2Pac’s birthday, GOATs and how we get hip-hop wrong Tupac’s place in hip-hop history was never about being the best rapper. It was always about his artistry.

June 16 would have been Tupac Shakur’s 48th birthday, and the iconic rapper’s legacy is still one of music’s most lauded — and one of its most contested.

Recently, author/commentator Marc Lamont Hill stirred a semi-hornets nest by declaring 2Pac “the most overrated rapper in the universe” on BET’s Black Coffee. “2Pac is overrated” sits alongside “the Beatles are overrated” as one of those “unpopular opinions” that have actually been quite pervasive for quite a long time. And, almost every time this conversation plays out, it reveals more about how we appraise greatness than it says about the uber-popular artist being slammed. 2Pac’s mythologized status makes him an easy target, and Hill’s co-hosts’ cries of outrage and disgust let him know they did not agree with his take.

“I know you love what Pac stands for!” Hill acknowledges to the others. “But actually rapping?!”

Tupac, seen here onstage at the Palladium in New York on July 23, 1993, is one of hip-hop’s most revered artists.

Photo by Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

That’s almost always where the “2Pac is overrated” opinion starts. To be sure, 2Pac has never been the kind of lyricist that Jay-Z, Rakim, Biggie, Andre 3000, Big Daddy Kane, Kendrick Lamar, Black Thought, Big Pun and lots of other upper-echelon rhymers are. His early rhymes are almost alarmingly stiff and basic, and his later flow, while much more nimble and fluid, relies more on his melodicism than verbal agility. But 2Pac’s place in hip-hop history was never about him being the best at rapping, it was always about his artistry. And at some point in conversations about hip-hop greatness, the appraisal of artistry took a back seat to the critique of ability.

“Greatest of all time” (“GOAT”) conversations can be both fun and tiresome, the kind of barbershop debate that can go on for hours but has become the de facto way for too many actual platforms to appraise greatness. Disseminators are supposed to be a bit more thoughtful about these things, but even the most celebrated of rap commentators can sometimes have a reductive lens when it comes to canonizing the genre as a genre. To be certain, hip-hop has never been just a genre, but the ways in which we’ve underserved it as a genre specifically speak to how oversimplified our view of it has remained. And it’s apparent in how we see “greatest rapper” conversations.

At some point, in conversations about hip-hop greatness, the appraisal of artistry took a back seat to the critique of ability.

In the 1980s and ’90s, rap groups were among the biggest acts in hip-hop, so any “greatest hip-hop artists” lists would have included Run-DMC, Outkast, Wu-Tang Clan, etc. But because we’ve oversimplified the conversation as “greatest rappers,” it’s led to further muddying. “Greatest rapper” suggests a ranking/appraising of individuals. Can you extract individual members even if they’ve never released a solo album? That’s fine if you’re focused on rhyming ability — you can tell if someone can rap regardless of whether they’re solo or in a group. But if you’re appraising legacy/discography, you can’t give the entirety of that legacy to someone who was just one facet of what was a collective.

When discussing the “GOAT,” so many people don’t seem to consider that “greatest rapper” is an insufficient and cloudy distinction. Is that the artist you feel was greatest at rapping or is it the artist you feel has the greatest artistic legacy in hip-hop? Because greatness in hip-hop, like every genre, isn’t limited to a specific skill set. There are lots of people who can rap better than Gucci Mane, but Gucci Mane’s artistic legacy (quality of discography, the impact of that discography and scope of creative influence) is fairly untenable. If 2Pac was never rated so highly because people thought he was a supreme lyricist, that shouldn’t be grounds for calling him “overrated.” He was never “rated” so highly because of that in the first place.

The constant conversation around 2Pac as lyricist also seems to suggest that Pac is the only legendary figure in hip-hop who isn’t a top-tier rhymer. Artists like Too $hort and the late Pimp C are widely respected, but it’s not necessarily because they spit Black Thought-level bars. DMC has one of the most iconic hip-hop voices ever, but it’s apparent that Run was always much more dexterous on the microphone. The entirety of No Limit’s late-’90s roster (excluding Mystikal, Fiend and Mia X) was stacked with rappers of questionable ability. Chuck D is no slouch on the mic, but is he what you think of when you think of the most skilled lyricists? If we recognize that these legends’ skill as rhymers isn’t what totally defines their respective legacies, it’s hard for me to understand why 2Pac doesn’t get such allowances.

Appraising hip-hop greatness should not be about ranking who can rap the best; if you want to have that conversation, a “greatest MCs/lyricists” list works just fine. But just as there’s a difference between “greatest rhythm and blues singers” and “greatest R&B artists” (see also “greatest rock guitarists” and “greatest rock artists”), there is a difference between “greatest MCs” and “greatest hip-hop artists.” Critiquing the artists focuses more on their body of work and impact, less on specified skill proficiency. We should embrace that mindset more in hip-hop.

In the late 1990s, The Source published a “100 Greatest Albums” list that recognized the classic albums from the previous 20 years of hip-hop history. It was a great issue, with one of the all-time great covers: a pic of a brazen LL Cool J holding five mics. I remember picking up that issue eagerly and feeling like hip-hop had achieved a certain place; it was now a mature genre, old enough to go back through its history with a long lens and start canonizing that history. But as media moved from print to the web and as our attention spans got shorter, such lists started to change. I saw less “100 Greatest” and more “Top 5” and “Top 10.” I saw less that emphasized history and lineage and more that focused on “hottest rapper in the game” and “richest rappers.”

2Pac’s ability to meld social awareness, street bravado, ladies’ man come-ons and party raps proved to be a template that so many have attempted to follow in the decades since; his fatalism fetish and self-mythologizing are just as influential.

There was definitely canonization of the artistic merits of artists and music, but it seemed to take a back seat to easy rankings designed to spark debate or just to stroke our fetish for vicariously basking in the luxuries of celebrities. That condensed canonization led to a dumbing down of our conversations around this genre as a genre. As a result, nuances like “great rapper or great hip-hop artist” fell by the wayside as we rushed to name an easy “G.O.A.T.” without ever distinguishing between technical prowess and creative legacy.

As an artist, 2Pac is one of hip-hop’s most revered, as Hill himself acknowledged. His artistic legacy deserves that reverence: 2Pac’s ability to meld social awareness, street bravado, ladies’ man come-ons and party raps proved to be a template that so many have attempted to follow in the decades since; his fatalism fetish and self-mythologizing are just as influential. His brief career yielded a three-album run that still stands alongside the best in hip-hop (Me Against the World, All Eyez On Me, The Don Killuminati) and one “group” effort that should be mentioned way more (1994’s Thug Life: Volume 1).

He’s also been overly sanitized for the sake of easy martyrdom and hypermythologized to the point of caricature. But in this age of “I said what I said” hyperbole and overstatement, it’s easy to hurl gigantic rocks at our most popular figures. Is 2Pac overrated? Yes, but not uniquely so. And, as these things often do, the backlash against his legacy is leading to him becoming underrated by those eager to dismiss him as a mediocre artist just because he couldn’t rap as well as some others. If that’s not what your legacy is in the first place, then it sounds like building a straw man, offering an arbitrary dismissal. Hip-hop warrants more nuance than that.

Raptors superfan Drake is the NBA’s biggest celebrity playoff antagonist — and he won’t stop anytime soon From trolling the Greek Freak to massaging Nick Nurse’s shoulders, Drake has made himself part of the Eastern Conference finals

There are many ways to look at Drake taking home the award for best supporting actor in a (postseason) drama. The great majority of which are true.

Are his courtside antics grating? Sure. Are they corny? Hilariously, yes. Was massaging Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse’s shoulders awkward? Yes, but it likely doesn’t even rank in the top 20 most cringeworthy moments of Drake’s career. Love and despise him, because people do both, his moment with Nurse was a quintessential “Drake going full Drake” moment.

Drake has long been a master at media manipulation and always understands where the camera is. The past week was nothing more than an affirmation. Has he officially taken the mantle as Spike Lee’s heir to most polarizing courtside celebrity? Yes. Drake is the NBA’s most recognizable overzealous superfan.

The Canadian rapper is back in the news for his imprint on the 2019 Eastern Conference finals. First, he helped Gucci Mane live up to his rhymes from “Both” — “I got so many felonies I might can’t never go to Canada/ But Drake said he gon’ pull some strings so let me check my calendar” — as the 1017 Brick Squad impresario, wearing a Giannis Antetokounmpo jersey, took in Game 3 on the wood at Scotiabank Arena. Their 2016 collaboration, not so ironically, was certified three times platinum this week. Then he mocked, taunted and laughed at the Milwaukee Bucks superstar for missing free throws and waved goodbye. On Tuesday during Game 4, he gave Nurse that eye-opening in-game massage, which ignited a firestorm of debates over etiquette and conduct. Drake’s now public enemy No. 1 in the Cream City for simply being, well, Drake. The superfan who acts just like a superfan, only he’s one of the most recognizable people in the world.

The entire shtick is equal parts objectively annoying (to the other team and his critics) and artistically hilarious. It was no surprise to see the series take a turn for the petty Thursday night in Milwaukee. Mallory Edens, the daughter of Bucks’ owner Wes Edens, was seated courtside next to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers wearing a Pusha T t-shirt. The nod to the Virginia MC was a flashback to a year ago when Drake found himself behind the eight ball for the first time in his career with a heated and highly personal beef with Pusha that involved Drake’s son, a rumored adidas deal gone awry and a picture of Drake in blackface. Eden’s wardrobe was a solid response — the franchise’s best rebuttal so far — that was diluted by the Bucks’ 105-99 defeat, which put them one loss away from elimination.

Wearing a Pusha T t-shirt, Mallory Edens attends Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs against the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors on May 23, 2019 at the Fiserv Forum Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

“There’s certainly no place for fans — or whatever Drake is for the Raptors — on the court,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said on a Wednesday conference call. “There’s boundaries and lines for a reason.”

Antetokounmpo’s former European agent carried the same energy. “Imagine a gig & an athlete on VIP seats, right next to the band, stands upon the stage just to show off during the entire game, knowing cameras are on him, occasionally even massaging the singer,” Georgios Dimitropoulos, a senior executive at Octagon, said in a since-deleted tweet. “Security & him both allow it. Never seen anything as disrespectful as this before …”

Drake responded via Instagram through a series of emojis and a live broadcast that showed him liking a comment in support of his actions. And following Toronto’s Game 5 victory, Drake took to his Instagram Stories to poke fun at Budenholzer and the younger Edens, telling the latter, “All is far in war and war and trust me I’ll still get you tickets to OVO Fest.” Anyone familiar with Drake and how he moves understands this is all part of the blueprint. Just as he remained strategically silent about Kanye West’s demands that he dispel rumors of an affair with Kim Kardashian last year, Drake didn’t directly address Budenholzer’s or Dimitropoulos’ comments, allowing the pendulum of media momentum to stay in his court. For now, at least.

Canadian rap artist Drake (R, rear) yells at Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (L, front) after the NBA Eastern Conference Finals Game 3 basketball game between the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Canada, 19 May 2019.

EPA/WARREN TODA SHUTTERSTOCK OUT

There are three undeniably important days in the Raptors’ 24 seasons. The first was June 24, 1998, when the team traded No. 4 pick Antawn Jamison to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for the fifth pick, Vince Carter. The second came 20 years later when the Raptors traded Toronto favorite DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard on July 18, 2018. And the third was Sept. 30, 2013, when the Raptors named hometown kid turned superstar rapper Aubrey Drake Graham as their global ambassador. If it sounds ridiculously foolish, it’s only trumped by how ridiculously accurate the job title has since become.

Despite a season of adverse player-fan interactions, many of which had racial undertones, Drake’s courtside antics do little to affect the league or the Raptors negatively. He didn’t violate any sort of NBA policy for his interaction with Nurse. And judging by its past actions, the league isn’t giving Drake a hometown pass.

In 2014, the Raptors were fined $25,000 after Drake made what the league considered a public recruiting pitch to Kevin Durant, who attended his OVO Festival in Toronto. Last year, both the NBA and the Raptors warned Drake about his behavior after a verbal confrontation with then-Cleveland Cavaliers center Kendrick Perkins.

Drake hugs Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on May 19 in Toronto.

Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Drake vs. the Bucks is yet another twist in Drake’s interest in sports. The games and the athletes who play them are frequent muses in his music. And being recognized in a Drake song is pop culture gold. “I made it, I made it,” said Stephen Curry, quoting Draymond Green’s excitement over being name-dropped in Drake’s “Summer Sixteen.” “ ‘First All-Star Game and I got into a Drake song.’ ”

The flip side is that the internet will never let Drake live down his air ball — while in the layup line! — during Kentucky’s 2014 Big Blue Madness. Then there’s the Drake curse, which has allegedly affected the likes of Serena Williams, Conor McGregor, the Alabama Crimson Tide, the aforementioned Kentucky and others. Some New York Giants fans blamed him in part for wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s mercurial moods. As coincidence collided with fate, Drake sat courtside at Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals when Kyrie Irving and LeBron James each went for 41 points — and kick-started the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history. But the hex was so deep even Drake believed in the energy as he wore Philadelphia 76ers shorts during Toronto’s Game 7 instant-classic victory earlier this month.

Like Lee, Drake is no stranger to the rush of vitriol against him. He’s also no stranger to inserting himself on to the NBA’s biggest stages. This marks the fourth consecutive postseason where Drake has become a subplot — others might say “antagonist” — during the playoffs. While taunting both Irving and James via, yes, Instagram in 2016, Drake watched his Raptors fall in six games — with James giving Drake an earful in the process. A year later, James not only again led the Cavaliers to victory over the Raptors in the playoffs, he offered to buy Drake margaritas after the game to soften the sting. In 2018, the tide temporarily shifted in Drake’s favor as he trolled John Wall and Kelly Oubre Jr. during Toronto’s first-round series victory over the Washington Wizards. This year, he taunted 76ers superstar center Joel Embiid, mimicking his airplane gesture in this year’s Eastern Conference semifinals.

Drake attends Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers on May 7 in Toronto.

Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images

All of the taunts, gestures and boisterous sideline dances could come back to haunt Drake should the Raptors fail to win either Game 6 or 7. And a new crop of Drake memes and GIFs will populate the internet. But understanding that Drake isn’t just a famous fanatic is part of the calculus in understanding why he acts the way he does. For starters, Drake’s not just a fan. “Been flowin’ stupid since Vince Carter was on some through the legs, arm in the hoop s—,” he reflected on “Weston Road Flows.” “I got a club in the Raptors arena,” he barked on his “30 for 30 Freestyle,” “Championship celebrations during regular seasons. F— all that rap-to-pay-your-bill s—,” he waxed on the Grammy-nominated “0 to 100/The Catch Up,” “I’m on some Raptors pay my bill s—.” This is a business investment.

His $7,000-per-year, invitation-only Sher Club (named after his maternal grandparents) sits inside Scotiabank Arena. Both Drake and the Raptors are donating millions of dollars to modernize local basketball courts and to Canada Basketball. Part of his “I’m Upset” video, which has nearly 100 million YouTube views, was filmed at center court of Scotiabank. Canada’s The Sports Network said Drake “is one of several factors responsible for legitimizing the organization in the eyes of the league’s primary demographic and many of its players.” Of those players, DeRozan said it was Drake who played the role of amateur therapist and helped him through the shock of being traded. “Just to hear the words that come from him being the person that he is in this world, especially in Toronto,” DeRozan said. And then there’s his overall economic impact on the city. A 2018 Vice News Tonight report concluded Drake is worth $440 million annually to Toronto’s economy, 5% of the city’s $8.8 billion tourism industry, because “he’s helped to rebrand the city. He’s kind of made himself the same as Toronto.”

None of this excuses anything Drake does from his courtside seat. But it gives some insight as to why. He acts the way he does because he’s fully aware of the weight his name holds in the city. He’s involved with the Raptors’ growth both financially and culturally. And he’s now part of the theater that the Eastern Conference finals have become because it’s no longer just about basketball. For some, there’s genuine joy in seeing Drake double down on his antics. For others, there’s pure disdain as they impatiently await his emotional downfall. But everyone feels some type of way. That’s a cultural moment. Drake’s got the sports world in their feelings.

Zion in Atlanta would be a win for the culture The Hawks landing the No. 1 pick is a long shot. But Williamson would be a good match with the young, disruptive culture of The A.

Don’t try to tease Atlanta with a good time. It is, after all, the city that birthed the phrase “turn up.” Whose residents bear the name of a genre-shifting rap album (ATLiens). Where the nightlife has long been the script of urban legends. Come Tuesday evening, the city will await the results of the most important non-Powerball sweepstakes in recent memory: the NBA draft lottery — or, as it’s otherwise known, the right to draft Zion Williamson.

Landing Williamson is a long shot. (The Atlanta Hawks have a 10.5 percent chance of acquiring the top pick, good for fifth behind New York, Phoenix, Cleveland and Chicago.) That hasn’t stopped ATLiens from wishing upon a lemon pepper wet wing, of course. But Williamson and Atlanta differ from, say, LeBron James and Cleveland because Atlanta doesn’t need Williamson to reroute the city’s future. Atlanta is the best cultural destination for Williamson because this majority-black metropolis is already the mecca for black excellence, a modern-day mashup of the Harlem Renaissance and Sweet Home Chicago.

“Cleveland had their moment with LeBron. New York’s always had [the hoopla]. But it’s Atlanta’s time. We’re welcoming of new, young and talented people,” said Larry Luk, a Hawks enthusiast and head of brand at Localeur, a crowd-sourced recommendation platform for travelers. “Zion Williamson fits that mold.”

Williamson’s pedigree is public knowledge. He was a high school cheat code whose mixtapes gave him a Lil Wayne-like aura. His one season at Duke University only added to the anticipation and debate surrounding his future. He was the talk of the town at this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend. He’s been compared to James in terms of hype and to Charles Barkley, Blake Griffin and Larry Johnson as far as body type and athleticism. By season’s end, Williamson became only the third freshman to win the John R. Wooden Award, given to the country’s best player, and the third freshman in the last 20 seasons, along with Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, to amass 500 points, 50 blocks and 50-plus steals. Williamson’s every step (and shoe explosion) is a modern-day Truman Show.

For decades, New York was the most important place for America’s black culture, the site of the Harlem Renaissance, home court to both Malcolm X and Dapper Dan and the birthplace of hip-hop. But from Atlanta’s role in the civil rights movement to its rise to the apex of hip-hop’s leaderboard in the late ’90s and early 2000s, “The A” has reached a cultural zenith. LaFace Records, which introduced household names such as TLC, Usher, Jermaine Dupri, Ciara, Outkast and others, helped craft the sounds of both rap and rhythm and blues not in New York or Los Angeles. Andre 3000’s proclamation, “The South got something to say!” at the 1995 Source Awards is widely accepted as the most prophetic statement in rap history. Freaknik, the Atlanta-based spring break phenomenon, became black America’s most fabled party.

“It’s funny answering [why Williamson fits culturally],” said longtime Hawks fan and Atlanta hip-hop historian Maurice Garland, “because Atlanta’s culture is already pretty solid.”

Tory Edwards is an Atlanta-based filmmaker whose credits include work on Selma, Being Mary Jane, the Raw Report street DVDs and the 2014 documentary ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game. He’s also one-fourth of 404-derived civic and content collective Atlanta Influences Everything. He says bringing Williamson to Atlanta makes sense for one symbiotic reason: The city has always had one constant in its pursuit of cultural dominance — disruption.

“Just like Atlanta, who he is and what he represents is disruption,” Edwards said. Williamson is “something fresh and aggressive, and I believe Atlanta is going through its own renaissance.”

The city’s music scene reads like a list of high school superlatives: The aforementioned Ciara, Outkast, Dupri, Usher and TLC, plus Dungeon Family, Monica, T.I., Gucci Mane, Childish Gambino, Travis Porter, The-Dream, Goodie Mob, Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, 21 Savage, Pastor Troy, Ludacris, Future, Young Jeezy, Young Thug, 2 Chainz, Migos and countless others.

The film industry, in almost a reverse gold rush, has planted flags in Atlanta. ATL, which starred natives T.I. and Big Boi as well as Lauren London, was a 2006 coming-of-age-in-Atlanta film that used one of its storied landmarks, the Cascade Skating Rink, to establish its local legitimacy nationwide. In 2016, more feature films were shot in Georgia than in California — Time magazine dubbed Atlanta Hollywood’s “Southern campus.” More recently, Donald Glover’s Atlanta, in just two seasons, is already a generationally important series. Its nightlife scene, spearheaded by strip clubs such as Magic City and Blue Flame, has given the metropolis an independent identity.

Zion Williamson drives in for a dunk against St. John’s during the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 02, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 91-61.

Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

But beyond that, and perhaps what Edwards sees as a natural fit for the Southern-born Williamson, is its youthful energy. From black painters such as Fahamu Pecou to Orchestra Noir (which held court at Cardi B’s baby shower), an active and aggressive arts scene not only lives in Atlanta, it’s thriving.

“I think Atlanta just continues to disrupt culture and influence the world,” Edwards said. “I think Zion is a perfect match.”

“From an art and fashion standpoint, we haven’t really had a guy in town that had a signature sneaker that anyone cared about wearing since [Deion Sanders’ Nike Air Diamond Turfs],” said Luk. “Zion’s signature shoe in Atlanta would be worn by everyone if he was a Hawk, including myself.”

With a 1,000-watt smile and a forthcoming sneaker deal that’s expected to shatter anything before it, Williamson is already his own economy. And if there’s one city that appreciates the black dollar, it’s Atlanta.

“What I’ve noticed is a lot of young black entrepreneurs budding in Atlanta,” said ATL-based blogger and Spelman alumna Jameelah Johnson. “There’s so many ideas and so many young people. It’s the colleges that are here, like Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta,” as well as Georgia State and Georgia Tech. “It’s just amazing how much talent and knowledge there is for young people.”

Andre 3000 (left) and Big Boi (right) of Outkast perform onstage at the ONE Musicfest on Sept. 10, 2016, in Atlanta.

Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Rooting for Atlanta sports teams hasn’t been the easiest job in the world. The city is still haunted by the Falcons’ Super Bowl loss in 2017. (Seriously, don’t say, “28-3” in many places. It’s still too soon.) In the 1980s, Dominique Wilkins, “The Human Highlight Film,” was one of the most exciting players in the NBA. But the team hasn’t won an NBA title since 1958, when it was based in St. Louis. In the ’90s, Deion Sanders and Andre Rison made the Falcons the hottest ticket in town (although the team finally advanced to its first Super Bowl in 1999 with Jamal Anderson and Terance Mathis). The Braves had a majority-black infield and outfield in the ’90s that was hugely popular in Atlanta’s black community.

The city has been brutally criticized for its sports apathy. But that narrative is being rewritten by the new MLS franchise with its attendance numbers north of 70,000, recruitment of fans of color and a commitment to LGBTQ inclusivity. Last year, Atlanta United FC captured the city’s first professional title since the Braves won the 1995 World Series.

Even the slim chance of the Hawks landing the top spot in June’s draft is building Hawks fervor. “This city is dying for a superstar,” said DJ X-Rated, who works at several spots, including Allure, Magic City and XS.

“If Zion were to come to the Hawks, that would probably be the biggest thing since Dominique as far as a real star is here. Not just a good player, but a person that has real star power,” Garland agreed. “To a degree, Trae Young is that right now. This is the most I’ve ever seen Hawks basketball talked about in a long time, and we didn’t even win a damn thing.”

John Collins (left) and Trae Young (right) of the Atlanta Hawks shake hands after a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Feb. 27.

Photo by Jasear Thompson/NBAE via Getty Images

The Hawks finished this season 29-53, a five-win improvement over last year’s campaign. Young, a Rookie of the Year finalist, and second-year forward John Collins are already one of the league’s more exciting tandems, with both averaging nearly 20 points per game for the season. Kevin Huerter, who also just completed his rookie season, shot 38 percent from 3-point range — and won the respect of the recently retired Dwyane Wade.

A different energy pumped through the veins of State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta this season. Part of it had to do with the commitment to providing a different experience, with restaurants such as the city’s famed J.R. Crickets, a courtside bar and even Killer Mike’s barbershop. At the base of the excitement, though, was the product on the court.

“It’s like, ‘Oh … we got [one of] the leading scorers from college last year on the team [in Young]. It was exciting things happening,” said Garland.

“When [the Hawks] started clicking at the end of the season, it got crazy. They would lose games, but it wasn’t like they were really losing. You could see what they were putting out there,” said Johnson. “You’re like, ‘Wow, this team could actually do something. And they’re still young.’ So to see something like that is just inspiring.”

From left to right: Lakeith Stanfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks and Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles from Atlanta.

Matthias Clamer/FX

In an Atlanta version of utopia, Young leads fast breaks for years to come with Huerter sprinting to the corner, Collins flanked on one wing and Williamson on the other. “How do you defend that?” Johnson said with a laugh. “No, seriously, where do you go?”

The answer to that last question for Atlanta fans is easy: to the game. Not since James in 2003 has there been a player with more intoxicating potential and every-household marketability. Williamson is the first high school megastar of the Instagram era to surpass the unrealistic level of expectations — at least so far. College basketball ratings were up 15 percent this season on ESPN and 30 percent for Duke, in large part because of Williamson. Jay-Z, James and former President Barack Obama were all seated courtside within a month of each other to see the show in person.

“He’s the first athlete to really grow up like that in the social media spotlight from a young’un. If you’re on Instagram, you were like, at one point, ‘Who’s this dude dunking on all these little white kids, man?!’ ” said Garland. “Even rappers that may not even be big sports fans, they know who dude is. This is the dude Drake was riding hard for.”

Even those just marginally attracted to the pageantry will be tuning in Tuesday night. It’s not a matter of getting too excited before an inevitable letdown. With potentially two top-10 picks this year, Atlanta is in perhaps the best win-win scenario in the lottery. But the ultimate prize is No. 1 — Williamson’s jersey number and the draft position. “If [Williamson] comes here, everybody is gonna come,” says Edwards. “The city’s coming up.”

Still, it’s not as if Atlanta needs Zion Williamson to establish itself. And it’s not as if the Hawks need Zion Williamson either. ATLiens acknowledge what he can do for them. But they also know what the city, the culture and the creativity here can do for Williamson.

“Atlanta is the perfect breeding place for young talent,” Johnson said. “You just have people here trying to start new things. It’s the perfect place for someone like [Williamson] to come and to start his career.”

An oversized backboard and basketball hoop are seen on a billboard in front of the Atlanta City skyline during practice prior to the NCAA Men’s Final Four at the Georgia Dome on April 5, 2013 in Atlanta.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

How Meek Mill opened Sixers owner Mike Rubin’s — and so many others’— eyes to a broken criminal justice system From counted out to counted on: The rapper’s new freedom comes with reality’s nightmare — and a chance to change lives

And why I’m rappin’ like I got somethin’ to prove…

— Meek Mill, 2017’s “1942 Flows


Meek Mill told him. Meek made clear the harsh realities of the criminal justice system. Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin only wishes he had believed Meek sooner.

But now of course, Rubin — billionaire entrepreneur and minority owner of the New Jersey Devils and Crystal Palace FC, as well as the Sixers — has entered the pop cultural lexicon because of his close friendship with the Philadelphia MC born Robert Rimeek Williams. The two met while sitting courtside at the 2015 NBA All-Star Game in New York City.

But 48 hours before the Sixers’ season officially ended with a 114-112 Game 5 Eastern Conference semifinal loss in Boston, Rubin leaned forward over a round table in the Director’s Lounge at Wells Fargo Center. It was an hour before Game 4’s tipoff and VIPs maneuvered, ordering specialty cocktails.

But Mike Rubin is thinking back to conversations he and Meek had about the polarity of their realities. “Meek used to always say to me, ‘There’s two Americas.” I’d be like, ‘Dude, there’s one America.’ He was right,” Rubin says. “I was wrong. There’s America, and then there’s black America. I didn’t agree with him, but he proved to be right.”


Meek Mill’s lawyer, Brian McMonagle, who represented Bill Cosby before removing himself from that case, knew something was off when he entered the Philadelphia courtroom of Judge Genece E. Brinkley. Everyone was nervous, especially Meek. McMonagle saw six sheriff’s deputies. The hair on the back of his neck stood up.

“That told me she’d made her mind up, independent of any argument she was about to hear,” McMonagle says from his 19th-floor office overlooking Rittenhouse Square. It’s at “the heart of Center City’s most expensive and exclusive” neighborhood, essentially an alternate universe away from the North Philly blocks that cultivated Meek. “And obviously once you heard the sentence, it was like a punch in the throat.” On Nov. 6, 2017, Meek Mill was sentenced by Judge Brinkley to two to four years in the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill on a probation violation. Dirt bike riding (popping wheelies) was involved.

An entire courtroom was in shock. Meek immediately began removing his jewelry. For McMonagle, it was the first time in his 33 years of practicing law that he, the district attorney and the probation department were all on the same page — and the judge refused to accept the will of the parties. The case sparked national headlines and inspired rallies and the hashtag #FREEMEEK, simultaneously providing yet another glimpse into a criminal justice system that had haunted Meek since he was 19 — and the community from which he comes for far longer.

“They talking about ‘Free Meek’ and some of them got family members in jail? They supported me?”Meek Mill

During his time in the belly of the beast, Meek became larger than just a cult-y musical icon in his hometown of Philadelphia. He became a local sports Yoda. His 2012 “Dreams & Nightmares (Intro)” had long been revered in hip-hop circles for its energy, fearlessness and unabashedness. So it made sense that the Eagles adopted the record as their theme song en route to the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl victory. Likewise, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Markelle Fultz all visited Meek in prison — as the Sixers made it as close to the NBA Conference finals as they have since Allen Iverson’s apex. James Harden visited Meek as well. Julius Erving, Kevin Hart and several Eagles players showed up at rallies and lent their voices to the cause of securing Meek’s release, and to the larger cause at hand.

But neither money nor celebrity shielded Meek. In many ways, it seemed to make him more of a target. “I would’ve never discussed [the criminal justice system] with my daughter before,” says Mike Rubin, the sincerity in his voice impossible to ignore. “We got in the car and Meek told me a really scary story about how he grew up that I told my daughter last night. She couldn’t believe it. For me, it was eye-opening. Sometimes … you have moments in life that change your perspective.”

Last November changed Rubin’s view of life in America. He says he’s dedicating much of his focus and energy moving forward — and not just with Meek — to addressing what he calls “a completely broken system.”

Meek has been locked up several times before. As he said from the stage in a Tidal One-of-One conversation with Angie Martinez, “I just turned 31; I’ve been on probation since I was 19.”

Some of these arrests were perhaps warranted. But the root of the charges date back to 2007 when a member of Philly’s Narcotics Field Unit claimed Meek sold crack to an informant. Per Meek’s cousins, who were with him at the time, the arrest was abominable. “It was like three cops — two of them had his feet, and one of them had his arms,” Rasson Parker told Rolling Stone this year. “They basically used his head as a battering ram [to break through the door].”

Profane. Intense. It’s the zeitgeist of Meek’s catalog and a serious candidate for the greatest intro in rap history.

Meek met prison’s revolving door in 2008 and again in 2014. In 2016, he was sentenced to 90 days of house arrest for traveling without permission, forced to wear an ankle monitor, banned from recording music or traveling outside of Philadelphia. Others times he was violated for things like an altercation he got into after refusing to take a picture with a St. Louis airport employee. The charges varied, but there was one constant: Every probation violation he had was brought by Judge Brinkley, who is black. Her interest in him has been consistent.

Once inside, because of his celebrity status, Meek was placed in a mental health ward instead of in the larger general population of the prison. Incarcerated essentially for participating in a fight he didn’t start, and for popping wheelies on city streets, Meek was living beside people who smeared their own feces on walls. Per McMonagle, early on, Meek entered a prison meeting room appearing disheveled. “I thought while I was in there,” Meek told McMonagle, “that I had gone insane and didn’t know it.”

Even with one gold and two platinum albums, Meek remains rap’s quintessential underdog. It’s a role he’s comfortable in. “I’m in the business of proving people wrong,” he says en route to his conversation with Martinez. “Anytime people went against me, doubted me or actually offended me, it gave me the energy to go harder and win. I always had that drive growing up.” Meek played basketball growing up — but you can see why sports teams would love his energy.

Meek began his rap career street battling. Berks Street in North Philly was his first stage. From there, he created a steady barrage of mixtapes, starting with 2008’s Flamers. He signed to Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group in 2011, and to Roc Nation for management a year later, but the last three years of his career in particular have been a roller coaster. There was a high-profile beef with Drake, a high-profile relationship and breakup with Nicki Minaj. And now Meek has emerged — with help from his lawyers, from Mike Rubin and from the community surrounding him — on the other side of his recent prison stint as a new ideogram for the conversation surrounding criminal justice reform.’

Part of the mantra of his critically acclaimed 2017 Wins & Losses album is that growing up in the ghetto teaches you to cherish the wins and learn from the losses. “[It’s] beautiful,” says Meek. “I come from poverty, living without barely anything to my name, to making money and being able to take care of my family and travel the world. … I always reflect back to where I came from and where I’m at now, and it’s not too bad.”

It’s not without its dramas either. Nearly three years have passed since he and Drake experienced their very public falling-out. Meek, during the summer of 2015, held the No. 1 album in the country with Dreams Worth More Than Money. He also essentially accused Drake of not writing his rhymes (which remains a touchy subject in hip-hop circles), and while Drake was dubbed victorious in the virtual squabble thanks in part to his Grammy-nominated battle record “Back To Back,” Meek’s assertion that he didn’t write his own rhymes has been a thorn in Drake’s otherwise invincible side ever since.

“That beef was pretty much a social media thing,” producer Jahlil Beats says from his South Philadelphia studio. Jahlil has worked with Meek on more than 100 songs, and he’s also a co-producer with Rick Ross and Boi-1da of 2012’s Dreams and Nightmares, the album that features “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro),” an opener to the project that became an anthem — in meetings, in the locker room, on the field — for the Eagles. It’s also been on every Philly music lover’s gym playlist and car speakers for the past six years. I’m ridin’ ’round my city with my hand strapped on my toast/ Cause these n— want me dead and I gotta make it back home/ Cause my mama need that bill money/ My son need some milk/ These n— tryna take my life, they f— around, get killed/ You f— around, you f— around, you f— around, get smoked/ Cause these Philly n— I brought with me don’t f— around, no joke, no. Profane. Intense. It’s the zeitgeist of Meek’s catalog and a serious candidate for the greatest intro in rap history.

Maybe that’s the reason Meek’s most high-profile visitor, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, showed up two weeks before his April 24 release. Kraft witnessed the power of the song firsthand at this year’s Super Bowl as the Eagles charged the field at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. And the Boston Globe headline? “Who is rapper Meek Mill and why is Robert Kraft visiting him in prison?”

Asked perhaps because Kraft is one of the most visible team owners in a league at odds with exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose protests for criminal justice reform helped lay groundwork for the activism around Meek’s recent incarceration and present-day activism. Kaepernick has defended Meek, calling him a victim of systemic oppression — a huge example of why the QB took a knee in the first place. In January, from behind bars, Meek donated $10,000 to Youth Services Inc. — an organization committed to servicing at-risk kids, teenagers and their families — as part of Kaepernick’s Million Dollar Challenge.

A source close to Kraft believes that his prison visit with Meek carried a binary opportunity. One: narrative change. Still suffering from fallout within the team because of his team’s unavoidable tie with President Donald Trump, Kraft may have wanted to demonstrate that he, and hence the Patriots, were in some way committed to the cause of criminal justice reform. Two? To perhaps help a young man he views as a friend. Although he isn’t completely familiar with all the details of Meek’s long, exasperating legal history, Kraft and Meek have social ties that go back at least a few years — as noted in a 2015 Rick Ross Instagram caption as #hoodbillionaire, as well as another this year in which Ross said the Patriots honcho was “signed to MMG.”

Michael Rubin recalls, in particular, a private jet conversation Meek and Kraft had about race, culture and how people treat each other. “Meek was really deep in his thoughts. … [Kraft] was really charged up to go see [Meek],” Rubin says.

“This whole situation is bigger than Meek Mill,” says Jahlil Beats. “We’re fighting for something … fighting for a change … [Kraft] could be [using it as public relations], but it’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than whatever people will gain from it. I get it, but I don’t think we should even be focused on that type of stuff. Because at the end of the day, it’s bringing the cause to the forefront.”

Jahlil has been working with Meek since his 2009 Flamers 3 mixtape and has produced/co-produced some of his biggest records: “Make ’Em Say,” “Willy Wonka,” “I’ma Boss” with Rick Ross, “Amen” with Drake and “Burn” with Big Sean. Meek’s time in and out of prison has led to Beats pursuing real estate and entrepreneurship opportunities that includes bringing the first DTLR store to his hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania.

Loyalty to Meek, though, still drives the producer. “We got about 100 records together. I’m so invested in Meek’s stuff that when he takes a hit, we all take a hit. This dude helped change my life. If he’s not out here doing his thing, and I can’t work with him, then how can we eat?”

Meek has survived public embarrassment on multiple fronts. He checked into rehab to battle Percocet addiction. But for Meek, what timelines dub failures are the opposite. As he told Angie Martinez, “If you follow me, you know I stay with ups and downs.”

Travel restrictions and ultimately prison stints prohibited Meek from marketing the brutally honest 2017 Wins & Losses project in the manner it deserved. But W&L did permeate the 12-month news cycle that is the NBA. The album’s second song, “Heavy Heart,” became the soundtrack many speculated LeBron James used to send subliminal shots toward former teammate Kyrie Irving when news broke that Irving wanted out of Cleveland.

Even Drake was shouting, “Free Meek!” from Australia a week after his former nemesis was sent to prison. Meek’s energy speaks to the fervor of so many young black men and women from similar upbringings. Some escape their harsh conditions. Some become ghosts of the streets. But the underlying pain in Meek’s music is what speaks to a generation — one seen every day in courtrooms, prison visitation cycles and living in sheer fear of law enforcement. There’s comfort experiencing shared pain together. That’s the story of Meek’s music: fervent, pained, real. It’s the story of being black in America, no matter where you’re from.


Meek’s prison-to-courtside odyssey the day he was released? An instantly classic, and unfortunate, hip-hop moment. Questionably imprisoned rapper gets out of prison, is flown by helicopter to Wells Fargo Center to be welcomed as prodigal son at the clinching game of his hometown team’s first round of the NBA playoffs. It’s one of those hood superhero tales that will expand exponentially as years pass — like Tupac flying straight to Los Angeles, in 1995, to begin recording what became his All Eyez On Me. Or Gucci Mane recording his homecoming ode “First Day Out The Feds” on, indeed, his first day out of prison in 2016. However triumphant, it’s part of the grizzliness of rap, and how society views the art and those who specialize in it, that being incarcerated underlines profiles.

But Meek has re-entered a society with new influence. “I’m different,” is what he told Angie Martinez on Wednesday. “We have hashtags and move on. Let’s not move on from this.” Meek’s philanthropic history is well-documented, even in prison. Now he is even more ready and willing to speak out about an issue that has defined his entire adult life. The magnitude of his support hit him while he was still in prison.

“I saw people standing out in the rain for me when they didn’t even know me. [That] changed my life,” he told Martinez. “They talking about ‘Free Meek’ and some of them got family members in jail? They supported me?”

Freedom is subjective, especially for Meek. “I ain’t felt free since I was 19,” he said. He’ll continue to fight until he’s completely exonerated. But now it’s more about helping those without the luxury of his celebrity. “If that was me in Starbucks, on probation,” he said with regard to the recent racial profiling controversy in his hometown, “I would have actually been found in technical violation.”

This topic can’t just live in the virtual world, though. For Meek, it can’t just be an internet conversation. It has to be rooted in real-life pain and real-life consequences. It’s that responsibility that weighs heavy on him, but one many believe could be the best revelation for him. “Meek is our sacrifice. His words are like scriptures,” says Boom 103.9’s DJ Amir. He and Meek’s relationship dates back to their teenage years. “He had to be held accountable for those actions even though if he ain’t do it [yet] as a boss your workers are still your liability. I think he understands that now. I think everything’s gonna look good for the future.”

That future is now. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf joined Meek in an intense news conference calling for criminal reform. On Tuesday, Meek delivered a ‘powerful’ speech at the Innocence Project gala in New York City. Meanwhile, Rubin promises he and Meek have “some pretty impressive plans” set to be announced in the “not too distant future.”

“There’s America, and then there’s black America.” — 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin

For Meek — and really for race relations moving forward, period — it’s about having the authentic painful conversations. The systematically inflicted pain Meek shares with so many, along with the passion it has birthed, is his story to tell. Through music, especially. The vehicle that’s driven Meek all the way from the back lots of North Philly to present-day stardom. “Some people trying to put me in a box,” he said. “I’m not going to be Martin Luther King Jr. I’m still gonna be Meek Mill. ”

Yet, he knows music can spread a message donations can’t buy. Jahlil Beats is excited to rejoin Meek in the studio. He compares their chemistry to that of DMX and Swizz Beatz in the early 2000s. “His voice is more important than anything,” says Jahlil. “With this album, it has to be about that. Even down to the requests of the production he’s been asking us to do, it’s a lot of big strings and a lot of uplifting vibes. He really has something to say.

Before getting up, he has one more thought. “I know he been through a lot of things, but this is something different. He’s doing interviews, but the music is how he’s really going to get to the people.”

Superproducer Zaytoven’s gospel truth about trap music: It needs to be ‘spontaneous and unorthodox’ He’s a man of faith, plays the organ and the keytar — and creates huge hits with stars like Gucci Mane, Nicki Minaj and the Migos

It’s an unlikely one, but the combination of church music and trap music has been a flourishing formula for Xavier Dotson, known in music circles as Atlanta superproducer Zaytoven. Since the mid-2000s, he’s been the visionary behind tracks for artists such as Gucci Mane, Future and the Migos, and he is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of trap music.

Yet it’s hard not to hear the influence of his Christian upbringing on his sound. Zaytoven, the son of a pastor and choir director, moved to the South after being born in Germany and growing up in California’s Bay Area. And when he’s not working a studio soundboard, he’s been, for 11 years and counting, on a sanctuary organ as lead musician for two different churches. “Every time that man touch the piano, I hear church. I hear God. Worship,” says fellow producer Cassius Jay in the latest installment of Red Bull Music’s The Note documentary series. It follows Zaytoven’s journey from a home studio to the realm of musical genius, just as the man of faith is set to release his debut album, Trap Holizay, on May 25.

Before the release of the 17-minute short film, which he scored himself, The Undefeated spoke to Zaytoven about his relationship with Gucci Mane, the first time he met the Migos, LeBron James’ future and more.


Growing up, what did church mean to you?

Everything. Growing up in church, as far as my sound, that’s where all my music comes from. The riffs, how to stay on rhythm, how to improvise. It’s also where I learned how to decipher right from wrong, how to do things and how to treat people.

Do you have a favorite gospel song?

That’s all I listened to growing up. I can more so name some of my artists, like Commissioned, The Winans, Deitrick Haddon, Travis Greene, Tasha Cobbs.

Of the many instruments you play, which was the hardest to master?

I really only play the drums, keyboard and organ. I’ve played a little bit of guitar, but I’ve never mastered it. I started on the drums as youngster, but the keyboard really just kind of kept my attention.

“Spontaneous and unorthodox, that’s what trap music should be. When we’re talking about hustlin’ music, it shouldn’t be all the way well thought out.”

Early in 2017, you played a keytar at the Migos’ first show after the drop of Culture. How did you pick that up?

That was one of the first times I played the keytar. It’s the same thing as a keyboard, but me holding it around my shoulder. So I’m like, ‘I’m finna do this!’ We never practiced with it — none of that. I bought the keytar and had used it once before with Gucci Mane on Jimmy Kimmel. I felt this is something I could do with artists. It was a way I could perform and not just be in the background.

The new documentary touches on the studio where you got your start, “Mama’s Basement.” How did you come up with the name?

Because that’s exactly what it was [laughs]. It was my mom’s basement. That’s where we were recording all the music, where all the artists were coming. When you see the footage in the documentary, you’re gonna see how valuable that basement was. The music that’s popping right now — all that stems from that basement and what we were creating down there that long ago.

Who’s the biggest artist that came through that basement?

Nicki Minaj was there on a daily basis … just like Gucci. I don’t have the studio there anymore, but it’s definitely legendary.

What’s the one piece of studio equipment you couldn’t live without?

MPC [music production controller].

Who’s the voice on your “Zaytoven” drop — and how’d you come up with it?

That’s my daughter, Olivia. She’s 8 years old now, but she might have been 4 when I had her do that. I had a drop before that said ‘Zaytoven,’ and it was kind of electronic. I’d used it on my early records. The Gucci stuff, like the Hard to Kill album. But once new producers started coming in and using new tags, I was like, ‘Hold on … I wanna make a new one.’ That’s when I had my daughter go in, and it worked so perfectly.

“I invited the Migos over to the house. A couple weeks later, you got ‘Versace,’ one of the biggest songs out that year.”

There are often debates surrounding the origin of trap music. What are your thoughts on how it began?

I heard of trap music before I started doing it, with T.I.’s Trap Muzik and Young Jeezy’s Trap or Die. I think the debate is about different styles of trap. If you listen to trap music today, it’s the sound I created with Gucci Mane. Not saying that we started it, but what we were doing was different than what T.I. and Jeezy were doing. Jeezy was doing trap music, and it sounded real theatrical. It was serious; it sounded like a movie almost. T.I.’s trap was just great-quality rap music, talking about trappin’. When me and Gucci were doing it, it was unpolished and edgy. A lot of that is because I really didn’t know what I was doing. The beats would have 808s that were too loud and overlapping, the keyboard might be too low, he might be off the beat or say something you can’t understand. That was the form of trap music that became popular and lasted so long because it was spontaneous and unorthodox. To me, that’s what trap music should be. When we’re talking about hustlin’ music, it shouldn’t be all the way well thought out. Everything we did was on the fly. The beats were made in 10 minutes, the song was made in 10 minutes.

Speaking of Gucci, at what point did you realize he was special?

Almost from the first time I met him, when he came down to my studio trying to write a song for his nephew. Some people got an ‘it’ factor. You feel like, ‘Man, that dude right there is a star.’ And he wasn’t even rapping at the time. It ended up working out — going from him writing a song for his lil’ nephew to him recording, to me and him recording every day, to we got a song on the radio, to we got mixtapes out. And now, it’s years down the road and the sound we created is still dominant.

How did you cross paths with the Migos?

I first saw Quavo rapping on the internet. It was just him in a room with the ceiling fan going. I don’t know why it caught my attention, but I was like, ‘Man, this guy right here is a star.’ Then a rapper by the name of Yung L.A., who used to come to my house all the time, said, ‘Zay, there’s these lil’ young dudes rapping on your beat, saying, ‘Bando’ … they going so crazy.’ I respected Yung L.A.’s opinion so much I immediately went to look up the song. They did a little video for “Bando,” and once I saw them I knew for a fact that they were finna blow up. I started calling around and asking different people who they were. It just so happened that I went to a show with OJ Da Juiceman, and Quavo steps on my foot — as he’s walking out of VIP, and I’m walking in. I’m looking for him, and [the Migos] were looking for me. I invited them over to the house. A couple weeks later, you got “Versace,” one of the biggest songs out that year.

What’s the best destination in the world your music has taken you?

I did a show in Paris last year, and it was the craziest. They were so geeked up I was there, I couldn’t even believe it. It was freezing cold outside and they were taking their shirts off, surfing through the crowd. I never thought somewhere that far out really knew about me and my music.

“I’d definitely have to say LeBron is the best player in the game.”

Any stamp you’d like to add to your passport?

I’m doing my first tour now, so wherever a show takes me, I’m willing to go and ready to go. But I do wanna go back to Germany. I was born there.

Do you have any memories of living in Germany, and how did you end up in Atlanta?

I was a baby. I don’t remember nothing. The reason I moved from there to California to Atlanta is my dad was in the military.

Which athlete do you think is your biggest fan?

Man, I wish I knew! So I could get his phone number and call him (laughs).

Who’s your favorite athlete right now?

I’d definitely have to say LeBron [James] is the best player in the game.

Where do you think LeBron will play next season?

I’ve been so busy, I haven’t been keeping up. I haven’t watched one game of football or basketball the whole year. I gotta get back locked in. I’m still a Golden State fan because I represent the Bay Area. But it’s hard to say. I’m not sure where LeBron will be next year.

Super Bowl LIII next year is in Atlanta. How lit will that weekend be?

The city is going to be on fire. I think that’s the best place to have it. Atlanta finna be so turnt up. It’s gonna be bananas.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Can the Philadelphia 76ers really get to the Finals, though? Shaq and Penny say yes The Magic did it in ‘95, and the Penny/Shaq era has a lot in common with Philly in 2018

The Philadelphia 76ers, after “trusting” the “process,” have completed their first playoff series victory since 2012. It happened in five games over the Miami Heat, and sharpshooter J.J. Redick led the charge with 27 points. But Tuesday night in Philly was far more than a series victory. It was a moment.

The presence of Meek Mill at courtside (he arrived via helicopter), in his first public appearance since being released from prison hours earlier, added to an already momentous occasion for a franchise on the way up. The rapper’s much-debated sentence stemmed from a probation violation in November of 2017 and made him the newest face of criminal justice reform.

The calls for his freedom rivaled those for Lil’ Boosie and for Gucci Mane in years past. And Meek (Robert Rihmeek Williams) graduated to something of a Philly sports yoda during his time in the belly of the beast. His 2012 “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” ignited the Philadelphia Eagles on the way to their first Super Bowl. And the 76ers have long been Meek’s loudest supporters — from Julius “Dr. J” Erving to current players raising awareness to his friendship with Sixers minority owner Michael Rubin.

Kellerman compares Simmons-Embiid to Penny-Shaq

Max Kellerman has not seen a young duo like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid since Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal.


Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway (the new head coach at the University of Memphis) fail miserably at containing the pride in their voices. Both recognize Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as the most dynamic young point guard and center combo since the mid-1990s, when they turned Orlando into the cultural capital of the brief post-Jordan basketball world.

Both sets of teammates are first and third overall picks — O’Neal and Simmons being the top picks in 1992 and 2016, respectively; Hardaway and Embiid were No. 3 in 1993 and 2014. Penny was originally drafted by the Golden State Warriors and then immediately traded to Orlando for Chris Webber.

“Joel makes Ben’s game easier and Ben makes Joel’s game easier. Just like Shaq and I. It was poetry in motion.” — Penny Hardaway

“When I demanded they bring in Penny,” says Shaq, “I was thinking we were gonna be the new Magic Johnson and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. I already knew what I wanted because I had a good point guard [Scott Skiles], but he was older. … We’d have to build defensive schemes around him — like when guards posted him up, we had to double. I just got tired of doing all that. I was like, we need to get somebody who can play everybody straight up.”

“It’s great having a star opposite your position because it makes [the game] easier,” says Hardaway. “Joel makes Ben’s game easier and Ben makes Joel’s game easier. Just like Shaq and I. It was poetry in motion.” Through nostalgia-tinted glasses the working relationship seems much longer, but O’Neal and Penny played together for only three seasons in Orlando.

O’Neal sees parts of himself in Embiid, 24, and confidence is near the top of that list. Stylistically, Embiid has drawn comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon. But it’s the intangibles that place a smile on Shaq’s face when discussing Embiid. “The way he dominates the game, the way he’s very outspoken,” O’Neal says. “He’s very loved in the community [that drafted him] too.”

Hardaway stops short of saying he sees himself in Simmons, but he does, however, impart some advice to the floor general whose athleticism and floor vision get co-signs from some of the game’s legends. “[To Ben, I’d say] don’t get too ahead of yourself. Always keep that chip on your shoulder. Don’t ever think that you’ve arrived.”

Simmons, 21, follows in the line of big, pass-first point guards like Hardaway and the prototype Magic Johnson (LeBron James, too, if you’re considering him a point guard). Simmons, through five games this postseason, has exhibited poise and fearlessness beyond his years, and the fluidity in his game is very reminiscent of Hardaway. The clearest difference between Simmons and his basketball prophyte is Hardaway’s superior shooting — a skill that this year’s presumptive at least co-Rookie of the Year will attack this offseason.

“The [biggest] lesson I learned was don’t celebrate until the job is done.” — Shaq

Much like the Golden State Warriors and the Kevin Durant-, Russell Westbrook- and James Harden-led Oklahoma City Thunder, this current 76er iteration is the 2010s’ newest “young team.” They’re the new cool kids everyone wants to be around. They’re embedded in the cultural discourse, much like Shaq and Penny before them.

Shaq dropped platinum rap albums, kicked it with Biggie Smalls and entered Hollywood while Penny became a marketing deity in part because of his shoes and the immortal “Lil’ Penny” character voiced by Chris Rock. Both Embiid and Simmons have forged a kinship with Meek Mill. Embiid has been knighted basketball’s premier and peerless trash-talker and has the most notable crush on Rihanna since … Drake? And Simmons is dating R&B starlet Tinashe.

With each completed step of the process, Philly’s “Neon Boudeaux” and “Butch McRae” — Shaq and Penny’s characters in 1994’s Blue Chips — continue to add to the cultural kismet Sixer basketball has accumulated since the days of Allen Iverson. O’Neal has been behind that same wheel. In 1995, when they got to the Finals, the Magic were still a very young team, having only been in the league since 1989. Philly, by virtue of several unwatchable, “embarrassing” seasons, played like one. From 2013-16, the Sixers won a total of 47 regular-season games. They won 50 this year alone.

Carrying the weight of an entire organization when you’re technically not old enough to legally rent a car comes with its own war stories. And many are picking Philly to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. TNT analyst and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said Tuesday night that the Sixers “have everything” needed to beat any team in their path. Many peg them as the first Eastern Conference team in nearly 3,000 days that will defeat LeBron James in the postseason — provided The King and his ragtag collection of merry men advance that far. Some are bold enough to predict a 76ers championship parade this summer. James told Simmons four years ago that he could be better than him — if Simmons “[did] the work.”

“The word potential,” Hardaway says, “can be dangerous because it’s saying you have the ability to be something.” The ability to be something and actually becoming the superhero of your wildest dreams are different realities. Shaq and Penny realized their joint potential, even if they didn’t punctuate it completely with a championship that seemed inevitable at their partnership’s peak. Both carry those battle wounds.

“The [biggest] lesson I learned was don’t celebrate until the job is done,” O’Neal says with a faint sigh. O’Neal, Hardaway and the 1995 Orlando Magic hold the distinction of being the last team to defeat a Michael Jordan-led team in the postseason. “I go back to what happened after we beat Mike and [the Chicago Bulls] … we already thought we had won the championship. But Houston, who had won the year before, knew what it took to win, and we didn’t. … As a young guy, you really don’t know what it takes to win a championship.”

Shaq and Penny were swept by the Houston Rockets in the 1995 Finals. A year later, they were swept by Jordan’s Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals. And later in the summer of 1996, O’Neal migrated west to begin the next chapter of his career with the Los Angeles Lakers and an uber-confident 18-year-old rookie named Kobe Bryant. Just like that, Orlando dreams turned into nightmares.

But Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can still put a championship crack in the Liberty Bell. It’s all about moments. Embiid starting in his first All-Star Game is one. Simmons potentially winning Rookie of the Year is another. Tuesday night was big too. But if “trusting the process” is to be taken at face value, then it shouldn’t be about late May or potentially early June. It should just be about the next moment — Game 1 against either the Boston Celtics or Milwaukee Bucks. The advice for them from their predecessors is as simple as it is complex.

“The only thing I can say to [Ben and Joel] is don’t take this time for granted, like it’s going to happen next year because you’re a young team,” Hardaway says. “Right now, with the run they’re on, they have to be careful of saying, ‘If we don’t win the next round, we’re gonna have next year.’ You gotta do it now.” Through basketball osmosis, that advice has already permeated into Philly’s locker room. Embiid told reporters prior to Game 5 that he believed Philly’s “time is now.”

Shaq and Penny are more personally invested in Simmons and Embiid’s success — they want Philly’s dynamic duo to surpass them. “Hopefully they can stick together and not have any petty problems,” Shaq says. “You know, not worry about who’s getting paid the most.” He pauses. “I think if they stay together…they’re gonna be very hard to beat.”

Meek Mill sat courtside as guest of honor beside fellow Philly native Kevin Hart. The moment was one of the wildest “fresh outta jail” fables since Tupac was released from prison in October 1995, caught a cross-country flight from New York to Los Angeles and began recording his behemoth album All Eyez On Me the same night. The day began with Meek in a cell and ended with his first live look at the city’s two newest basketball demigods.

Embiid and Simmons combined for 33 points, 22 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals and 2 blocks. Both, like Meek, continue to etch their names in the city’s cultural history.

Kamara for the culture He grew up with the Migos, wears nose rings and a grill in games and is the front-runner for Rookie of the Year — but who really is Alvin Kamara?

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.


NEW ORLEANS — At the kitchen table of his split-level downtown condo, a hop and skip from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Alvin Kamara scrolls through the video call log in one of his two iPhones. “I can FaceTime him right now,” he says. “He’ll probably pick up.”

It’s Christmas Eve, and four hours have passed since the New Orleans Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons, 23-13, to clinch the franchise’s first playoff appearance in four seasons. For Kamara, the Saints’ 22-year-old running back and the NFL’s runaway favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year, the moment calls for some reminiscing about the journey.

Back to when he was juggling Division I offers and chasing league dreams. Back to when he was dominating on high school football fields in and around his hometown of Norcross, Georgia. After games, three of his childhood friends who aspired to be big-time rappers would show up at local clubs. “They’d come in with 100 people, perform and walk out,” Kamara remembers. “Just tryna make it.”

A music executive everyone calls “Coach K” is the man who gave the trio a chance, and to Kamara, Kevin “Coach K” Lee is his uncle. Coach K — who has managed the careers of Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, and who is credited by The New York Times as taking Southern U.S. black culture global — is about keeping family close, and keeping it winning.

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Kamara is the first and only athlete to be represented by Solid Foundation, a sports management division of Coach K’s Quality Control record label. And with a strong and close-knit support system, Kamara, a Pro Bowler and seven-time league Player of the Week, has revitalized the culture of the Saints, the city of New Orleans — and perhaps, in a tough year, of the NFL itself.

And those high school homies? They’re now known around the world by their rap names — Quavo, Offset and Takeoff, aka the No. 1 hit-making, Grammy Award-nominated Migos. “It’s dope to see the growth,” Kamara says. “Seeing them come up from nothing.” In 2017, the Migos emerged as the world’s most influential rap group, perhaps the best since OutKast.

“I don’t just play football. I’m Alvin. Alvin Kamara. I happen to play football.”

“I was talking to Qua yesterday,” Kamara says before tapping on Quavo’s contact to initiate another FaceTime. “He was like, ‘Man, I’m proud of you. You just been ballin’. I remember when shit was bad and you stayed true to it.’ ”

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True indeed. In his first season in the NFL, Kamara has averaged 7.7 yards per offensive touch, more than any player in league history (minimum of 200 touches). Not since Gale Sayers in 1965 has a rookie scored five rushing touchdowns and five receiving touchdowns in a single season — until Kamara. And Kamara’s ballsy, fake-kneel, 106-yard kick return for a touchdown in the regular-season finale is the longest play in Saints franchise history.

No other NFL player in the league is doing quite what he’s doing, and no other player looks quite like him either. In addition to wearing his hair in twists, he rocks two nose rings and a shiny gold grill in his mouth — on the field. And off of it, Kamara has plenty of gold around his neck, Louis Vuitton on his wrists and Alexander Wang on his feet. In a season polarized by protests, and missing star New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Kamara brought swag to the NFL. He might even mean as much to the culture as the Migos right now.

Nine long rings on the call to Quavo, and no answer.

“I don’t know what he doing,” Kamara says. “He might call back.”


The recruitment of Alvin Kamara resulted in offers from just about every powerhouse college football program. On national signing day in 2013, with his mother, Adama, and Coach K beside him, Kamara decided to roll with the Alabama Crimson Tide, the school that once sent him 105 letters in a single day. He made the announcement during a crowded news conference at Norcross High School.

“Of all the kids I’ve ever recruited, I probably got closer to him and his family than any kid,” says Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, the former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator who secured Kamara’s commitment. “I don’t know why. He took a liking to me, I took a liking to him. We respected each other.” The two keep in touch via text and FaceTime. Kamara ends those calls with, “Love you.”

Kamara was poised for playing time despite a loaded depth chart — future NFL backs Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake — at his position. But a knee injury requiring surgery forced him to redshirt. “Alvin got put down with the scout team,” Smart says. “I can remember Nick Saban having to kick him out of practice: Hey, if you’re not gonna run the ball with the scout team, get out of here. Alvin didn’t like the idea of that, and I think he’d be the first to admit he didn’t handle it well. We didn’t handle it well. He ended up saying, at the end of the semester, ‘I’m gonna transfer.’ ”

Kamara called Coach K to help him pack up his dorm room, and his uncle dropped everything he was doing — the Migos were just months from releasing their breakthrough hit, “Versace” — to be there. “Don’t even look back,” said Coach K. “We good. Whatever the next move is, we’re gonna execute it. We just gonna be A1.”

But on Feb. 13, 2014, at 19 years old, Kamara was arrested in Norcross for driving with a suspended license. “I’m sitting in the back of a cop car, like, What the f— am I doing?” He had enough pocket money to bail himself out, but police made him wait hours in a cell for his mother to come get him. “That was my sign,” he says. “Things had caught up to me.”

Kamara decided to stop dodging calls from Hutchinson Community College and boarded a plane to Kansas. He says he essentially “disappeared” for a year into his version of Last Chance U. It took one super productive, conference-offensive-player-of-the-year season — 1,469 total yards of offense and 21 touchdowns in only nine games — to make him a five-star junior college prospect. Kamara returned to the SEC, this time to Tennessee. “AK is a good dude,” says Hutchinson recruiting coordinator Thaddeus Brown. “He just had to figure it all out.”

And those high school homies? They’re now known around the world by their rap names — Quavo, Offset and Takeoff.

It may have helped that somewhere along the road from Tuscaloosa to Knoxville, Kamara embraced who he is, especially with regard to his personal style. His middle school classmates had called him, as Kamara puts it, “weird as f—.” But ever since, he’d run from himself. It was time to return.

It started with a stud in his left nostril that he’d always wanted. When Kamara noticed too many others with their noses pierced, he one-upped them with a septum piercing. At Tennessee, he began wearing both, and, instead of the usual plastic mouthguard, he wore a grill during games. Kamara: “I was just like, ‘Bruh, I’m about to be me.’ It’s gonna be real hard for y’all to make me not be me.”


“He’s so unassuming,” says David Raymond, Kamara’s day-to-day manager. “If you just see him on the street, you wouldn’t be like, ‘That’s a running back.’ ”

At the 2016 NFL scouting combine, Kamara, who had declared early, topped higher-profile running backs — Dalvin Cook now of the Minnesota Vikings, Leonard Fournette of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers — in both the vertical leap (39.5 inches) and broad jump (10 feet, 11 inches). He ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash. Yet his history at ’Bama, coupled with his arrest, and even his choice to leave Tennessee early, made some skeptical. “You see the gold teeth,” says Raymond, “and the nose rings, but you don’t see the young man.”

Alvin Kamara runs the 40-yard dash during the 2017 NFL combine.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Kamara notched a 24 on the Wonderlic. It was the highest score posted by any Division I running back prospect. And Kamara says that while he was training in Miami with former Hurricanes strength coach Andreu Swasey, he “never took one m—–f—— practice Wonderlic. I don’t know if people look at me and think, ‘He just plays football.’ I can chop it up on anything you want to talk about — from football … fashion … current news … history. We can do all that. I don’t just play football. I’m Alvin. Alvin Kamara. I happen to play football.”

Kamara’s stylish singularity, he feels, caused him in many cases to be condescended to, and in other cases to be racially pigeonholed. Kamara chooses not to reveal the name of an NFL owner who talked to him through a sneer. “You like fashion,” the man said. “Your friends are rappers. You got the look. You got the nose rings. You look like you could probably do something else … like you don’t need football.”

Kamara pondered: Just because I know some people? I’ve not made one song. If I wanted to be a rapper, I would’ve been doing that a long time ago. After the interview, the team’s running backs coach approached Kamara and confirmed what the prospect already suspected: The owner didn’t believe Kamara “loved football.” And that it was unlikely Kamara would be listed on the team’s big board come draft night. The interaction begged questions: Does a person have to “need” football in order to love it and play at the highest level? And can one love football and possess a full identity outside of it?

“He didn’t handle it well. We didn’t handle it well. One thing led to another and he ended up saying at the end of the semester, ‘I’m gonna transfer.’ ”

Kamara says at least three other teams tossed up similar red flags. “If somebody feels a certain way about the way I carry myself, or the way I dress, the way I talk, I don’t know what to tell you … because I don’t hate nobody. But if you don’t like me? I’mma keep it moving.”


Kamara’s flair may have been lost on some owners and front-office executives, but not on JR Duperrier, a sports marketing manager for Adidas. He had gone to the combine to sign former Michigan star Jabrill Peppers. When he got to Indianapolis, he found Kamara.

“My first impression of Alvin,” says Duperrier, “was he’s kinda swaggy.He looked like he could dress a lil’ bit, and I could dig it.” Duperrier is quite fashion-forward himself, having been named by BET as one of the 25 most influential people in sneakers last October. “Given a platform, Alvin can excel. He’s his own person. He doesn’t follow what other people do.”

Adidas announced the signing of Kamara on Twitter, 17 minutes after the New Orleans Saints selected him in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft with the 67th overall pick (63 spots behind Fournette, 59 behind McCaffrey, 26 behind Cook and 19 behind Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon). For Kamara, his pre-draft gathering was a blur. Just a simple chat with head coach Sean Payton and running backs coach Joel Thomas. “They weren’t pressing me,” Kamara says matter-of-factly. Something about the Saints just felt right. When he reported to the team’s training facility for the first time, he noticed it again.

Saints running back Alvin Kamara jumps over Darius Slay of the Detroit Lions.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Maybe it was how defensive end Cam Jordan, a three-time Pro Bowler, greeted him for the first time. “This man got a nose ring! You f—ing millennials!” And the first time he met Drew Brees, the future Hall of Famer knew about Kamara’s skills, and recognized the potential. “ ‘I wanna work with you,’ ” Kamara recalls Brees saying. “ ‘Let’s grow together.’ ” Brees and Kamara have found common ground and channeled it into a rejuvenated winning culture in New Orleans.

“He always seems like he’s having fun,” says Brees, “and he definitely has a swagger to him. He fits in great with our locker room.” Throughout his first months in that locker room, Kamara won the rookie Halloween costume contest. He treated his offensive line to surprise rib meals in their lockers for helping him win FedEx Ground Player of the Week. And he sat on a throne of Airheads, a candy partnership Kamara had in his sights on since the draft. He always carries a pack of the taffy with him, offering some to anyone who crosses his path.

Most notably, Kamara has established a playing and personal relationship with the veteran of the backfield, Mark Ingram. The rookie has become what New Orleans calls the “zoom” to Ingram’s “boom” in games, after which the pair conduct hilariously informative postgame interviews together in front of their adjacent lockers. This season, they became the first running back duo in NFL history to each record 1,500 yards from scrimmage.

“This guy has so much on his plate,” says Ingram, “where he has to line up, how many different ways we wanna get him the ball. It says a lot about him as a professional. He deserves all of the success that’s coming his way.” Ingram calls Kamara not just a special player but also a special human being. “Offensive Rookie of the Year … we got it.”

Alvin Kamara (right) and Mark Ingram talk during a game against the Atlanta Falcons.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

And contrary to popular belief, which Kamara dispels any chance he gets, there’s no animosity between him and Adrian Peterson, whom the Saints traded to the Arizona Cardinals before Week 6, just as Kamara’s stock began rising exponentially. The rookie soaked up as much knowledge as he could from the future Hall of Famer. “Keep playing,” Peterson told Kamara once in practice. “Keep being you.”

He took the advice to heart: 1,554 total yards from scrimmage through 16 regular-season games. He also owns the highest yards-per-carry average (6.1) for any first-year rusher in the Super Bowl era (minimum of 100 carries) and broke a 36-year-old franchise record for most touchdowns by a rookie, with 14. Simply put, Kamara got all he could ever ask for in his first NFL team. Because the Saints let Alvin be Alvin.


It’s a party in Suite 354 at the Superdome — jam-packed with Kamara’s people. “I just got here,” says Coach K, fresh off a private jet to see his nephew play. “All he had to do is play ball when he got here. Be young. Bring the swag. Do his thing.” Quality Control co-founder Pierre “Pee” Thomas is there, along with David Raymond and Duperrier. New Orleans rapper Young Greatness is rocking a custom Alvin Kamara hoodie, created by the designer/stylist Tvenchy, who’s responsible for many of the rookie’s day-to-day outfits and is in the suite vibing as well.

It’s hard to miss the boisterous Tonee, who played high school football with Kamara before becoming Atlanta singer 6lack’s official DJ. Or JAT, a friend from Tennessee who runs her own hair business. Saints superfan Jarrius Robertson even pops in. Along with his mother (who watched from home, although she hates to see her son take hits on-screen, or in person), this is Kamara’s foundation. “I kind of try to block it out when I’m playing because it’s distracting, but at the same time … my friends are here, so you wanna do good,” Kamara says later. “Not only for me, but for them.”

Alvin Kamara celebrates with fans after scoring a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers.

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

After the playoff-clinching win that Kamara finishes with a solid 21 touches for 162 yards, he and the crew partake in his season-long tradition. They make the 1.1-mile journey from the stadium exit back to his apartment — on foot. Along the way, he’s stopped every five steps by curious Saints fans, wondering, Is that really Alvin Kamara? Yes, it’s him. And he’ll take a picture with anyone who asks. “If I sign an autograph, somebody will be like, ‘Put Rookie of the Year,’ ” he says. “Do I want to be Rookie of the Year? Of course. … You can only do it once. But I can’t put it until I win it.”

“All he had to do is play ball. Be young. Bring the swag. And do his thing.”

Hours after the walk home, New Orleans is abnormally quiet, save for the few packed restaurants. A Kamara and Quavo FaceTime happens, as the Migos’ genius sits in a glowing Atlanta studio and chops it up about jewelry and such — “Show me the ice!” he says — with the NFL’s most explosive offensive weapon. After the call, not even the star rookie running back of the Saints can secure a last-minute reservation downtown on the night before Christmas.

So it’s into his black Audi S7 V8T and on to a chicken wing joint on the outskirts of the city, where he’s perhaps even more heralded as he places a food order fit for an army. It’s apparent that the stone-faced cashier sort of recognizes him, though she can’t fully put her finger on the exact identity of the nose-ringed, beanie-wearing figure before her.

“We need that Super Bowl!!!” a middle-aged man shouts.

“Off rip. I got you,” Kamara responds with a dap. “A hunnid.”

A moment of clarity overcomes the cashier, who looks at her customer with a warm smile. “Alvin Kamara?” she says. “I thought that was you.”

Cardi B, Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane and more dropped a slew of new music in one night Hip-hop must’ve caught the holiday spirit

Maybe it’s because Friday is the last business day before Christmas. Or maybe it’s simply hip-hop caught the holiday spirit. Whatever the reason, Thursday night/Friday morning saw a slew of drops from a who’s who kick-started by Quavo and Travis Scott’s joint project “Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho.” But that was only the tip of the iceberg.

The long-awaited Cardi B second single. If there was any question following the overwhelming success of arguably the single of the year in Cardi’s “Bodak Yellow,” the wait is now over. Featuring 21 Savage, Cardi B returns with the next look into her forthcoming solo album. Complete with Offset mentions galore and a Migos-like flow, expect to hear this at any New Year’s Eve party where hip-hop is played. So, like, 95 percent of them.

A new Gucci Mane album. 2017 was the year Gucci became the pop culture star he seemed destined to be when 2009’s “Wasted” dominated airwaves. “This has been the best year of my life,” he told Zane Lowe earlier this year. And while it may have been for reasons far more than music (a book, new $10 million deal with Atlantic Records and a high-profile wedding), Gucci stayed true to the reason for his season. Guwop and his Tupacian work ethic dropped his third album of ’17 with El Gato: The Human Glacier. Happy holidays, from The Wops, indeed.

Nipsey’s next leg of his “Victory Lap.” If there’s one song I’m anticipating listening to in the whip this weekend, it’s Nipsey Hussle and Swizz Beatz’s new cut, “Been Down.” The Crenshaw OG’s new album, Victory Lap, drops Feb. 16, which coincides with the star of NBA All-Star Weekend in his hometown of Los Angeles.

Lil Wayne’s Dedication 6 preview. Set to drop Christmas Day, Weezy dropped off two sneak peeks last night over Jay-Z’s “Story of OJ.” and 21 Savage’s “Bank Account.” Both are strong offerings from the man who for years had a legit claim to “The Best Rapper Alive,” but it’s the latter where Lil Wayne really flexes. It’s one of the better tracks he’s dropped in quite some time. Maybe 2018 is the year when Tha Carter 5 is released from Cash Money purgatory. Maybe.

Daily Dose: 10/18/17 Gucci Mane ties the knot

Hey, now! Got another win on Around The Horn on Tuesday, which was fun. Of course, Wednesday night is the season opener for the Washington Wizards, which should be exciting, so I’ll be there.

Even when it comes to showing concern, President Donald Trump has problems. After falsely claiming that various presidents had not contacted the parents and families of soldiers who were killed in action, when he finally decided to do it himself, he made things worse. According to Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Florida), Trump told the widow of the late Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson that “he knew what he signed up for.” He leaves behind two children and an unborn child. If you’d like to donate to their college funds, you can do so here. Trump has denied it happened.

Gucci Mane is now a married man. In a lavish $1.7M ceremony dubbed The Mane Event on BET, Radric Davis wed Keyshia Ka’oir in front of a celebrity crowd all dressed in white. Because this is 2017, the entire process will be part of a 10-part special for the network, The Wopsters, which will be must-see TV. We need not extol the virtues of Gucci and his turnaround — except, actually, we do. His new album, Mr. Davis, is way better than the two previous post-jail projects he’s dropped. This dude is such an inspiration.

Chris Long puts his money where his mouth is. Earlier in the year, he pledged to give game checks to start scholarships for college in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. You might recall that a white nationalist rally in that city sparked huge outrage when a driver plowed into a crowd of people in a scarily violent and deadly scene. Now, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman is donating his next 10 game checks to launch the Pledge 10 for Tomorrow campaign, designed to support educational equality efforts. Great cause.

NFL 1, President Trump, 0. After a meeting Tuesday with players, the NFL decided that it will not be penalizing players who don’t kneel for the national anthem, a far cry from all the bluster that was spoken in previous weeks. Remember when Trump got on stage and started screaming that if guys didn’t stand for the anthem they should be fired on the spot? And then Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones backed that up with a toothless statement that no player of his would kneel without getting benched?

Free Food

Coffee Break: You know you’re an important person in society when Lego decides to re-create your likeness for kids across the globe to play with. Lego’s now done so for female scientists with the new “Women of NASA” set, which features Nancy G. Roman, Margaret Hamilton, Sally Ride and Mae Jemison.

Snack Time: When it comes to cultural appropriation, some people are so ruthless with it. Take for example this restaurant in California that serves Popeyes chicken, which they PROUDLY have delivered twice a day. Wow.

Dessert: Let Thundercat take you away this afternoon. We love him.

Aux Cord Chronicles XIII: 28 songs that could replace the national anthem What if we switched from ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ to something from Aretha Franklin, Dipset — or Kendrick and Beyoncé?

Congratulations, America. You’ve successfully stiff-armed Colin Kaepernick’s original protest, meant to shed light on police brutality and systemic injustices against people of color, from the national conversation. Now, despite the fact that Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and Seattle Seahawk, suggested that Kaepernick and teammate Eric Reid take a knee as a sign of respect, the national discussion is centered on the supposed disrespect of the flag, the men and women of our military and the national anthem.

So let’s be proactive. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was penned in 1814 by Francis Scott Key. On March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a congressional act officially declaring it the national anthem. Well, 86 years is quite the lifetime, but everything deserves a revamp — or at least an alternate. Below are 28 possibilities. (Aside from the obvious choice, John Rosamond Johnson’s musical adaptation of his brother James’ poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” otherwise known as the black national anthem.)

Aretha Franklin — “Respect” (1967)

Franklin has a legion of iconic records to her name, but this is the zenith. Want to win a free round at the bar? Ask who sang the original. The answer is Otis Redding, who wrote the song and dropped the original in 1965. Franklin’s version put the song into another stratosphere, becoming an anthem for black America in the process.

Maze featuring Frankie Beverly — “Before I Let Go” (1981)

Imagine it’s Friday night. It’s been a long week at work. You and your co-workers are this close to quitting and traveling the country and living off of your savings. Then you realize you absolutely suck at saving money, so there’s that. But you’ve got tickets to the big game this weekend. And when the announcer tells everyone to stand for the national anthem, they play this. For about three minutes, nothing else in the world would matter. Vote Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly 2020.

Kool & The Gang — “Get Down On It” (1981)

If you play this around your parents, aunts and uncles, they will immediately break out into a two-step and reminisce on what they were doing when this killed at the clubs.

The Gap Band — “Outstanding” (1982)

Is there any self-respecting human being who doesn’t love this song? I mean, other than this guy. This technically already is the national anthem, if you’re familiar with black cookouts and family reunions.

Will Smith — “Fresh Prince Theme Song” (1990)

I couldn’t recite the current national anthem without looking at a cheat sheet. But I could absolutely recite this — arguably the most iconic theme song in the history of theme songs. I’m not the only one, either.

Public Enemy — “Fight The Power” (1990)

Pretty self-explanatory, if we’re being honest.

Queen Latifah — “U.N.I.T.Y.” (1993)

“Unity” is a great idea, but in this case it sidesteps the original point of Kaepernick’s protests. But since we’re on the topic of unity, 1993 was a good year for Queen. This song dropped (and eventually won a Grammy), as did the classic ’90s sitcom Living Single.

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony feat. Eazy-E — “Foe Tha Love of Money” (1994)

Because C.R.E.A.M:. Cash Rules Everything About America.

DMX — “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” (1998)

Stop. Drop. Shut ’em down, open up shop. Francis Scott Key couldn’t hold a candle to Earl Simmons.

Lauryn Hill — “Ex-Factor” (1998)

Just don’t have L-Boogie sing this Miseducation standout for Sunday Night Football — she might not show up until Thursday night. #AligningMyEnergyWithTheTime

Juvenile — “Back That Azz Up” (1998)

1. See my signature at the bottom of this post. 2. MAKE AMERICA TWERK AGAIN.

C-Murder feat. Magic & Snoop Dogg — “Down 4 My N—” (2000)

One thing for sure. Two things for certain. This beat will always be hard enough to convince a person he or she can run through a brick wall. And while it may sound odd to nominate a guy with a first-degree felony in his name for national anthem consideration, I’d argue this country has had far more head-scratching moments.

Sunshine Anderson — “Heard It All Before” (2001)

Because, being black in America, you actually have heard it all before.

Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz — “Get Low” (2002)

You know how the “land of the free, and the home of the brave” part gets everyone riled up? Hear me out. Imagine if it were To the window!/ To the wall!/ Till the sweat … well, you know the rest. Plus, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle would agree. Just look at how sad this guy got:

Jay-Z — “PSA” (2003)

It’d be fire to be at a New York Knicks game and the announcer says, “Everybody please rise for the singing of our national anthem.” And the next thing you know, over the PA system, Allow me to reintroduce myself/ My name is Hov!/ H to the O-V/ I used to move snowflakes by the O-Z …

The Diplomats — “Dipset Anthem” (2003)

I’m on the west side of Chicago, lookin’ for a bust-down/ To make me put my two arms up, touchdown!/ You stay in touch now, but when I touch down/ I’m like Buckshort shorty, you better duck down/ Yeah I must clown/ I’m from Harlem, uptown/ Where we flash money, take your b—- and ask you what now?

Cam’ron is an American institution and should always be respected as such. Also, my request of the National Museum of African American History and Culture still stands.

UGK feat. Outkast — “International Players Anthem” (2007)

Most songs on this list you can play for a verse and a hook and be fine. But this one? You play all four verses. You rap all four verses with as much conviction as you’ve ever done anything in your life. In particular, like Jay-Z said at Made In America a few weeks ago, you rap Pimp C’s verse loud enough so he can hear it in heaven. This is a perfect song. And no, it’s not up for debate.

Foxx feat. Lil Boosie and Webbie — “Wipe Me Down” (2007)

It’s not even a question I’d pledge allegiance to a song where a man got to the club with gas tank on E, still gets in VIP and proclaims all drinks on him. I’m proud to be a (trill) American.

F.L.Y. — “Swag Surf” (2009)

It’s a song that requires you to put your arms around the shoulders of your fellow man or woman. How much more unity do you need?

Gucci Mane feat. Ester Dean — “I Think I Love Her” (2009)

I’m all about ending gender discrimination. I’m all about ending the pay gap women face every day. And I’m all about gender equality. Hence our inclusion of this Gucci Mane classic. And, yes, while it is his song, everyone knows why we’re here: Well, my name is Susie and Gucci think I love him/ That sucka think I’m loyal but I f— with all the hustlas/ I be wit all the ballas/ I be at all the spots/ I might be in yo’ kitchen n—- cooking with yo’ pots. What a woman … **swoons**

DJ Khaled — “All I Do Is Win” (2010)

America has always operated under the Ricky Bobby gospel: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

Rihanna feat. Calvin Harris — “We Found Love” (2011)

My all-time favorite Rihanna song. It doesn’t have to be on your list, but it’s staying on mine.

Drake — “Started From The Bottom” (2013)

I just think it’s funny how it goes … that Kaepernick’s original protest was gentrified and had a Whole Foods move into its neighborhood.

Travis Scott — “Antidote” (2015)

Have you ever seen him perform this live? In fact, let’s give it a test run. For the Houston Rockets’ home opener, let’s do this song before tipoff.

Future — “March Madness” (2015)

Because Dress it up and make it real for me is now etched into America in much the same way as JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” quote. If we’re being honest, too, this has been the national anthem since the summer of 2015 anyway.

Beyoncé feat. Kendrick Lamar — “Freedom” (2016)

Can’t have a list like this and not include Blue, Rumi and Sir’s mom. And while I’m sure the #BeyHive will tell me I omitted 240 other songs that fit the list, it’s hard to deny this Lemonade standout and its soulful, uncompromising hook. Having Kung Fu Kenny on it doesn’t hurt either.

Cardi B — “Bodak Yellow” (2017)

Since it’s currently No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, it technically is the national anthem.

Kendrick Lamar — “DNA” (2017)

When you think about it, Kendrick resurrected the pride of James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud” and gave it a bounce.

In all seriousness, if none of these selections works and we stick with the current iteration we do have, might I suggest the only version that even matters. Francis Scott Key could never …