On March 24th the hip hop world was blessed with two very different albums dropping. One was an insular and imaginative work, the other was boisterous and fun. Although the two artists seem diametrically opposed to, they’ve collaborated and have each other’s back. They make for an odd pair, but their independent gyroscopes can cross paths and still make sense. In a way, they remind me of a pair of players in Washington DC.
Earl Sweatshirt’s second album is titled I Don’t Do shit, I Don’t Go outside and is fundamental to understanding the way Earl considers his craft. After the initial boom of Earl’s running mates in Odd Future, he was whisked away from the group and the limelight by his mother and was in a boarding school in America Samoa. He was only 16 at the time, and once his mother discovered his abrasive raps and Odd Future videos that showed him doing any number of mom-fainting activities, he was gone from the group.
Since then, his albums have been creative, lurking pieces of double stacked wordplay over murky and weird beats. Where Earl’s early bars spit with ferocity at a high rate of turnover, the post-fame Earl went a little slower, but still wound up with a high level of vulnerability. Considering he also handles production duties for his album (half of the songs on Doris, and the entire second album were his productions) he takes what he does very seriously and very personally. Lyrically, Earl goes deep into what makes his life tick, as he watched his friends become household names while he was off the grid in Samoa.
John Wall rose to fame early with his tenure on a championship winning University of Kentucky Wildcats team. Selected Number 1 overall by the Washington Wizards, he was set on a team that occupied the basement for a number of years, despite a blip of popularity in the Gilbert Arenas era, the team was quickly flushed down again as the Arenas and his teammates wound up in controversies over guns and shoes full of excrement. Wall watched as his friends and teammates become the centerpieces and his team went through a fire sale, re-building sure, but seemingly miles away from where Wall was in Kentucky.
But last year saw John Wall lead his Wizards to the furthest they’ve gotten in decades and his opportunity to surpass his fellow Wildcats and become one of the top faces of the league. Wall is also subject to his increasing sensitivity towards his gameplay. Not consistent with being a speedster who gets to the basket in an untouchable gear, Wall set assist records for himself throughout the season, getting his teammates more involved. He has a crew and wants them to be a part of his fame, but knows how much of it results on him being at the top of his game.
Wall’s approach to his game could be as literal as Earl’s album, I Don’t Do Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. As meticulous as you have to be to dredge up the lofi beats that Earl creates, you have to put in the hours to perfect the yo-yo/lasso dribble. Unlike some of the past stars of the Wizards, Wall doesn’t really find a need for the DC nightlife, choosing instead to keep a very low profile outside of a music video appearance. Wall’s attention to his game, and his game trying to incorporate his teammates is sometimes even to his detriment. Whereas some fans want Wall to be the next Allen Iverson, he continually looks for that extra pass or move, even if the rest of the team isn’t expecting it. Just watch for his dribble to the top of the key, jump to fake the defender and shift to find an open man move, and you’ll go crazy just wanting him to go to the basket. But John Wall’s nature has him never really calling out teammates or coaches in the media, he is the first to accept blame for his faults. He is the strongest of himself when he knows how he fits in the team, even if he is the leader. That doesn’t make it any easier for him, as that same kind of mindset is reflected in Earl Sweatshirt’s rhymes. Earl was easily the biggest talent out of the initial wave of Odd Future, but by being whisked away from that ascension, he missed out on the team effort of fame. Now he’s attempting to drift into his own, but there is a sense of melancholy throughout his new album that wouldn’t necessarily be fixed by his friends, but would be easier to swallow if they were on the same level.
On the other side of the March 24th coin was Action Bronson. An oversized Albanian from Queens, Bronson’s Mr. Wonderful was a major release on a major label and features his stream of conscious raps over a friendly-but-not-pop beat selection. Bronson’s MO is not to take himself too seriously, which is apparent in the frequent stop and start of opening track “Brand New Car”. That isn’t to say Bronson doesn’t take himself seriously, but he’s going to be braggadocios and silly in the same breath. He’s well aware of his talent and will let you know at the drop of a hat, complete with IROC-Z and fine dining references. Bronson sees the rap game, and his success in it, and leverages it into an online cooking show. He uses the vast resource of being on a Warner Brothers affiliate and uses it to score a Billy Joel sample, and relegates it to an opening track that is under three minutes. Regardless of what you think of Bronson and his chops, he is doing the whole thing the way he wants to.
Marcin Gortat, the 8th year Center from Poland and current Washington Wizard also has no reason to not brag about his performance. After signing a five-year $60 million contract in the offseason, he’s viewed as a key piece to the Wizards performance. However, head coach Randy Wittman has pulled him from a number of fourth quarter appearances over the likes of Kevin Seraphin, DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries. Gortat has not been quiet about these moves and has expressed his frustration without being too aggressive towards the decisions. Gortat enjoys basketball, but enjoys his life just as much. Follow his Instagram and he’s showing off his collection of cars. Follow him on twitter and he interacts with fans and, in the offseason, tried to court other players to join him in DC. He uses his position as being the most famous Polish player in the NBA to ride tanks back in his native country.
Gortat has the size and skills of a center, but he rarely posts up with enough consistency for those plays to be called. Gortat at his best is in transition, or coming off the pick-and-roll, but either way, Gortat’s power is in his ability to move and improvise, even if the call is made for him. Like Action, he doesn’t work great in a set parameter of “This play is about this set” or “This song follows one topic”. The big men have strength in their self-centeredness because the drive to make it about them is the one power they have. Marcin Gortat is a 6’11” Center with mediocre hands from an area not known for producing basketball talent. Action Bronson is a hefty white guy with a beard down to his chest who sounded a lot like Ghostface Killah when he first started. But they both drove themselves into an upper echelon of work that transformed what their parameters of perception would take them. Gortat could have been a serviceable backup behind any number of talented big men (and was for a while) and Action could have turned into a posse guy, appearances here and there, second or third fiddle to a rapper with a better look.
After almost two entire seasons together, the differences were apparent after the Wizards defeated the Philadelphia 76ers 106-93. When asked about the success of Gorat’s 23 point & 14 rebound night, he put it simply “They were passing me the ball.” When John Wall was asked about that comment he laughed and explained that most of the offensive half court calls were for “post-ups, a lot of our plays are for two-guards and a lot of plays are for me.”
Whereas Wall broke down the science of the offensive system, and also slyly called out Wittman for his lack of inventive play calling, Gortat’s explanation was simple: Get him the ball. Where Gortat looks for success he sees himself, where Wall looks for success he sees the system in front of him. They make for a great pair (anyone who has seen their pick-and-rolls can attest to this) and although their personal styles clash, the combination of the two is a solid one-two hit in the airways.