In the Twitter era, certain people move culture’s needle. Two of such leaders are Kanye West and LeBron James.
Other than both being tremendous sneaker salesmen, it may be hard to see where the comparisons continue - but I’d argue that these two men are deeply linked. The best way to make my case is to break it down into a timeline.
Think about it, and trust me.
Welcome to the good life (2003-2007)
West, a young beat-maker from Chicago, got his start in the music industry producing some of the most influential rap songs of the late 90s and early 2000s. His first studio album, “The College Dropout,” was released in 2004, during LeBron James’ rookie season. West’s sound was the antithesis of what was going on in the rap scene. With his use of soul, funk and classic R&B samples, West brought a fun spirit back to rap. The album earned 10 Grammy nominations and won Best Rap Album. “The College Dropout” turned West into a global superstar.
In the meantime, LeBron James was on his way to becoming a global icon. At the age of 17, Sports Illustrated put him on the cover of the magazine and dubbed him the Chosen One.
He immediately lived up to the expectation. James was drafted with the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. He won Rookie of the Year, resuscitated a moribund franchise and quickly evolved into one of the most popular players in all of sports.
Their popularity in this time period is key. Both West and James had high cultural approval ratings. Young, brash, talented, they were everything the public wanted out of an artist and athlete. They were the new darlings. The world was seemingly their oyster.
West’s next album, “Late Registration,” represented the growing influence West had over the music industry. Songs like “Touch the Sky” and “Gold Digger” were chart-topping sensations. The album was a critical darling and West yet again won Best Rap Album at the Grammys.
LeBron continued to do LeBron things. He was named second team All-NBA, averaging 26 ppg, 6.4 apg and 6.7 rpg over his first four seasons. “King James” was ascending to the throne. Just like Kanye.
“Graduation,” Kanye’s third album, built even more success. Songs like “Good Life,” “Stronger,” “Champion,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Flashing Lights” took him to a level of superstardom unheard of in hip-hop. He occupied the same area that Tupac, Notorious B.I.G. and Eminem resided in. His charisma, self-aggrandizing persona and his ego made him the brightest of stars.
The 2007 Eastern Conference playoffs showed LeBron taking that same next step. His Game five performance against the Detroit Pistons, where he scored 29 of the Cavs’ final 30 points, represented a change in his destiny. He moved from being one of the best players in the league to having the potential to join the list of the greatest players of all time. The Cavaliers went to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history that season, although they lost to the Spurs.
Welcome to heartbreak (2008-2010)
That isn’t to say either were without controversy. West gained significant notoriety for his dismissal of then President George W. Bush’s handling of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. While doing a segment in a telethon for the victims, West said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” That was one of the earliest indicators of West’s growing social consciousness.
LeBron, meanwhile, continued to grow as a basketball player. He won back-to-back MVP awards in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, but was unable to translate his personal success into championship victories. The Cavaliers struggled to win in the playoffs and criticisms around James mounted.
Bill Simmons described James’ failures in a column, writing, “Maybe LeBron has been hearing those voices the whole time. Maybe his teammates just suck. Maybe Boston is better. Maybe LeBron isn't as good as we thought. Maybe he's more injured than we know. Maybe sports doesn't always make sense. There are no answers, just maybes. And since he's only 25-years-old, it's too early to say that this week could define LeBron's legacy. Obviously.”
This era synced perfectly with the nadir of Kanye’s life and career. In late 2007, West’s mother, Donda, passed away due to complications in a surgery. West had been open about the role his mother played in his life. Since then, he’s released several songs detailing his feelings for her.
Around the same period, West and his fiancée Alexis Phifer broke up. These two traumatic events changed him. He claimed his emotions could not be conveyed through rapping, so West decided to sing using the voice audio processor Auto-Tune, which would become a central part of his next effort, his fourth album, “808s and Heartbreak.” That album was critically panned and offered a significant break from the work he had previously released. It was dark, haunting and deeply emotional.
Controversy continued to follow West. At the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, he crashed the stage to interrupt Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for winning Best Video. The outpouring of hate toward West, including being called “a jackass” by President Obama, caused an even larger change in his life. He cancelled a tour with Lady Gaga and retreated to Hawaii.
The summer of 2010 was an epic time in NBA history. LeBron James entered free agency, along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Many expected James to stay with the Cavaliers, but the speculation was rampant. Every franchise cleared cap room in hopes of signing the two-time reigning MVP. He announced his intentions to sign with the Miami Heat, along with Bosh and Wade, on a live television event on ESPN called “The Decision.” The backlash was out of control. His choice to “take his talents to South Beach” caused fans to burn his jersey in effigy.
Simmons wrote, “It's one thing to leave. I get it. You're 25. You don't know any better. You're tired of carrying mediocre teams. You want help. You want the luxury of not having to play a remarkable game every single night for eight straight months. You want to live in South Beach. You want to play with your buddies. I get it. I get it.”
“But turning that decision into a one-hour special, pretending that it hadn't been decided weeks ago, using a charity as your cover-up and ramming a pitchfork in Cleveland's back like you were at the end of a Friday the 13th movie and Cleveland was Jason ... there just had to be a better way.”
The 2010-11 Heat were one of the most reviled teams in sports history. They were great, no question, but hated. When they were upset in the NBA Finals by the Dallas Mavericks, the collective euphoria was something never before experienced. No one was rooting for Miami. It all stemmed from the discontent James caused.
The hatred built towards Kanye West changed him. It brought something out of the artist that rarely happens. In his Hawaiian hideaway, West invited some of the biggest luminaries in the music industry. Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, Bon Iver, RZA, Kid Cudi, Pusha T, John Legend and Raekwon are all featured. The resulting album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” is widely regarded as the finest hip-hop album of the 21st century. Released five months following James’ signing with the Heat, “MBDTF” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. Rolling Stone, Spin, Pitchfork, Entertainment Weekly, Complex and GQ, amongst several others, named it the top album of the year. It won Best Rap Album at the Grammys. It is, almost without question, West’s true masterpiece.
The following year, West collaborated with Jay-Z to create “Watch the Throne.” Two of the giants of hip-hop, West and Jay-Z’s album showcased hedonism and opulence never before seen. The ensuing tour is the highest grossing in hip-hop history.
One of the biggest criticisms against West is that he is an egomaniac. That his selfishness and arrogance knows no bounds. I find this to be a lazy critique. In his art, West has proven to be a true collaborator. Jon Caramanico, a writer for The New York Times, offered his take on West’s ability to conduct. “His rapping is sparser, more pointed, less imagistic and more emotional. And when he truly needs to be heard, he can corral a dream team of collaborators. He’s so fluent that he can use others to speak for him, and be understood clear as day,” he wrote in a 2016 review.
West has the ability to bring the absolute best out his peers. He got the best verse of Nicki Minaj’s career on Monster, Justin Vernon’s voice has never been more haunting than it is on Lost in the World and Kid Cudi was born to sing hooks on Kanye tracks.
Kanye West and LeBron share that collaborative gene. It was easy to compare LeBron to Michael Jordan. Both wore the number 23 and James was attempting to usurp Jordan’s throne as the best player of all-time. But the comparison wasn’t fair. LeBron James approaches basketball radically different than Jordan. LeBron is amongst the most naturally gifted passers the game has ever seen. Even as an 18-year-old, it was obvious that he saw the game like a chess player, looking several moves ahead.
It wasn’t until James accepted his destiny as a player meant to share the ball, a la Magic Johnson, that he was able to win. As he, Wade and Bosh meshed with the Miami Heat, they were able to win back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013. James won two more league MVPs and two Finals MVPs.
Kanye went on to marry Kim Kardashian, attempt to become a sneaker mogul with Adidas, become a father of two and evolve into the most entertaining Twitter follow in recent memory. He’s released two more albums, “Yeezus” and “The Life of Pablo,” both of which can be placed at the top of his catalogue.
LeBron James took the Heat to one more NBA Finals, returned home to the Cleveland Cavaliers and took them to the Finals last season and have them as a leading contender to return yet again. He recently signed a lifetime deal with Nike, the largest in company history.
Kanye and LeBron, tortured geniuses, misunderstood in the eyes of the public, but ultimately, two of the greatest of all time in their respective fields.