Hip-Hop 50: Jay-Z, Jordan and the stories we tell to support GOAT status

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.

“And with the third pick/I made the earth sick/MJ/him Jay/fadeaway/perfect” — Jay-Z on “Hola Hovito” (2001)

First, we observe greatness — we see someone do something we didn’t know was possible, achieve something we didn’t think a human being is capable of — but the measure of greatness lies in the stories we tell about it. Why do kids who were born after Michael Jordan hung ’em up for good still covet Air Jordan sneakers? Because on some level they know, from the way those among us who lived through his playing years talk about him, that he is the benchmark for greatness in the game of basketball, and everyone else is measured against his success. Not Wilt, not Kareem, not Magic, Russell, Bird, or Oscar Robertson. And not because you couldn’t make the case for any of these guys — it’s because their stories never gained steam.

It’s not all their fault; Jordan had the benefit of their work in popularizing the game, while also being playing at the dawn of the 24-hour media cycle with a global reach. He was everywhere, all the time. But the ability to be seen is step one. You have to have a story to feed the machine, and Jordan had a great one. Being cut from his high school team, his sudden growth spurt, his championship-winning shot as a college freshman, his sneakers being banned by the league, his Chicago Bulls going a perfect 6-0 in the Finals … tidbits that on their own range from unremarkable to exciting, but put together with his display of skill on the court created his legend.

Greatness has reached its pinnacle when other people use the story to burnish their own mythology. Jay-Z, self-mythologizer par excellence, has compared himself to Jordan perhaps more than most. It’s obvious what he’s doing, getting us to conflate Jordan’s stature with his own, but he’s done so on more than the surface level. On 2001’s “Hola Hovito,” Jay raps: “And with the third pick/I made the earth sick/MJ/him Jay/fadeaway/perfect.” That’s not just him saying he’s as great as Jordan, but that their stories run parallel with one another.

Jordan was chosen third by the Bulls in the 1984 NBA draft — a factoid often repeated as proof that Jordan was undervalued and underestimated, only for him to fashion a career that proved the doubters wrong in the most humiliating fashion.

Jay, too, was reminding people that he was overlooked — he shopped his demo, no labels wanted to sign him until after he began producing his own material independently. And even after he finally managed a record deal (first with Priority, then Def Jam), his first two albums didn’t move the needle. It wasn’t until his third album, 1998’s “Hard Knock Life, Vol. 2,” which sold five million copies, that Jay-Z, (somewhat disputed) greatest rapper of all time, was able to break through to mainstream success.

The important thing to note is that the stories don’t all have to be true. And even the true stories don’t have to be put in their proper context — they only have to serve the legend. In hindsight, the (somewhat disputed) greatest player to ever play the game should have at least gone second (very few people are going to argue it was imprudent for the Houston Rockets to select Hakeem Olajuwon, another all-time great). But would it have made sense to draft Jordan when they had Clyde Drexler at his position? Wasn’t the game more geared toward big men at the time (Sam Bowie had a fine NBA career!)? Do the particulars matter? Not if you’re telling Jordan’s story the way he would like it to be told.

Or Jay’s. Labels didn’t want to sign him? Well, most people who want to make music don’t get signed to a label, but I can’t say I don’t understand them passing on Jay when he sounded more like Fu-Schnickens than the Jay-Z we know today. Then he changed his style, adopting the mafioso image … which probably felt a little derivative after Raekwon and Ghostface had put out “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx” (1995)… “Reasonable Doubt” is a great album, but 1996 was dominated by Tupac and The Fugees (and Celine Dion). His follow-up, “In My Lifetime, Vol. 1” (1997), was introduced with probably the worst lead single of his career, “(Always Be My) Sunshine,” an egregious mistake of artificial pop confection. It may have taken the labels and the public a while to figure out what Jay had to offer, but the same can be said about Jay himself.

Truth be told, the myths sound better — more daring, more fanciful, more heroic. The rub is that they nudge out all the other stories — often more interesting, more nuanced, more human. And everything that comes after the great mythologies are set has to compete with their grandiosity, with little luck. I love LeBron, but is the story of a highly touted prospect meeting expectations going to get the people going the way Jordan’s tale has? Can Kendrick Lamar turn successful mixtapes, singing with Dr. Dre, immediately selling millions of records and winning Grammy’s into something that rivals Jay’s hustler’s redemption?

Of course, LeBron and Kendricks’ stories are more complex than what I laid out here, but that’s the point: Jordan and Jay’s stories are more complex, too. The battle for greatness, however, isn’t won in the details; it’s determined by making people believe greatness exists beyond human understanding.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a New York Times bestselling author and writer whose work has been featured in The Atlantic, GQ and Pitchfork, among others.

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