Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Consider Shaq's Music Videos

So here’s the thing about Shaq: He is interesting. He does lots of things. Most of them don’t really relate to basketball all that much, but as that is kind of the purview of the blog, Shaq is going to be a topic of frequent discussion at Love in the Time of LeBron, even if that discussion is basically just, “Isn’t it weird how Shaq hangs out with young, male, teenage pop stars?” The point is that I mostly really like Shaq and enjoy talking about his hobbies and side projects. It’s basically, pretty much like this.

In any case, I thought that we could take some time to get to know Shaq’s work a little better. Specifically the hip-hop singles, and even more specifically, the music videos. While it’s tempting to dismiss his rap career as inconsequential and his musical output as the equivalent to vanity publishing, it’s not fair and not true. Shaq is not Ron Artest. His first album, Shaq Diesel, went platinum. The second, Shaq Fu, went gold. His singles consistently charted and all four of his released albums were released on a major label. Shaq, as a rapper, seems like he should be a mere footnote, but his commercial impact is undeniable. For comparison, Shaq’s success with singles on the U.S. Rap chart is comparable to, and arguably better than, a hip hop luminary like Ghostface Killah. Shaq’s rap career, somehow, kind of matters. So if I’ve succeeded in persuading you, let’s move on to some goofy-ass shit.

What’s Up Doc? (Can We Rock?)

This is actually a Fu-Schnickens song and video and not a Shaquille O’Neal single, but it’s important, because it’s the first time we get a taste, albeit a very small one of Shaq’s rapping abilities. Released in 1993, this song was a fairly cynical attempt to salvage a song based around a Bugs Bunny sample that Fu-Shnickens couldn’t get clearance for. Instead, Fu-Schnickens decided to actively seek out Shaq, who had listed the group as his favorite hip hop artists. Shaq was happy to contribute a sort-of verse tacked onto the end of the song, say, “What’s up doc?” in lieu of Bugs Bunny, and appear in the video. The verse is a short, so-so affair which includes a number of regrettable boasts such as “Forget Tony Danza; I’m the boss,” a few nonsensical words rhymed together, and a nice little slam on Christian Laettner for failing to be the number one pick in the 1992 NBA draft. The video is a kinetic affair, featuring a lot of movement, probably over-animated word art, and Shaq hopping up and down while wearing a giant vest. It sounds deeply silly but it was a big hit, a Top 40 smash, and the most-famous Fu-Schnickens would ever be, which is a shame, because it’s actually kind of an awesome song even if it is by a group called “Fu-Schnickens.”

(I Know I Got) Skillz

The first Shaq single! It’s off of Shaq Diesel and was his highest charting success, reaching the third spot on the U.S. rap charts. The video is a fairly simple affair, featuring a smoking tractor trailer slowly backing up until Shaq bursts out, jumping onto a giant logo of his name and rapping to the assembled street party. Shaq is wearing what appears to be, again, one very large vest. Occasionally the music video is intercut with shots of Shaq walking down a different street during the day wearing a different vest. The rap itself is a standard braggadocio-ridden, ranting answer to the question, “Could Shaquille O’Neal possibly be any good at rapping?” And Shaq, in his rapping answer, wants to assure you that, while you may not know yet, he certainly knows that he posses the requisite skills. Here is a sampling of said skills:

“You better than Shaq-tack? Fool! Shut up, liar
I lean on the Statue of Liberty when I get tired
Then I’ll punch you in the stomach, I don’t give a heck”

He certainly doesn’t. This song also features Def Jef, who, according to Wikipedia (which I checked because I have never heard of Def Jef) apparently used to write criticially-acclaimed sociopolitical lyrics. More recently, however, he wrote the theme song to That’s So Raven. That’s so Def Jef, I guess.

I’m Outstanding

From the name, you might think that this song is mostly boasting in the same vein as “Skillz,” but it's much closer to a biography, loosely describing Shaq’s experience growing up. Instead of a gripping tale of danger, brutal poverty and the temptation of the streets, we instead get the story of a poor family, headed up by very loving and supportive parents who helped Shaq stay motivated to succeed in basketball. There is little to no conflict and honestly, it plays more like a Newark, NJ version of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” than anything else:

“Times are hard, times are rough
Didn't have Toys R Us toys, but I had enough love
Plus the guidance from above
To go to the park, sweatin' push and shove”

In general, though the story is kind of boring, the flow is more inspired than “Skillz.” The song also features a rad beat, probably the only hip-hop references to Dennis Scott and Nick Anderson ever, and a video that’s passable except for a regrettable over-use of green-screen effects: instead of showing Shaq rapping at a variety of fairly bleak Newark locales, they have instead filmed these locations and then used a green screen to super-impose Shaq. At some points, this effect is used to make Shaq seem even bigger than normal, stomping down the streets like some kind of New Jersey Godzilla, but most of the time, it just seems like Shaq just didn’t have the time to film on location. No better way to celebrate where you are from than to refuse to actually go back . Which is a shame, because some of the footage from Newark is really lovely in a bitterly-beautiful-urban-decay kind of way.

Shoot Pass Slam

The third single, from Shaq Diesel, this track holds the distinction of being the least successful of any single that Shaq released, and watching the video you come to understand that the governing principle behind this single was laziness. The video actually manages to include no newly filmed footage, but rather recycles a blend of footage from “Skillz,” NBA highlights, and a one minute Reebok commercial that features the song and alternates between Shaq wearing a vest and a jersey (dude, just hates sleeves, maybe?). The effect isn’t too bad, but when most of the non-NBA footage comes from a shoe commercial and an old video, you are in totally laughable territory. Shaq tried to make up for it by releasing a average and marginally acceptable video of a live performance of “Shoot Pass Slam” that is also intercut with some NBA highlights, which is totally acceptable since young Shaq is awfully impressive, basketball-wise. His rhyming? Less so.

The song is based on a simple premise: If Mr. O’Neal is given the ball would you prefer for him to shoot, pass, or slam the ball? Shaq knows his limitations and agrees with your assessmentL he would be happy to slam the ball for you. The rest of the verses are, much like the video, kind of a retread of “Skillz,” where Shaq spends most of his time boasting and describing how great a basketball player he is, mixed in with playful, Method Man-esque nonsense words and nursery rhyme riffing. Overall it’s not bad, and I prefer Shaq bragging about his basketball skill than Shaq bragging about his rapping skills (though he does that too). There’s also a lot of unneccesary pop-culture references, but hey, it’s hip hop: those are allowed.

“I’m a rookie. Clint Eastwood. Martin Sheen.
AHHHHH! Leave me alone. I’m turning green.”

Biological Didn’t Bother
The first single off of Shaq Fu: Da Return, this song is, as the title suggests, a song that deals with Shaq’s abandonment by his biological father. However, instead of being about his biological father, most of the song is about Shaq’s relationship with his step-dad. It’s actually all pretty sweet, filled with admiration, memories of good times, and even a knowing and wise perspective on conflict between young Shaq and wise Phil. In this regard, it’s very much the sequel to “Outstanding” in terms of tone and content. Of course, underneath the verses there is an undeniably bitter and angry tone, most evident in the pointed chorus (“He took me from a boy to a man so Phil is my father, cause my biological didn't bother.”) and the final verse, which closes:

“He ain’t gettin’ no check from me (check it)
He can go on all the talk shows he want
Phil is my dad so don’t even front.”
Yikes. I hate to say this, since Shaq clearly is wearing his heart on his sleeve with this song, but, as earnest as the song is, it’s not very good. The slower rhymes and narrative-approach prevent him from engaging in any free-association word play and the subject of the song stops him from playing to his main strength: bragging about how great Shaq is. The beat is a bit of unremarkable mid-90’s G-funk and the video is pretty forgettable unless you just love literal interpretations of the scenes described in the song and shots of Shaq in a windbreaker driving around in a convertible with his step-dad.

No Hook

This is a Wu-Tang joint, make no respect. Produced by the RZA, and featuring rhymes by RZA and Method Man, Shaq’s contribution in the middle verse makes him seem an interloper in his own song. That said, Shaq does a good job of blending in: freed from the constraints of making sense and allowed to run wild with free-association, he fits in well with the Wu-Tang sensibility and his work on the track is pretty comparable to the phoned-in rhymes of Method Man and RZA.

“Always & forever, forever always attack,
I bring flava to ya ear; like Craig Mack.
Life's a B and then you D, refer to Nasty Nas Illmatic;
CD, #3 Static.
You don't want none, you best to keep lookin',
A-E-I-O-U's an ass-whoopin’”

All-in-all, a great Shaq track and a mediocre Wu-Tang one. The video is also pretty excellent, again feeding more into the Wu-Tang aesthetic than anything that’s identifiably consistent with Shaq’s work. The video is a murky mix of dark industrial settings and close-ups in high contrast black and white, cutting and fading quickly into each other for an impressionistic look at what appears to be the three protagonists inside a meat packing warehouse, where, ironically, they are surrounded by literal hooks, which hang, sinisterly from the ceiling. Also, for no real reason, since the song contains the RZA line, “Gold nugget fangs punch holes inside your jugular,” they are all wearing gold grills that feature bizarre vampire fangs. It’s totally weird, but I’m not going to lie, sinister giant gangster vampire is a good look for Shaq.

You Can’t Stop the Reign

"You Can’t Stop the Reign" is the first single from the album of the same name. The album version of this song features a few verses from none other than the Notorious B.I.G. However, in a move that should probably be considered “fucking stupid,” the video version omits the Biggie verses in favor of Shaq. I mean, it makes sense: why would you want to include one of the greatest living rappers at the peak of his powers when you could have more Shaq? In any case, though Biggie may be excised from the single, his influence is felt anyway: the song feels like a Biggie song, with it’s slinky grooves and languid beats referencing “Big Papa” pretty heavily. Likewise, the song is preoccupied with the mafioso, kingpin thematics that dominated rap of the day, largely as a result of Biggie’s influence. The video takes its cues from Shaq’s story about the T.W.is.M. (“The World is Mine”) “family” and his rhymes about the high-rolling life-style. Well, sort of.

This video features a series of bizarre and elaborate scenes with Shaq as mafioso don, Shaq as commander in some sort of high-tech bunker, and finally Shaq as Enrico Gates, who has glowing red eyes and who the video thoughtfully denotes as “Evil Shaq.” All of this is fairly standard fare for the time and evil alter egos are a dime a dozen in hip hop, but the video really takes a turn when mafioso Shaq confronts Enrico Gates at a T.W.is.M. family board meeting. While Shaq is happy to present Enrico with a mysterious briefcase, Enrico is less happy to find that the briefcase is filled with You Can’t Stop the Reign CDs. I know; I’d be furious too. So then, ninjas burst through the windows a ong with a muscled henchman who is wielding some kind of net launcher. Gates’ minions try to net Shaq and his entourage and are largely successful.

Then, shit gets weird: Shaq reveals his Wolverine-esque metal claws that shoot out of his knuckles and uses them to free himself from the net. Shaq then tries to escape the increasing escalation of forces that are being sent after him. While Gates is originally content to send a few motorcycles and helicopters after Shaq, this quickly and absurdly escalates as an entire airforce worth of helicopters, jets, and flying saucers pursue Shaq, who abruptly stops the chase for an old-timey newspaper photo shoot before resuming his escape. Then, as Shaq is escaping, the twist is revealed via a freeze frame and the text suddenly appearing on the screen: GAME OVER. The whole thing was a video game! The camera reveals a happy youngster who was playing this game. Well-played, Shaq.

Okay, so it’s a stupid twist, but I admire the fact that this video tries to do something beyond merely illustrating the lyrics or showing Shaq performing. Likewise, the song itself is probably the best-crafted of all of Shaq’s singles for what that’s worth, and as far as the beats go, “sounds like a Biggie song” isn’t a bad diagnosis. Not a great song, but pretty good, particularly for Shaq.

Strait Playin

Honestly, any follow up to “You Can’t Stop The Reign” was bound to be disappointing, but this seems particularly lame. A bland, milquetoast bragging track about Shaq’s skills as a basketball player, rapper, and partier, this track has more in common with “Skillz” than any of his more recent work. The beat, produced by DJ Quik, lazily references the West Coast sound (auto-tune, bouncy drums) as the lyrics loosely reference Shaq’s trade to the L.A. Lakers. This is the most generic sounding of Shaq’s singles and it just doesn’t offer much lyrically. Sadly, neither does the video: just the mid-90s standards of wide-angle lenses, crews driving in cars, and pretty girls partying and dancing. There are a few highlights: one of the girls dancing in the bathroom (yeah, I know), pulls out a green-feathered boa from the toilet and begins dancing with it. Feathered boas in a few different colors appear throughout the video (it is the era of Clueless), but only one is pulled out of a toilet. Oh, and for some reason, DJ Quik is just chilling with an albino Burmese python around his neck for the last half of the video. So there’s that.

Men of Steel

Of course, aside from being a rapper and basketball player, Shaq is also a world-class film actor. You knew that right? Well, in his follow-up to Kazaam, Shaq chose a project based on comic book hero Steel. Of course, Shaq couldn’t just star in the movie, he had to be on the soundtrack and merely including “Strait Playin’” was not enough. Thus, the Steel-themed posse track “Men of Steel” was born. Featuring Ice Cube, KRS-One, B-Real, Peter Gunz (who also appears on “Strait Playin’”), and, of course, Mr. O’Neal, the track is kind of banging. Freed of any lyrical constraints except the general theme of being Men of Steel, the rappers are free to let loose with free-association bragging about how steely they are. Fortunately, this tack plays to Shaq’s strengths and the single-verse limit gives him fewer spots to slip up.

“The best thing since grits & fake tits
Man Of Steel who you with?
I'm so fly when I walk I levitate
My caliber's first rate. Exceptional; above great.”

The beats are nice and the video keeps it simple: the posse standing around a foundry, filled with molten metal and sparks. Not exactly inspired, but not totally stupid which we are going to count as a win. Shaq elects to go with a jeans, tank-top and sun glasses look that actually makes him look like a massively muscled bad-ass. Was it so hard to stop with the vests?

The Way It’s Going Down

This single features the same crew who did “Strait Playin’,” which understandably sank my heart. Fortunately, though DJ Quik uses the same elements he used in “Strait Playin’” but gets a much stronger effect. Likewise, Peter Gunz officially cements his status as Shaq’s sidekick by appearing in three Shaq singles in a row, a fact that he seems to be pretty proud of, considering his boast, “Now me and Shaq is like Batman and Robin,” which is totally true if we are talking the George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell incarnations. Shaq’s rapping is inoffensive to the point of self-parody when he admonishes Peter Gunz:

“Yo, just rock your roll, dog
And kill 'em wit silence
You never get nowhere using violence “

So true, Shaq. Aside from that, the lyrics are a potpourri of leftovers from “You Can’t Stop the Reign” and “Strait Playin’,” which means that there are a lot of empty lines about how great it is to be rich. Nothing to write home about. The video, likewise, is kind of bland, though it features quite a few stupid cameos, namely Oscar de la Hoya, Steven Segal, and the Taco Bell Chihuahua. It truly was 1998.


This was the first and only single off of Shaquille O’Neal Presents His Superfriends Vol. 1 an album that was scheduled to be released September 11, 2001. As you might imagine, that didn’t happen. The album was delayed and then ultimately scrapped, the terrorists winning that round. Fortunately for us patriots, this single was released anyway. Featuring WC and Nate Dogg, this track seems markedly different from any of the other singles Shaq had released up to this point. The difference all seems to be confidence. In the span between “The Way It’s Going Down” and “Connected,” Shaq had led the Lakers to two consecutive NBA titles and claimed two NBA Finals MVP trophies for himself, which, of course, served as nice bookends for his regular season MVP he won in 2000. In the post-Jordan void, Shaq began to actually live up to the boasts he’d been making for the better part of the decade. When your swagger is indisputable, it changes you. The more confident Shaq of “Connected” rhymes effortlessly and projects a grown-man’s menace that young Shaq never could muster. When he says, “I am the future of the game, ain’t no stopping this,” in 2000, we believe him.

Strong contributions from WC and Nate Dogg help this single stand out, though the video does no such favors, serving up a bland melange of party scenes in the standard hip hop idiom. A nice prologue sequence of Shaq angrily dunking on a basket on an empty court is the best that the video offers. However, despite the video, the song is largely a success, and it’s a nice snapshot of Shaq at his most dominant, both on and off the court. It’s too bad that his difficulties with Kobe would shorten his unstoppable reign (Wade renaissance aside), because the two other singles that were planned from Shaquille O’Neal Presents His Superfriends Vol. 1 were kind of.... good. “In the Sun” shows Shaq complementing Common and Black Thought rather nicely on the ?uestlove produced track, while "Do it Faster" offers maybe the best flow I’ve heard from Shaq, albeit in the service of a raunchy Trina-hooked, Twista-versed lyrical sex romp. It’s times like these when you really appreciate how much we lost in 9/11.

While there are indisputably better rappers in the world, there are many successful rappers who are a whole lot worse than Shaquille O’Neal. He’s too talented to dismiss as a mere novelty, and he certainly showed off his chameleon’s gift to change his flow to match a given sound, capable of approximating distinct styles with ease. This versatility is cool because it let’s his body of singles stand in as a compressed history of the major currents of hip hop in the nineties, with representatives of G-funk, mafioso rap, the sparse Wu-Tang sound, and the “jiggy” style among others all co-existing in Shaq’s discography. In this way, Shaq serves as an over-sized, goofy, admittedly, mostly mediocre Rosetta Stone of nineties hip hop.

But, what does Shaq’s rap career mean? Let’s take him at face value. Shaq’s not laying down long-winded, gritty street narratives and his stepdad-loving, mom-respecting, hardworking-but-well-behaved side rises to the top far too often to give those narratives much credibility. At heart Shaq is a goody-goody with a cornball sense of humor, and no matter how clever he gets at talking tough, he probably shares more with Justin Bieber and Aaron Carter than he does with B-Real or Method Man. What does Shaq think of Shaq? Well, with a wink and a smile, he thinks he’s awesome. Who are we to disagree?

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