ON A PLEASANT summer night last June at Miami Beach's Liv nightclub, a baroque catacomb nestled in the world-famous Fontainebleau hotel, the tall, muscular, generously tattooed figure and his crew bled through a knot of bodies thick enough to set the fire marshal's hair ablaze before seizing the stage and microphone to spit words karaoke-style over a song blasting through the speakers.
Damn right I got it, damn right I'm 'bout it
Clique full of killers, please don't get us excited
Yeah I'm smoking loud so lame n--s be quiet
If you f-- with us, we gonna start up a riot
The multiracial throng assembled for the night's bacchanalia instantly recognized the serpentine rhythms of "Riot," the bouncy trap music tune of Atlanta-born performer 2 Chainz. A 6'5" former college basketball guard, 2 Chainz, née Tauheed Epps, left his hoop dreams behind with a spirited crossover to hip-hop. But the performer that June night wasn't 2 Chainz. He wasn't even a rapper. The man in the UNKNWN Rottweiler T-shirt -- similar to the ones sported by Jay-Z and Kanye West on their Watch the Throne tour (except the dog's snarling cuspids were combined with his world-famous face in an artful version of homo lupus) -- was LeBron James. The Miami Heat überstar had just gotten a big monkey off his back and won a championship a mere three hours earlier.
Instead of dashing to Disney World, James and his teammates retreated to what has become a clichéd haven for this generation of athletes: a red-roped club pounding with hip-hop music. It made sense for James to channel 2 Chainz: If the rap star used to be a baller, then surely his generation's premier baller, at least for a night, could be a rapper too.
Musician and athlete have long looked to each other's experiences as a mirror to their own pursuits. There are the obvious connections: Each grapples with money and partner problems and must overcome great odds to succeed. Each wrestles with distractions to the passion that drives him. Passion that Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware sees as the unifying bond between great art and athletics. "When you think about the passion it takes to make music or the passion it takes to prepare for a game, I think they go hand in hand," Ware says.
Each too thinks it's better to burn out than fade away. Each knows there's a higher likelihood of one-hit wonders and short-term success than sustained careers. Each uses an instrument -- a body for the athlete, a piano or voice for the musician. "From our genetic makeup, our bodies are naturally connected to the universe through music," Knicks power forward Amar'e Stoudemire says. "We have vocal cords, eardrums and organs. When a certain player gets hot, he says, 'I had a rhythm out there.' All of that relates back to music."
Stoudemire's God's-eye explanation of the connection between musicians and athletes is intriguing. But a more earthbound view has to include the amount of cultural real estate now owned by superstars in music and sports. Last month Jay-Z and his wife, Beyonce, were greeted as royalty by a fawning democracy at President Obama's inauguration; a week later, James was sending Instagrams from the White House.
Without leading a march or raising a gloved fist, these two are the fullest examples of how athletes and musicians, in this case a baller and his mentor, have won access to Sinatra– level autonomy and Obama–level audacity with no social obstacles, stylistic aversions or racial barriers. To paraphrase Jay-Z, Who you know fresher than them? Riddle me that.
INSIDE AND OUTSIDE black hoods across America, a potent narrative argues there are only three ways out of the ghetto: hustling, hip-hop and hoops. A consequence of that story is an intense collaboration between hoops and hip-hop stars based on the knowledge that they represent a salvation story for black people mired in poverty and stripped of other opportunities. "The all-or-nothing pursuit of excellence in sports or music is a tough ideal to have for a community," singer John Legend argues. "It's a distorted aspiration, because the chances of success are so slim."
Those left behind continue to project their hopes on those who escape, creating a vertical embrace of departed star and forsaken hood, but also a horizontal embrace between baller and rapper, who nurture in each other a sense of duty and love for family or friends who will never perform onstage or score on the hardwood or gridiron.
James and Jay-Z have taken this collaboration to the next level. Though one comes from hoops and the other from hustling and hip-hop, they have proved that actually the most successful way out of the ghetto is to transcend the built-in limitations of all three -- to transcend all limitations whatsoever.
Just two years before his night at Liv, King James had been dethroned in the hearts of millions and had become the NBA's bête noire for divorcing the Cavaliers and pledging his love to the Heat. Yet today -- one championship, a third MVP award and one more Olympic gold medal later -- he stands astride far more than the sports world, as his corporate interests and endorsement deals prove. Meanwhile Jay-Z's popularity as one of the greatest rappers ever, a savvy businessman and face of the Nets (and much else) puts him on track to become hip-hop's first billionaire: the quintessential expression of a new American dream.
This King James and Hova iteration of that dream -- You are not going to tell me how to be me and I have the cash, the cred and the talent to make sure I do it my way, with your children's blessing -- now has widespread acceptance in all facets of American society. Oh, how the paradigm at the golden nexus of hoops genius and hip-hop glory has tilted.
Past pioneers of black style and swag paid a heavy price to enjoy the fruits of their labor. There would be no LeBron James tattooed torso, no Colin Kaepernick bicep-tennial celebration or, for that matter, no cornrowed RG3 without Allen Iverson. He pioneered both on the court, drawing from a lineage that stretches back to 2Pac, whose inked body narrated the truths of his existence and inspired Iverson, who subsequently inspired subconscious purse-clutching. "AI was seen as what's bad about the league," explains the profusely tatted Knicks center Tyson Chandler. "And then tattoos became more popular in the following generations. Just because you look a certain way, you can't put people in a box. Look at Kaepernick. You can't put him in the same box as every other person who has tattoos."
When NBA commissioner David Stern imposed a dress code a few years back that took aim at the most obvious signifiers of hip-hop culture (sagging pants, large jewelry, Timberlands, do-rags), it was seen as a thinly veiled attempt to suppress the growing influence of that culture. But by then, James and some of the league's other stars had moved on to Givenchy, Louis Vuitton and Rocawear -- taking inspiration from Rocawear's owner, who himself had moved from the recording studio to the boardroom. One stitch at a time, NBA stars today weave their styles into the fabric of American culture, their catchy eyewear and flamboyant colors direct from the brash artistry of rappers. In solidarity, as it were.
"Artists often say things athletes wish they could say," says Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon. "Athletes usually have to talk about the team or what the coaches want to talk about. Rappers are in a position to say what they really feel at the moment."
NO ONE HAS captured that spirit of ball and response more than Jay-Z, as when he brags on his recording "Public Service Announcement":
I got a hustler spirit, n-- a period
Check out my hat yo, peep the way I wear it
Check out my swag yo, I walk like a ballplayer
No matter where you go, you are what you
If rappers want to be ballers (Jay-Z frequently references himself in the same breath as Michael Jordan and LeBron) and ballers want to be rappers (the athlete-rapper moniker spans from Shaquille O'Neal to Iman Shumpert), then Jay-Z has redefined both, infusing each with the charismatic swag that has taken him the two miles from Marcy Houses to the Barclays Center. And it's fitting that he and James have teamed up under the banner of Two Kings for several charitable dinners during the annual NBA All-Star weekend.
Yet their most important contribution lies beyond the gilded fields of performance they have both ingeniously exploited. While the civil rights and even the MJ generations had to convince the mainstream that they were worthy of acceptance through appropriate dress and diction, Jay-Z and James have embraced Ralph Waldo Emerson's dictum: "To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment." And they've taken it further: If you are better than the best and build a compelling brand, the world will beat a path to your door and you can dress and speak any damn way you please. Or as Jay-Z put it: "Ball so hard muhf--s wanna fine me / But first n--s gotta find me."
That they and the fields they represent have gone from occasional pariahs to cultural royalty is a tribute to the society that produced them and gave them the chutzpah to believe they could do it at all. That's more than progress; that's a revolution that has been televised, tweeted and beamed around the globe.
Georgetown University sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson is the author of 16 books, including assessments of Tupac Shakur, Marvin Gaye, Bill Cosby and MLK.