Editor's note: In honor of hip-hop turning 50, ESPN tapped the culture's top voices to write about their favorite athlete name-drops in hip-hop history.
"As dirty as the water in Flint, the system is/ Is it a felony or misdemeanor?/Maria Sharapova making more than Serena." -- Common feat. Stevie Wonder on "Black America Again" (2016)
Every time Serena Williams smashed her racket against the neon felt of a tennis ball, with a grunt -- sometimes a scream -- she punctuated her power. She played against more than the opponent on the other side of the net. Serena played against everything.
Her story, well-known as it is, still amazes me. This Black woman from Compton wasn't supposed to play at Wimbledon, let alone win 23 majors before twirling into retirement in September 2022. Her name has become so iconic that when she's referenced, she only needs the one. No Williams required.
Despite all her achievements, Serena was criticized for not embodying Eurocentric beauty standards throughout her career. As Common notes here, she really did make less than Maria Sharapova at one point because of the disparity in their off-court compensation. Even though their overall head-to-head record was 20-2 favoring Serena, brands seemed to be more interested in the thin, long (read: white) lines of Sharapova than being associated with Serena's dominance. The system, as rapper and actor Common says, was as dirty as the water in Flint.
I watched the 2018 US Open championship match from a hotel bar while at a conference. When Serena clashed with a chair umpire in what became a cultural flashpoint, I felt uncomfortable and deeply empathetic. I interpreted deferred rage -- a pain simmering before coming to a boil.
And who could blame her?
The first time I remember hearing a Serena reference in hip-hop was "Gold Digger" by Kanye West in 2005. For those who have forgotten the lyric, it goes like this: "But I'm looking for the one have you seen her? My psychic told me she have an ass like Serena." In some ways, this lyric is the antithesis of the one uttered by Common. Common indicted a system that undervalued Serena and discarded Black people, whereas Kanye West explicitly plays into the often-used trope of hypersexualizing Serena's body instead of praising her accomplishments. As if her "ass" is the only remarkable thing about her.
Serena is an icon and possibly the most name-dropped woman athlete in hip-hop. With that status comes myriad depictions and references. Everybody has something to say. My favorite thing about Serena, though, is that she will clap back. In Beyonce's "Sorry" music video, Serena doesn't say a word but parades across the screen, dancing as she sees fit, while Beyonce's lyrics "I ain't sorry" float through the speakers and says everything that needs to be said.
She bad. She always will be. And she's not even a little bit sorry about it.