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2019 NBA All-Star Concert and Performances
J. Cole performs during halftime of the 2019 NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 17 at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Music

Hip-hop tells the story of how NBA All-Star became ‘The Black Super Bowl’

From Foxy Brown to Common to J. Cole, the league’s hottest weekend is documented through lyrics

Despite Charlotte, North Carolina’s lack of hip-hop lineage, it was somehow transformed into the epicenter of the rap universe last weekend. While the charming Southern city maintains virtually zero claims to any hip-hop throne, those who didn’t know any better might’ve mistaken the “Bible Belt” capital for early ’90s New York or modern-day Atlanta, thanks to the NBA’s midseason exhibition holding court there. But not only did the rap community alter the identity of a city, it completely commandeered All-Star Weekend as a whole in a way it never had before.

Hamidou Diallo jumped over Quavo to steal a slam-dunk crown. 2 Chainz played pop-a-shot with Shaq. Bezels and jewels worn by fellow Quality Control artists’ sitting courtside could blind you from the very peak of the Spectrum Center. Stephen Curry embraced Allen Iverson, who inspired a wave of NBA anti hip-hop legislation not even two decades ago. Outside the arena, Young Jeezy shut down an entire intersection to promote his upcoming project with cardboard snowmen. It was a pure, unadulterated and unapologetic showcase of hip-hop culture. And if you’ve been paying attention, it represented a dramatic shift in the NBA’s willingness to embrace the genre as league-sponsored entertainment.

If you needed any more convincing, look no further than Sunday night’s lineup. J. Cole, who threw the only lob worth anything during the dunk-contest, is a conscious lyricist who has been known to vent his frustration with society on its grandest stages. Before J. Cole performed at halftime, Meek Mill opened the night with a powerful rendition of “Dreams and Nightmares” that might have forced even the coldest of hearts to understand why he recently launched a criminal justice reform organization with Jay-Z.

On paper it made sense: J. Cole, who hails from Fayetteville, North Carolina, some three hours away, is the closest thing Charlotte may have to a prodigal rap son, and Meek Mill has gone from street rapper with a record to media darling since coming home from prison last year. But the league hasn’t always made sense. After all, these are the same people who’ve rolled out LeAnn Rimes, Big & Rich, Carrie Underwood and Elton John, to name a few, as their halftime acts in the past. And don’t forget John Legend when nobody else will answer the phone. Aside from last year’s Migos cameo, the closest the NBA has come to a league-sponsored rap performance might have been an LL Cool J/Mary J. Blige collab at the beginning of the millennium. Drake, Rihanna and Kanye West headlined the 2009 show; however, this is long before Drake grew a beard and threw subliminal gun bars at some before-mentioned emcees.

So how did we get from cautiously corporate to gloriously gutter? Well, for decades, parties such as Freaknik and the Super Bowl dominated the urban industry. However, come the early 2000s, there was a new kid on the block — a new kid who finally let the ballplayers feel like rappers and the rappers feel like ballplayers. While in the past, the NBA may have let the obvious hip-hop influence of All-Star weekend cohabit quietly around nearby nightclubs and DoubleTrees, the rap world has been telling us for years that the four quarters on Sunday aren’t the only game being played when the world’s best hoopers link up annually. From money to women to jewelry, these lyrics tell the story of how a basketball exhibition turned into “The Black Super Bowl.”


Foxy Brown — “Why? Why? Why?” (2003)

Ya see I, caught him creeping/
All-Star weekend/
He ain’t bother to say bye, so I headed for the highway/
I does it my way

You might be thinking that 2003 is rather late to the party for All-Star Weekend references to make their entrance into the above-ground rap world — and you would probably be correct. This is nearly 20 years after Michael Jordan made Saturday nights a spectacle — except Jordan wasn’t hanging out with rappers afterward. But an Iverson-, Marbury-, Steve Francis-run NBA? They were more likely. Also, this is long before records were made on laptops in basements and then uploaded straight to streaming services. Rollouts and label campaigns often negated the freshness of content and slowly trickled out the word on the street. Who knows when Foxy recorded this “loosie” off of her unreleased fourth studio album, but we do know what she meant by creeping.

The Game — “Buddens” (2005)

When you was at the All-Star Game with no jewels on/
I can’t believe I gave you dap/
With the .45 on me I should of gave you that/
Pistol-whipped you laid you flat/
Jump off buddens nah, disgrace to a Yankee hat

What a coincidence that only two weeks ago, The Game and Joe Budden resumed their beef nearly 14 years after this track dropped. Aside from apparently never going out of style, money and women aren’t the only things you can discover at All-Star Weekend — you can also find smoke. While some took it as your average Game diss-track, the very notion of handshakes being traded and rocks being spotted lets listeners know that the All-Star Game might be the place where power brokers are surveying the landscape.

Bun B — “Draped Up Remix” ft. Aztek Lil Keke, Z-Ro, Lil Flip, Paul Wall, Mike Jones, Slim Thug & Chamillionaire (2005)

We got 3rd Ward, 4th Ward, and Southside G’s/
Plus Southwest and Bloody Nickels rollin’ 83’s/
It’s Screwston, Texas m—–f—–, you know the name/
We’ll see you in February for the All-Star Game

Already by the middle of the decade, All-Star Weekend is bubbling as a marquee event. In the ninth and final verse of this marathon Lone Star state remix, Houston legend Bun B foreshadows to a party still four months away at the time of its release. In a pre-Twitter world, this was his version of an invitation. What happened after was the rap world’s version of an RSVP.

Fat Joe ft. Lil Wayne — “The Profit” (2006)

This year All-Star Weekend was off the chain/
Literally n—-s comin’ off wit them chains.

While not the most palatable combo in rap history, the New York and Louisiana emcees teamed up in ’06 to give us valuable intel: What went down when they met up at Bun-B’s neutral site. If lyrics are to be believed, it lived up to the hype. And what’s an All-Star Weekend in Houston without some Cuban links? As Game said, that’s like seeing “Warren G with no Nate Dogg/that’s like MJG with no 8Ball.”

Common — “Break My Heart” (2007)

Seen

her again at All-Star Weekend, she ain’t have tickets/
And she ain’t into hoopers, she was there to kick it/
With her roommate who was a video vixen/
Spend so much on outfits she’s about to get evicted.

Who better than “The Preacher” to give us a softer side of All-Star Weekend? The side where regular people with superstar dreams go to find a big break, a much-needed vacation or maybe even love? Whatever they find, Common unveils a new cast of characters who frequent these functions: Those who fake it until they make it.

Ghostface Killah — “We Celebrate” (2007)

Mansion parties for All-star Weekend in my L.A. crib
We came to party, run out of Goose we got Dollies
Shorty’s sweatin’ me, check out her body

While Ghostface Killah turned up in Los Angeles, others took the short flight to Vegas for perhaps the most controversial and wild weekend in All-Star history. There were triple-digit arrests, the infamous Pacman Jones strip club shooting.

Whether it was just a standard Vegas weekend or a wave of NBA-inspired crime is still TBD. The moral of the story is you can’t go wrong by staying in L.A. with Ghost.

Drake — “Houstatlantavegas” (2009)

We all got dreams and we All-Star reachin’
All-Star peakin,
All-Star Weekend
One hotel room that all y’all sleep in
Housekeeping knock to see if all y’all decent
Young girls envy the life y’all leadin’
Never satisfied wit a nice calm evenin’
You be at the games lookin right, all season
But you always with me, on the night y’all leavin’

If everyone before this was building the allure and mystique of All-Star Weekend, Drake was the one to pull the curtain back. Released off his classic mixtape “So Far Gone,” which turned 10 years old Feb. 14, the generation of young men and women who flocked to Charlotte over the weekend weren’t even old enough to drive when this somber stripper anthem squeaked out. To the adults, the picture Drake painted felt messy, bougie, even soaked in morning-after regret. To the kids though, it sounded like the truth — and maybe even fun. Young girls did envy the life they were leading, and rap’s newest superstar telling them that it was attainable launched All-Star Friday and Saturdays into a whole new echelon.

J. Cole — “Higher” (2010)

Down in Miami, with a super ho team
Tryin’ to bag a brother with a Super Bowl ring
Down in Dallas at the All-Star game
Spittin’ All-Star game
Tryna get a n—- with a all-star name
Somethin’ like
James, somethin’ like Wade

As far as destination weekends go, the crown still lies with the Super Bowl. But with an older, more reserved and corporate crowd hogging the seats, core NBA fans were looking for an annual tradition to call their own.

“Business looks at business,” said ESPN.com and culture critic Scoop Jackson. “You’d be stupid to look at the Super Bowl, and all the money that they’re generating, and not think of a way to do something similar. Black people needed a Super Bowl and this was it.”

While Jackson and the subject of J. Cole’s rhymes have seemingly different intentions, they both agree that by 2010, the NBA had its destination.

Wale — “White Linen” (2011)

All-Star weekend floor seats by the coaches
Flying all frequent, reclining on beaches
Half a millie on the road, y’all relyin’ on features
I ain’t married, but I’m tryna find a keeper

At this point in 2011, the All-Star Weekend bars are being spewed like postgame quarterback clichés. A common denominator? Every rapper seems to have stumbled upon courtside seats. While this DMV poet has never been known to embellish, it’s important to remember that seats by the coaches are few and far between. And definitely not enough for everyone who’s claimed access to some in their verses.

B.o.B — “Best Friend” (2012)

Popping, popping, popping tags, always with a shopping bag
She go to Clark Atlanta but she always hopping class
All-Star weekend, she be where the lobby is

Clown B.o.B all you want for his disappearance from the charts, but at this time few were hotter when it came to radio play. He was fresh off a Billboard No. 1 album in 2010, a No. 1 rap album in 2012 and was still counting the money he made touring off of that “airplanes are like shooting stars” track. He also was kind enough to introduce us to the All-Star Weekend lobby — where much more than check-ins and continental breakfast can be found. Moves are made, schedules are solidified and ballers are bombarded. For those who won’t put on a jersey over the weekend, this is their locker room.

Pusha T — “Keep Dealing” (2015)

My sophomore jinx is more minks
But only for my mother she’ll use ’em as couch covers

You n—-s cheapening my All-Star Weekends
If y’all can’t swim in the deep end then watch n—-

As is often the case in hip-hop, too many people on one wave can be a recipe for trouble. We saw last year what happens when Pusha T feels like his real estate in the game is being threatened, and apparently in 2015 he felt the luxury and exclusivity of the weekend was being waterered down with fake Rolies. And that is the dangerous cycle of anything that’s white-hot in the rap world — get too hot and you risk being labeled as corny. For King Push, it was time for the gatekeepers to step in and salvage their signature event.

Wale — “All Star Breakup” (2018)

If my pride was aside, I probably would text you first
But, If you could die from a broken heart you would drive a hearse
‘Cause, every guy that has ever found you attractive and acted on it
Backpedals months after, that’s when you’ve shown your worth
And I heard you love NBA n—-s and now
You could track how much them n—-s make and make rounds
At the All-Star break, a day or so by Valentine
So my advice if shorty doesn’t know the game, she damin’ y’all

And Mrs. Valentine, dollar signs have you satisfied
Do your goal’s peak at a Rolie and FASHIONNOVA ad

We could spend forever digging through All-Star lyrics, but whole songs? That’s rare. Wale has never been one to blend in, a fact never more evident than him dropping this hopelessly romantic ballad during last year’s festivities in Los Angeles. After all, it’s not coincidence that Valentine’s Day falls on All-Star Week every year — it’s fate. Apparently Wale has had his heart broken by one of, if not several of, the scores of women who magically appear every mid-February.

In 2011 he was boasting about his courtside view and in 2018 he’s wallowing in the sadness of letting another flame slide to the real All-Stars that week. Yet, he keeps coming back, year after year. And that is the true game being played at NBA All-Star Weekend.

Casey Bannon is a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He is a former Division II golf National Champion and claims anywhere in the DMV as his home. He is still trying to figure out how Wale is underrated and how that game-winning reverse in Remember the Titans actually worked.