It's 2018. Anyone who wants to make a song can literally record themselves on their phone, slap it on a Soundclick beat, and boom: They're a "rapper."
But when athletes decide to indulge, they can usually afford to get real equipment or even rent out a studio and hire a producer. As a result, we—the sports-consuming, hip-hop-appreciating populace—are regularly blessed with off-court lyrical expression from athletes across different sports, backgrounds and even age groups. The results are not always pretty, but since the days of B-Ball's Best Kept Secret, most athletes have at least allowed fans to crack a few jokes at their expense. Which is a relief, since most professional athletes are still very much amateur musicians.
With the recent influx of athlete verses over the past year or so (let's call it a "season"), we decided to hop back into the songs of these sporty spitters to find out who actually has bars. From works in progress to radio-ready hits, these are the best lines from your favorite athletes/rappers.
(Warning: Videos may contain NSFW language)
16. Marvin Bagley III aka MB3Five—"Breathe"
I'm outchea climbing levels like I'm on an elevator/
Taking a swing at a classic Just Blaze beat when you're just moonlighting as a rapper (being 18 years old doesn't help) is a bold move, and somehow the high-profile Duke freshman doesn't totally whiff it. Bars like this one, though, betray his immaturity.
15. Cole Beasley—"80 Stings"
Makin' moves like food trucks/
gettin' to the bread 'til it's chewed up/
Cowboys wide receiver Cole Beasley has clearly listened to a lot of Eminem (and yes, that analogy applies beyond "white dude rappin', too tough," as he puts it). The technical skill is there (talking to you, Liam Neeson punchline), but cringe-worthy similes and a generic trap beat weigh down his debut track. Hopefully his debut album, due out this spring, will show a little more range.
14. A.J. Francis aka Franc—"Olympic Gold" ft. J-Lew
These owners pullin' all the strings like violins/
Making sure concussion evidence was silenced/
Francis, a journeyman nose tackle who's currently with the Washington professional football team, dropped an entire album called O.T.A (!) last year. Though he certainly exploits plenty of predictable hip-hop tropes, there's some sly subversiveness: The album art shows Francis behind "bars," only the bars are a gridiron. Shots at NFL ownership—particularly when it comes to their less-than-proactive plans to prevent CTE—are always welcome.
13. Nick Gordon aka G Cinco—"I Do It All"
I'm in your city, I know you hatin'/
My boys comin' through and we confiscatin'/
Nick Gordon—aka G Cinco, aka Minnesota Twins infielder, aka Dee Gordon's brother—makes this song work even though "I'm true to the team" is in the hook. He has a decent sense of melody, and that—plus the variations in his flow—helps the stronger bars transcend the more frequent standard-issue lyrics.
12. Le'Veon Bell aka Juice—"Winsday"
I'm like "ooh" 'bout to play the Jags, ooh/
Should I buy a Jag, too?/
Beyond freestyling about the unfairness of the franchise tag, Bell has a fairly established career as an M.C. The clear peak was "Shrimp Bayless," a long-overdue Skip Bayless diss track, but "Winsday," his latest single, has its charms. Bell favors a fairly laconic style that can be less than engaging—the conceit, though, is clever enough to get Steelers fans to buy in on iTunes.
11. Kevin Durant x LeBron James—"Untitled"
I'm feeling like the world is Skip Bayless and I'm LeBron James/
The snippet that rocked the world last fall doesn't give would-be critics much to work with. LeBron sounds extremely LeBron-ish, and the one clear line from KD—whose ability behind the mic is something of an NBA legend—is good, but the streets need more to assess this rap/basketball supergroup effectively.
10. Sony Michel aka FlyGuy2Stackz—"UGA Anthem (Remix)" ft. Rich Homie Quan
You know we gotta get the crowd pumped, quarterback made the line jump/
Referee gonna throw a flag, hit 'em in the mouth when they line up/
Getting Rich Homie Quan on your college hype track is a coup in and of itself, and the fact that running back Sony Michel's Bulldogs wound up going all the way to the national championship game definitely gives this song some extra juice. Plus, both Quan and Sony use a remarkable amount of actual football terminology: "We already won coach and done coach/pass on 4th-and-1 coach." It also seems plausible that this is the only rap song to ever correctly reference play action. The end result is a thing you'd definitely want to hear when the team is running out onto the field, and it will likely remain a part of Georgia lore for years to come.
9. Toree Thompson—"I Be Ballin'" by CO2 Da Great ft. Toree T, Ambitious RJ and Shawni Rad
Rippin' I move, grippin' the grooves/
Footwork like a dip in the pool—cold/
8. Lonzo Ball—"ZO2"
Only one year I was done with the Bruins/
Slavin' for free, I was offered to move it/
Millions of dollars, I took it, I'm human/
Let's be honest: If Lonzo Ball dropped an album tomorrow, it would land at the top of the Billboard 200 the next week. One more First Take appearance by the eldest Ball brother and his esteemed father, and you're talking Grammy contention. But despite its heavy branding, Lonzo's ode to his sneaker is pretty engaging—bonus points for #disrupting the sneaker industry, NCAA establishment and, lest we forget, the psyche of New York hip-hop fans.
7. Shaquille O'Neal aka "the original Big Shaq" aka Shaq Diesel—"Mans Not Hot (Big Shaq Diss)"
I can tell when you spit, Roadman Shaq/
You could never be me, you're not really a factor/
Doing a diss track over a parody is inherently discordant, and trying to come at Big Shaq—presently the hottest comedian rapper in the game—seems extremely old-head-ish. But Shaq kind of goes off on this one: "Why they actin' like I never rapped before/'cause I played a little bit of basketball?" He's still got it.
6. Lance Stephenson aka BornReady—”Better Believe It”
This is a hit/
Better believe it/
The content of this trap banger is fairly straightforward, but despite the fact that about 75 percent of the words are just Stephenson repeating the phrase "better believe it," he really sells the sentiment. The song makes you realize that many athletes who pursue hip-hop are missing conviction more than anything else. The rules of what constitutes a hot line have changed. We are in the era of "Gucci Gang," after all.
5. Melvin Ingram aka SupaMel—"Motivation"
I was broke down bad, I'm up now/
Wasn't concerned back then, don't give a f--k now/
Ingram says he's the best athlete rapper out. Listening to his 2017 mixtape, it's clear there's substance to his argument. Rather than rely on the alleged novelty of an athlete dropping a track (which, especially in the age of Soundcloud, doesn't really exist), the Chargers defensive end's release is fleshed out with hooks and guest verses. His voice gives him an automatic advantage—raspy and deep, there are shades of Scarface (aesthetically, not lyrically!). Tapping into classic hip-hop themes—hard work and the trials of the success it can create—Ingram has created a project that's eminently listenable.
4. Julien Turner—"XY Cell Llif3"
Cytokinesis the cycle is through/
That's when cytoplasm ends up split up in two/
Not only does this play off Lil Uzi Vert's "XO Tour Llif3"—easily one of the best songs of 2017—this biology class project by a Morehouse linebacker went viral to the tune of almost 200,000 retweets. When you watch it, the reason for the response is immediately clear: It's simultaneously perfect parody, educational and well-executed from a musical perspective. You'll find yourself singing, "If my genes go left unread, all my cells are dead."
3. Iman Shumpert—Funk Flex Freestyle
I've been in the sweats with white guys in the office/
Wearing three-piece suits just to chop about the profits/
Shump's Hot 97 freestyle last fall is superior to most of his Soundcloud. He really dives in on the almost-four-minute excursion—though Funk Flex still appears skeptical by the end. "I see you came prepared" is his response, which is more than a little shady, but it's hard to argue with the Cleveland Cavaliers guard's technical dexterity. Mostly, though, it's endearing to watch someone that famous drop the studied nonchalance and really try hard to impress an old guy with way less money.
2. Martellus Bennett aka Marty—"Take a Flight" ft. Snoop Dogg
Superhuman, Luke Cage/
Bennett boys, renegades/
It's pretty much impossible to go wrong when you have a hook from the Doggfather himself, and Patriots tight end/cartoonist/general football creative Martellus Bennett makes the most of his collaboration with a living legend. It's typically whimsical (a solid majority of his rhymes involve name-checking superheroes) and a little romantic—a nice respite from the slew of athlete raps about how hard they work and all the challenges they overcome.
1b. DJ Suede the Remix God— "Milds with that Yac" ft. Shannon Sharpe
You talkin' crazy/
You need to quit it, Skip Skip Skip Skip Skip/
This is not technically rap. It's also not technically by Shannon Sharpe. But it was the best song of 2017, and "If a frog had pockets/he would carry a knife/stab the snake/before he ate it" is undeniable lyrical genius.
1a. Damian Lillard aka Dame D.O.L.L.A.—"Run It Up" ft. Lil Wayne
I'm the Daddy Mac, Mac Daddy with hoop and rappin'/
Y'all be on your Kris Kross, hustlin' backwards/
Dame is definitely not basketball's best-kept secret—anyone who's freestyling regularly on Shade 45 has clearly established themselves as a legitimate M.C. Anyone who has two Billboard-charting albums that both feature Lil Wayne is actually a fearsome contender in the rap game. "Run It Up" is unequivocally a bop. Also: "When the lights and camera off I'mma still be 'bout that action." Any song that has a Marshawn Lynch allusion is automatically 10 times better than any song that doesn't.