder.”
Just like his dad, Bronny James already has a flair for being (fake) deep. His May highlight reel is edited as if it were shot on the same ancient camcorder used to record the A$AP crew’s AWGE DVD series. In the slow-motion clip, Bronny balances a few dunks with shots of him looking off into the distance like Ethan Hawke at the end of Before Sunrise. A chopped version of Drake’s “Chicago Freestyle” makes the mood feel even chillier.
Sharife Cooper’s reel is simple. He does some cool spin moves and layups, but let’s be real: This is all about the snippets of a smiling Uzi courtside at his game in Jersey. The perfect finishing touch is Pop Smoke’s vivid intro to “Christopher Walking” playing in the background.
Emoni Bates’ now deleted Instagram highlight reel is a masterpiece. Soundtracked by the saddest rapper in all of the Deep South, Rod Wave, the No. 1 recruit in the 2022 class doesn’t shoot the basketball once. Instead, he’s mostly seen on the ground screaming in pain or on the sidelines in anguish. “So much pain built up deep inside,” belts Rod Wave on “Through the Wire,” as the clip pans to Emoni losing his shit on the bench as if he regrets his pregame meal. Any high school basketball player who can create something this melodramatic is on the path for greatness.
Yung Baby Tate’s uncanny impersonation of Kamala Harris
Drakeo the Ruler’s long-awaited return
The day after Election Day delivered rare good news: After an almost three-year fight, Drakeo the Ruler was offered a plea deal and released from prison. Anyone familiar with Drakeo’s prolificacy knew that one of his first stops upon his release would be the studio. Apparently, three hours after leaving the Compton courthouse, he laid down “Fights Don’t Matter,” his official return to the L.A. rap scene. He sounds as comfortable on the mic here as he did when he made 2017’s instant classic Cold Devil. “I looked at my wrist two times and caught pneumonia,” he raps lethargically on the opening line, as if all he’s been dreaming about the last three years is draping himself in jewelry. Drakeo spends almost no time addressing the unjust situation he’s been through—instead, he’s focused on dropping the wittiest and cruelest punchlines imaginable: “I turned to Jet Li and got blood on my Boosie fade.”
Lisha G: “Krazy Lyfe”
On “Krazy Lyfe,” Lisha G sounds like she’s a ghost whispering through the walls in a horror movie. The South Carolina rapper’s single isn’t quite horrorcore, but the combination of a gloomy melody, muddy hi-hats, and her eerie delivery is enough to bring back memories of early Three 6 Mafia. The only thing holding Lisha back is the lyrics: “No, I don’t talk to the narcs/Bitch, I just play in my park,” she raps, not offering enough detail to really illustrate the lifestyle. Though the spooky mood mostly makes up for it.
Rio Da Yung OG’s bizarre collaboration with a child
Rio Da Yung OG has been threatening to rob little kids for their video games and flip over their bikes in his raps for some time now, so I was surprised to see the Flint rapper make a song with a child who doesn’t seem old enough to have learned his times tables yet. The kid, who goes by the name Lil Baby Six, mails in verse that it’s unlikely he even wrote—unless, all of a sudden, elementary school students are really into Michael Jordan and Tom Joyner references. But actually, the Rio verse is kind of cool? “What up Lil Baby Six, stay in school and stack ’cause one day you gon’ pay some rent,” he raps, offering some not-horribly-offensive advice. “Don’t have no kids till you get stable and all the way legit, especially not by no crazy chick.” If you ever wondered what a Rio Da Yung OG guest appearance on Sesame Street would sound like, here you go.
Freestyle of the week: Tisakorean
BlueBucksClan and Cash Kidd: “Aaron Judge”
BlueBucksClan’s DJ and Jeeezy are the punchline wizards of the moment in L.A., so it only makes sense for them to link up with Cash Kidd, a Detroit rapper who can turn any throwaway quip into a memorable one-liner. Over production that sounds like fists slammed on a school lunch table, the trio squeeze as many clever sports references as they can into three minutes on “Aaron Judge.” “Gary Payton, I can’t hit unless I got a glove,” raps DJ, followed by Cash Kidd, who compares their unfriendly attitudes to the Bad Boy Pistons. By far the most demented is Jeeezy, who raps, “Thick-built bitch, she my third-down back.” Though he likely means it as a compliment, it probably won’t be taken as such.
Roc Marciano’s new album includes songs called “Steel Vagina” and “Covid Cough”
The shadow of Kodak Black has loomed over almost every rapper to come out of Florida in recent years, but Hotboii is one of the few who has escaped it. On his early 2020 mixtape Kut Da Fan On, the Orlando rapper came into his own by polishing his blend of painful street tales and witty punchlines. The 20-year-old continues to flourish on his new single “Dim,” where a fairly routine Southern instrumental is elevated by his strength as a storyteller and vocalist. “I bought a home in the suburbs/I walk out the house, feel like I don’t belong there/Police harass me like every other night/Why don’t you just let me live my motherfuckin’ life?” he says in a distinctive stop-start flow, effortlessly weaving between singing and rapping. He’ll soon cast a shadow of his own.
Mac J: “Minswell” [ft. EBK Young Joc and Young Slo-Be]
In the opening scene of the music video for Mac J’s “Minswell,” the rapper holds up a printed-out Instagram photo to the camera. The picture is of Bris, one of Sacramento’s most promising and visible rappers, who was tragically killed earlier this year. Now, his memory hangs over almost every single to come out of the city. On this one, Mac J connects with Stockton’s EBK Young Joc and Young Slo-Be. The two guests set the stage, delivering grim puns through whispery flows, but the energy rises once Mac J enters the fray. Mac has a striking ability to flip between tones on a whim: Sometimes he’s darkly funny, and sometimes he reflects with frustration on the unpredictable nature of his lifestyle. “I was knockin’ at the door they let my brother in,” he raps, putting forward the same skills that made Bris so impactful.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork