I absolutely, positively love everything about Shaq’s freestyle performance at The Coliseum. The only thing appalling or shocking is some of the self-righteous alarm that we’re seeing from some of my media brethren; but then again, it’s just another indication of the generation and cultural gaps that exist between the players and those that cover them.
It actually made me, a fellow Gen-Xer, proud to see Shaq on that stage — albeit in a family-reunion getup with Damon Jones’ twin beside him — getting at Kobe. Only a Gen-Xer could have pulled that off. Shaq’s formative years were soundtrack’d by Biggie and Public Enemy and Pac and EPMD and Wu and, well, you can dig. Pat Ewing and David Robinson were pumping Luther Vandross and Freddie Jackson through their headphones. So, at 35, Ewing’s commensurate recourse would have been going to a bourgeoisie supper-club and crooning about how Charles Smith broke his heart in the 93 Eastern Conference Finals. When Kareem was 35, he’d have to go get a band and perform a protest song directed at Kevin McHale or grab two tenor saxes and challenge Elvin Hayes to a cutting-contest. But Shaq, forever young, got on stage and spit, what I deem a fairly clever line: “Kobe, tell me how my a$$ tastes.” Or, in other words, “Kobe, I’ve just spent the past few minutes — or few years, really — sh&%$#ng on you, so, tell me, how does the product of my anus taste?” Hilarious, classic and, if you ask me, culturally monumental.
Sure it was kinda bush-league. I didn’t need to know that Shaq got a vasectomy, information that probably sent thousands of gold-diggers into suicidal depressions. Sure it was petty to rub in a recent loss. But Shaq was at a nightclub, on the mic, in front of fans that — at this point in his carer — probably only care too much about him when attached to Kobe, so he gave ’em what they wanted. And, yeah, sure it was tinged with some residue-animus. Shaq smiled throughout most of his performance, but his expression turned to a glower when he mentioned Kobe in reference to his divorce. That could have been a pensive expression of concentration, searching for rhyming words and linear thoughts, but it could have also been a moment of tipsy honesty. Oh, best believe Shaq was popped off some type of truth-serum. I can’t tell you how many times I was in a bent-cipher with my crew and heard something spit in my direction that made me think, “Oh, so that’s how you feel?” If you wanna let somebody know how you really feel — but don’t really wanna do that — then drop on somebody in a freestyle cipher or battle, when all bets are off. That’s how it goes. Ribbing, trash-talking, battle-rhymes — they’re all fundamentally childish and one of the few times that grown men can behave like petulant, non-filtered, smallish brats without too much fear of physical retribution (unless you’re dealing with thugs) or fractured relationships, provided no one really goes in. There was no adult reason for LL to tell Can-i-bus that he went “platinum for every time your grimy a$$ was on the train.” It’s all good ol’, sophomoric competition.
Shaq is smart, because he backed Kobe into a corner. If Kobe reacts to this is any way other than ambivalent or mildly amused then Kobe loses whatever “street cred” — to use a term middle-age squares like to employ — he currently has.
Bravo, Shaq. He spent all season acting like he was truly happy for Kobe’s success so that, if/when Kobe got a ring, Shaq could act as if it didn’t bother him. But anyone that has followed Shaq throughout his career knows that he is probably the most egotistical athlete of his generation. Shaq has too many “feed the big dog” quotes and tantrums thrown to get lost in our infatuation with his moments of self-deprecation and clowning. There was absolutely no way that Kobe’s success wasn’t burning through his insides like an acidic ulcer.
So when Kobe played, perhaps, his worst basketball of the season and failed to grab his fourth ring, Shaq was probably sitting in his Star Island mansion thinking, “I won.” Shaq and Kobe are in competition and it’s a competition that is more public, personal and compelling because of their history. His freestyle was his generation’s quintessential vehicle for oneupmanship.
This is ingrained in the fabric of the black community. Any display of skill or talent becomes a competition, whether it’s playing an instrument, dressing clean, baking a sweet potato pie or playing some ball. Shaq was doing nothing more than “talking trash.” Except, these days, you can talk trash via emceeing. Shaq happens to be more skilled than most athletes with the mic. He is no MF DOOM or Nas, but he is clearly better than Kobe. Folks can clown Shaq if they want, but he was moving the crowd — not like KRS, but still moving the crowd; which, by many definitions, is the essence of emceeing…hence the initials (MC). Kobe would have done one of two things: 1.) Get up there and actually try to spit a written verse with multi-syllabic words that he’d inevitably mangle leading to him asking the DJ to “run it back,” like he was recording a single; or 2.) Get up there with a vocoder and backup dancers. Kobe will always be more polished than Shaq, but never cooler than Big Dies. Shaq knows this, just like he knows Kobe will spend the next five years incessantly at the forefront of the league and consistently winning rings. Shaq has a few years left in the spotlight, a spotlight that will be dimmed by Kobe’s shadow, so he took one last opportunity to get at Kobe where Kobe can’t get him back — on the streets, so to speak. Kobe got TMZ’d or YouTube’d, he got Cuuurrrtttiiisss’d. Unless Kobe responds by writing a “scathing Op-Ed in the Times,” he’s gonna have to sit back and taste Shaq’s anus on this one.
Vincent Thomas is a SLAMOnline columnist and SLAM Magazine contributor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.