Take it from the top

THE SOUL OF New Games has emerged. Sports and music -- specifically hip-hop -- are as one.

This coalition is known already in our bones, like a new song to which everyone already knows the words. This is true particularly in basketball and football, and to a lesser degree in soccer, baseball and hockey. Hip-hop has given athletes a series of challenges -- be real, do you, demand your worth. Professional athletes have seen the challenge -- and, frankly, raised it.

Harbinger: Madcap Heisman winner and potential No. 1 pick Johnny "Football" Manziel is going pro -- with a record 80-plus other underclassmen. Foreshadowing: It's the business partner/manager of LeBron James (King James might as well have rapped a beat over "taking my talents to South Beach"), Maverick Carter, who will lead the Manziel charge in "off-the-field projects." Wink: Manziel counts Toronto rapper/superstar/official Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment global ambassador Drake as adviser and friend.

And while heirloom columnists suck Lemonheads over Manziel's attitudinal "antics" (as they are always called), let's also note the state of O'Bannon v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, a case that survived a motion to be dismissed in federal district court, and as Inside Higher Ed observes, places "athletes ... on a path to claim a share of television and other revenue that now flows almost entirely to colleges, coaches and the NCAA." Perhaps. Perhaps not. But folks are valuing their value.

"Your old road is rapidly agin'." -- Bob Dylan, 1964's "The Times They Are A-Changin' "

"I just think it's funny how it goes." -- Drake, 2013's "Started From the Bottom"

NINETEEN EIGHTY-SIX. The future Champagnepapi was born into a world where the wild-ass Mets actually won it all. The Toronto Raptors were nine years away from existence -- Vince Carter was 9 years old. Everything in '86 was Run-DMC and Eric B. and Rakim. "The Bridge," the Beasties, Ice T's "6'n the Mornin' " and Salt-N-Pepa's Hot, Cool & Vicious. The Cosby Show was on Season 3. In the way that those born into the Obama era will take for granted the reality of a black president of the United States, Drake is of a generation that has no consciousness of hip-hop not existing. For his cohorts, rap is like water -- everywhere, and likely free.

Eighteen years later, in an award-winning 2004 episode of Canada's wild, popular Degrassi: The Next Generation, Aubrey Drake Graham portrays rich high school basketball player Jimmy, and Jimmy is shot. This is a thing that happens to black actors on television and in the movies. A standout version of the device is future Hall of Famer Jamaal Wilkes as Nathaniel "Cornbread" Hamilton (shot and killed) in Cornbread, Earl and Me. Lawrence Hilton Jacobs as casual basketball player Cochise (beaten to death) in Cooley High. Those were 1975 releases. Morris Chestnut was the USC football-bound Ricky Baker (shot and killed) in 1991's Boyz n the Hood. But Drake's Jimmy lives. He becomes "Wheelchair Jimmy."

For Drake, Degrassi was means, not end. Drake would not be weirded out by his roots­ -- teen dramatic, Jewish, Canadian -- or by his focus on singing as much as rapping. He knew that potential was not protected; his own Jimmy was a cautionary tale. And by 2008, Drake was on the road with Lil Wayne, prepping So Far Gone. The February 2009 free mixtape and the September 2009 retail EP weren't his first attempts at being what heirlooms sometimes still call an MC, but they were his best yet. The lucent, generation-defining "Successful" (featuring Lil Wayne and Trey Songz) and the indelible "Best I Ever Had" were a sign to the cool kids to desert him for newer rappers more thrillingly underground. These are the kind of nerdy, influential kids who pride themselves on having seen Carmelo or LeBron as McDonald's All-Americans and are then bored with them as their jerseys go to No. 1. They knew Drake was well on the road to being Jay Z to Kendrick Lamar's Nas. As Drake supposed on "Successful" -- he wanted the money, the cars and the clothes. Not to mention the acclaim, the accolades and his own piece of the future.

By 2011, Drake received the Songwriters Hall of Fame Hal David Starlight Award. In 2012 he broke Sean "Diddy" Combs' and Jay Z's hip-hop singles sales records. Last year he sold almost 700,000 (in the first week) of his Nothing Was the Same, while his single "Hold On, We're Going Home" with Majid Jordan became his 33rd top-10 single and broke a radio airplay record. Drake has 18 Grammy noms and one win. All this while introducing the starting Raptors as part of Drake Night at the Air Canada Centre. All this while helping recruit British striker Jermain Defoe to Toronto FC. All this while having voice and text chats with Manziel about "sacrifice" and hosting Johnny Football in Toronto. Manziel, after all, has had an OVO tat, the emblem that stands for Drake's label, October's Very Own, on his right wrist since before he even met Drake. "He was that much of a supporter," Drake has said, "and a fan."

THE NEW GAMES do come complete with naysayers. The heirlooms, after all, first said that Jay Z, working via his recently launched (with Creative Artists Agency) Roc Nation Sports, was not truly involved in the massive Robinson Cano deal. Still pumped on alarm, they then said that Jay Z was too involved.

Brodie Van Wagenen, CAA's co-head of the baseball division, doled brass tacks when he responded: "[Jay] helped Robinson understand what it means to be a free agent." This as he reconfirmed Jay Z's participation in the prep, the approach, as well as offers made and countered. This as the five-time All-Star Cano -- who also has a championship ring, two Gold Gloves and a World Baseball Classic MVP award -- signed a deal with the Mariners worth $240 million over 10 years. It is the third-largest contract in baseball history. All respect to Percy "Master P" Miller, whose vision of No Limit Sports Management was ahead of its time, but this was not the 1999 Saints/Ricky Williams saga.

Van Wagenen mentioned "free agent." Even if not compared with the terms "owner" or "trade," which of course remain thick with history as they relate to colored men and labor, "free agent" is a dangling totem finally snatched, a self-given name wrought in fat platinum cursive and draped nonchalantly around a neck of one's own. As Drake raps: "Just as a reminder to myself, I wear every single chain, even when I'm in the house." Free. Agency. One who doesn't have any commitments to restrict his or her actions. The capacity of a person to act in the world as one wishes. Who better than the shark poet born Shawn Carter to decode jargon taken for granted? Who better than a reformed dope dealer to demand value? It seems Jay Z sees in "free agent" a tiny verse as glorious as Baldwin: "Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be."

Drake's precision selfness -- his absolute comfort with being both "biracial" and "black," pop and hip-hop, corny and cool -- is made possible by the hip-hop rights era, including the shooting deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., of the 1980s and 1990s. Spoonie Gee and Eazy-E and Chuck D and Jay Z didn't pave the way as much as create a world for Drake and J. Cole and Nicki Minaj and Wale. Allen Iverson came up through the earthquakes of Tupac and Wu-Tang, Timbaland and Clipse and in turn laid out for the likes of Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin and Dame Lillard a freedom to not be him. Rap allows Griffin his dryly sincere irony, Westbrook his avant-garde game-day looks. James Harden's beard should send a quarterly thank-you note.

Combine all this with how endorsement deals are now more of the matrix than they used to be. People like Drake and Blake and LeBron and Jay Z aren't endorsing brands; they're helping brands exist via the stars' stated or assumed core beliefs and surrounding aura. This is possible now because hip-hop's influence is at last a true and not merely an ancillary currency. It's not just the Grammys, and it's not just the games -- life itself is to be touchdowned and home-runned, slam-dunked and Spotified.

The game is always on. And it's to be won.

"WE'RE INFLUENTIAL TO athletes," USC Trojans fan Snoop Dogg said last spring about himself and his musical colleagues. "And we're very business-minded and savvy. So what better way to do, than our way?"

His way is fist-bumping with Secretary of State John Kerry at the Kennedy Center Honors. It's training his son, Cordell Broadus, a wide receiver deciding among scholarship offers from Notre Dame, UCLA, USC, Washington and more. Cordell himself dubs his highlight recruiting video with self-spouted, original lyrics. Snoop's Youth Football League (established 2005) counts the Denver Broncos' Ronnie Hillman as an alum. "There's a lot of kids who come out of my league who are venturing off into the NFL ... " Snoop said to AOL's Paul Cantor in April of last year. "They're going to need direction ... so that may be a field that I want to venture in."

UCLA carries a 5'7", 170-pound cornerback named Justin Combs, son of Sean/Diddy. Recently, Combs the elder said, "I will become the first African-American majority owner ... Not having a small stake but actually owning an NFL team ... it's time for that. A majority of players who are in the NFL are African-American, but there are no African-American owners." Combs is of course the founder of Bad Boy Worldwide and Sean John apparel, co-owns cable channel Revolt TV and partners with Diageo (Ciroc vodka) in a deal likely, according to Forbes, to end up making the Harlem native "hip-hop's first billionaire."

There are, as Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill spits: "levels to this s--- ."

No matter how much some might act like the music has changed for the worse or hasn't done enough (most everything falls short when what is desired is fairness and equality), hip-hop with all its flaws has given Generation X and Generation Y -- black and white and Asian and Latin and otherwise -- a common (if male-centered) language. It has given them, in many ways -- some superficial, many real -- a comfort level around each other. And, not least, it has given black athletes a confidence in managing the value of their bodies and intellects in a country that bought and sold both as a matter of course.

"We just want the credit," rhymes Drake in his "Started From the Bottom," a song that might one day be understood for being the monument to unheralded creative genius that it is. "We just want the credit where it's due."

Danyel Smith, a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, was the editor of Vibe and Billboard. Her top-secret project is HRDCVR.

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