God Chose Memphis: Allen Iverson and Hip Hop, Again

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Before I started working at Topps in the middle of the last decade, Allen Iverson precipitated two changes in how basketball cards got made. Neither of these altered the most basic fundamental of that process, which is that it was Topps's job to make cards exactly per the NBA's instructions and guidelines, while doing our level best to have the best photos on the front and choicest puns/analysis/quotes on the back. But the NBA's two Iverson-occasioned changes did alter the fronts and backs of the cards in ways that no other player would or could have demanded.

The first request from the NBA was that the prose on the back of the cards be a bit more street; not quite hip-hop or whatever, but just sort of urban contemporary. Then, shortly after that, the league rescinded that request and asked that Iverson's (many) tattoos be airbrushed out of the photos on the front of his cards. This, too, was rescinded after awhile, but there are some ink-free Iverson cards out there. They look weird, as you might expect. The person on them doesn't really look like Allen Iverson. But then, the NBA never quite seemed to know what to do with A.I.

The problem the NBA seemed to have with Iverson and the changes he made, more than anything having to do with race or aesthetics or whatever, always struck me as being  unique to Iverson. The bracing and beautiful stuff about Iverson was so wrapped up in his relentlessness and emotion and effort and strange caged ferocity—his Iversonity, if you like—that it was not at all easy to brand out, or really deployed as anything but a reason to watch this particular mercurial, troubled genius named Allen Iverson. It sure worked for me, but the league itself never quite learned how to channel it. First they wanted the league to sound more like Iverson, then they wanted Iverson to look less like himself. Neither quite worked.

To be fair, the NBA had never dealt with anything quite like Iversonity before, and haven't really had to since. Jordan's graceful mania was so vast and awesome that it could be both its own thing and everything; Kobe's is similarly vast if also less awesome and more inward; LeBron's is so mediated and Drake-ishly fraught that it presently actually takes away slightly from his actual brilliance. But Iverson's Iversonity was his alone, implacable and unassailable and finally just itself. That didn't make it or him less great—and it did make him more real, in all the good and bad and euphemistic ways that word gets used. But it did limit the NBA's ability to use Iverson the way they have other generation-defining players.

Topps didn't really know what to make of him, either. In 2005-06, in the first basketball set I worked on there, Iverson was on the cover of the box alongside Jay-Z. There were dual relic cards, featuring swatches of Iverson's jersey and Jay-Z's jeans, sprinkled throughout the set. The pairing made sense to the brand manager in an academic way—Iverson is hip-hop, Jay-Z is a hip-hop artist, let's knock off early—but it made no sense at all in terms of aesthetics. Where Jay-Z is about a commanding effortlessness and ease, Iverson defined himself through struggle and effort and the gnawing unease that was born of all that struggle and necessitated all that effort. I can't quite knock Topps for the choice, though. The Jay-Z cards are enduringly weird artificats in a way I'm pretty sure wasn't intended, the set still came out well and my then-editor Brandon and I had a lot of fun with it, and no one was really trying to pull a Jadakiss autograph card out of a pack, anyway.

Hip-hop, though, has always gotten Iverson. If this was a crucial part of the NBA's problem with Iverson back when they were tasked with trying to figure him out enough to make him marketable, it's also another thing that echoes to Iverson's credit in retrospect. He was too passionate, if always mostly passionate about himself and his own struggle, to be a bigger brand than he was, but compelling enough to become something better-loved than any globo-brand could be, at least by people who identified (or aspired to identify) some of themselves in him, or the other way around. It's maybe not that surprising, then, that even in Iverson's basketball afterlife—after that terrible sad flameout in Memphis, the ambivalent valedictory stint in Philadelphia, the weird stint in Turkey and the rumored Puerto Rico zombie contract—he remains someone worth rapping about. Even in the weird afterlife of his fame, the fucking guy is persistent.

The Memphis rapper Don Trip's recent "Allen Iverson" is a good song, in large part because Don Trip is a good rapper, but it's also a fascinating one because of how spectacularly Iverson it is—not just in the copious samples of Emotional Allen that fill in what would otherwise be the chorus, but in the way that it's tough to tell if it's about Iverson (in the dreaded rap-along-storybook style) or Don Trip himself, or both. Even Don Trip himself seems to have some confusion about it, although it seems the last of those options is the most likely one. “I feel that record shows that I go through the same things, even though I’m not on the same level," Don Trip told Allhiphop.com. "But I go through the same thing to where I got a little bit of notoriety, and at this point when I do certain things, people look at it like I’m a superhero, like I’m not supposed to do things.”

This is not the first time A.I. and Memphis chose each other, but it surely works better than the last one. And as long as we remember what Allen Iverson was about and how he went about being about it, it seems likely that this won't be the last time some MC, somewhere, finds an Inner Iverson to channel. Any rapper (or writer, or anyone) who doesn't have some sort of Inner Iverson to find isn't one I'd want to listen to, anyway.

Thanks to the estimable @Emmettisreal for this one.

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