(January 28, 2020). Some fans of the late Kobe Bryant – the NBA legend – may recall that he also had an aspiring career as a rapper. In fact, he was a pretty decent rapper who, as a teenager, had a record deal with one of the industry’s biggest labels and could have gone on to even higher heights had he set his mind to it full time.
But unlike his stellar basketball career, where he thrived for 20 years as a Los Angeles Laker and went on to win five NBA championships to go with his two Finals MVPs and 18 All-Star team selections, Mamba’s rap career was essentially a fleeting one.
Professionally speaking, his stint with hip-hop actually began right around the same time as his day job with the NBA, but it was practically over before he won his first championship title with the Lakers in 2000.
By that time, the one-time record deal Bryant had signed with major player Columbia Records (home to acts like Barbra Streisand, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Destiny’s Child – and later Beyoncé solo – plus Mariah Carey, among many others) was on the verge of being voided. (At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, there’s a reason I did all that name-dropping: Kobe had to have some skills to be sharing label space with those heavyweights.)
The lone album he recorded for Columbia, titled Visions, was shelved after its first single, “K.O.B.E.,” didn’t test well with radio or consumers (despite the NBA star having debuted it at the 2000 All-Star Weekend that January in a dazzling, over-the-top production, and despite it featuring a young Tyra Banks singing the hook).
The album’s fate was not for lack of promotion or Kobe’s notorious work ethic, as it’s been said that Kobe put as much work into the recording of Visions as he did early in his NBA career.
The album’s co-producer Russell W. Howard told CNN on the day of Kobe’s fatal helicopter accident that the basketball great would show up to the studio after basketball practice, after training and following press interviews and still be the most prepared of all those involved in the album’s recording. He said it took Kobe a year and a half to complete Visions.
But Bryant, who had been initially signed by Sony Music (parent of Columbia) along with his local Philly group named CHEIZAW, in conjunction with the production team Trackmasters, which included a young 50 Cent among a host of other fledgling rappers, was largely – and perhaps unfairly – viewed as a novelty rap by his label after “K.O.B.E.” failed.
Despite his nascent rap career pretty much ending right then and there, Kobe had been featured on a number of tracks by other artists, including a remix of the aforementioned Destiny’s Child, plus an uncredited contribution to a track on former Laker teammate Shaquille O’Neal’s fourth album Respect, titled “3 X’s Dope.”
He even connected with a young 50 Cent as a very non-convincing thug on the song “Thug Poet” (c’mon, y’all know Kobe was too much like Will Smith to pull off that hardened image; although that beat was kinda tight). Here’s a clip of “Thug Poet”:
Kobe and Billboard chart history:
But it was his feature on another jam that got him his lone Billboard Hot 100 chart entry at the end of 1998, during a week that proved historic for the magazine and the music industry as a whole.
It was “Hold Me,” a track from R&B crooner Brian McKnight’s multi-platinum album Anytime. A Trackmasters hip-hop remix of the song featured Kobe Bryant – and rapper Tone – delivering brief verses. It was just enough to earn both rappers label credit and, in Kobe’s case, his only chart hit.
It happened on the Hot 100 chart dated December 5, 1998, a historic week for Billboard. That was the week that the trade magazine modified its chart rules to allow songs that were not available as commercial singles – that is, as CD, cassette or vinyl singles in stores – to chart on what had up to that point been a ranking that required products be available for individual purchase.
Prior to that week, the chart had increasingly become less and less a reflection of the songs that were actually popular in America due to labels withholding more big radio hits from single availability, rendering them ineligible to chart.
When Billboard changed the rules effective December 5 allowing album cuts to chart, the list was essentially overhauled with 61 titles that had not been there the week before.
That’s sixty-one (!) new songs on the Hot 100 that had not been there the week prior, an obvious record for chart turnover in a seven-day period.
One of those 61 newbies was McKnight’s “Hold Me,” featuring rapper Kobe Bryant (plus Tone from Trackmasters). The mid-tempo groove entered at No. 90 and quickly made its way up the chart: 90-68-55-43-40-35… before abruptly reversing course and falling just as fast as it had moved up. It would spend 12 total weeks on the Hot 100 before permanently exiting in March 1999.
Here’s part of Kobe’s line from it:
“Your love’s a sword
Slicing gently through my body
Burns so sweet
Blood boils when you speak
Makes me weak
But I refuse to weep
Yet when I sleep I feel tears
Trickling down my cheek…“
Who knew rappers could be so sensitive? You’d have to hear it (video below) to do Kobe’s flow some justice.
“Hold Me” wasn’t going to win any Grammys – rap or otherwise – at least not based on its lyrics. But it did grease the skids for McKnight’s follow-up single “Back at One,” which became his personal biggest hit when it peaked at No. 2 for eight straight weeks a year later.
Regarding Billboard’s historic chart rule change? It laid the foundation for an industry that for the past 21 years has relied less on what labels called “singles” and more on a song’s popularity, regardless of its source of availability. First digital download stores and now song streaming platforms and video channels allow any song to be chart eligible, whether it’s being promoted as a “single” by the label or not.
And as for Kobe?
Well, he went on to focus on his NBA career, securing those five titles and ranking fourth on the list of all-time scorers behind Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Karl Malone and LeBron James – all former or current Lakers, by the way – the latter of whom had just passed Kobe in third place the night before the Black Mamba’s untimely death Sunday.
Kobe, who will no doubt be inducted later this year into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, received a flurry of fitting tributes at Sunday’s 62nd Annual Grammy Awards ceremony, Music’s Biggest Night.
Except it was not for his music legacy.
Even the people at the Grammys weren’t expected to pull out “Hold Me” or any of Kobe’s other lost gems for their tribute segments.
Instead, we’ve got it for you right here.
Check out Kobe’s respectable flow beginning at the 2:39 mark of this video for “Hold Me,” a historic song in its own right (along with 60 others during the Billboard chart week of December 5, 1998).
R.I.P. to Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna (Gigi) and the seven others who lost their lives in that helicopter crash in California on Sunday, January 26, 2020.
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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