It’s been said that ballplayers all want to be rappers and rappers all want to play ball. There are examples of this throughout each field; Drake and Migos have a heated behind-the-scenes basketball tournament on their Aubrey And The Three Amigos, 2 Chainz is well-known for his hoop acumen, and rappers of every ilk are participating in celebrity games both tied to the NBA and independently.
Meanwhile, the Portland Trailblazers’ Damian Lillard is two albums into a burgeoning career as a rap star, while Lonzo Ball pushes out singles and even diss tracks directed at his fellow young Lakers. And who could forget the infamous “K.O.B.E.?”
However, for what could possibly be the first time in hip-hop history, there is a new persona with a foot firmly planted in each realm. Harlem’s Sheck Wes, the 19-year-old phenom behind viral hit “Mo Bamba” — titled after a much-touted rising hoop star and Sheck’s acquaintance — wants to be the first rapper to have mega success in hoops world and the first hooper to win a Grammy. As he told Pitchfork’s Timmhotep Aku, “I want to win Nobel Peace Prizes, as many Grammys as I can, Emmys, Golden Globes, VMAs, everything. I want to play in the NBA. I’m dead serious.”
Now, after the runaway success of “Mo Bamba” — 6.9 million plays on Youtube, permanent summertime residence on the Spotify Viral 50 list, and over 6.6 million plays on the original SoundCloud post — Sheck really is only one more solid hit away from accomplishing those goals.
The inevitability of his stardom is evident in his near ubiquity. In just a handful of months he’s gone from relative unknown to regional breakout, from signing to Kanye West’s revamped GOOD Music roster thanks to the machinations of Cactus Jack sub-label President Travis Scott to everyone’s favorite guest star, popping up on Travis Scott’s new album, sharing billing on Travis’ upcoming “Wish You Were Here” Astroworld tour, and even receiving the coveted Drake co-sign.
Sheck is a man of many hustles; aside from playing ball, he’s been a model and designed clothes. The latter was born of his gig as a model in shows and of a fascination with Kanye’s own side hustle, as he told Pigeons & Planes that he once skipped one of his own playoff basketball games to attend Kanye’s Yeezy Season 3 fashion show in New York. There’s a reason behind his mad work ethic though; a recent trip to his parents’ origin nation of Senegal reminded him of obligations outside of himself. “I finally got my why, I always used to search for a why to explain why I’m doing what I’m doing,” he told P&P. “I went to Africa and I was like, ‘Man I gotta do this shit for these people.’ This is my why and that’s a big enough why. It’s meaningful.”
Of course, right now, Sheck is focused on pursuing the success of “Mo Bamba” with another standout hit before its buzz fades away. While going on tour with Travis and popping up at Drake shows is all well and good and will undoubtedly deepen his connection with existing fans, the one surefire way to draw in new listeners in the kind of numbers that sustain a career has been and will always be to keep dropping new music. “Mo Bamba” — itself a follow-up of under-the-radar banger “Live SheckWes Die SheckWes” — is a hard act to follow.
Comparing his own rise in fame to that of recently-drafted Orlando Magic center Mohamed Bamba, Sheck Wes named the song after his friend when Mo asked him to put Mo’s name in a song at the studio one day. The skeletal track, provided by producer 16yo, provides the backdrop for Sheck’s ballistic delivery as he coughs his way through eminently catchy hooks that reference coaches and recruiters calling Mo and drawing the direct line to his own experience with label A&Rs. Played on a system with sufficient bass, it sounds a lot like a party at the end of the world, like the planet is shaking itself apart, while the listeners are too busy dancing to care.
The video for the song showcases Sheck’s exuberant, eccentric personality. He wheels around on a motorized wheelchair with a walking boot from a real injury strapped to his leg. The plot loosely follows that of the 1994 college hoops movie Blue Chips, or really, any of the plethora of recent recruiting scandals that have drawn criticism of the NCAA and college basketball programs that many say exploit young athletes.
The parallels to those of the rap game are chilling, but played casually and for laughs, although you get the sense that under all the physical comedy, Sheck is very clear on where he stands in the equation. He tosses the recruiters’ duffle bag of money to the hood, echoing back to his earlier statement that he has to do it for the people around him. The video and song speak to a sharp mind, but one willing to use unconventional means to achieve Sheck’s goals.
He’ll have to use all of that creativity and surprising verve to unlock his next hit. While “Chippi Chippi” and “Do That” have followed “Mo Bamba,” neither has quite tapped into the same vein of near-universal appeal. That’s okay, though, they’ve shown something else — that Sheck Wes has the range to create outside of the pocket that “Mo Bamba” found, that he can shift gears as easily as he switches hustles, and that the same creative mind that can see the parallels between college hoops recruitment and Soundcloud rap scavenging is still operating at peak efficiency. The question of whether or not Sheck has another hit in him is a foregone conclusion — it’s a resounding “yes.” Instead, the question should be whether or not the world will be ready when he inevitably drops it.