'Best of Shaquille O'Neal' is the best '90s hip-hop album I wasn't listening to

Is Shaq history's most underrated rapper? Possibly!

Is Shaq history's most underrated rapper? Possibly! Jive Records

What follows is a loose collection of thoughts on a topic I've been propelled by the winds of righteousness to sound the alarm about: how good Shaquille O'Neal's music is.

I submit it not as an exercise in music journalism or to illustrate a broader cultural point, and certainly not because of any direct relevance to the local music scene or the geographic area City Pages serves; I say these things only because I was sort of mad no one ever told me that Shaq-as-rapper is actually really, notably excellent. I don’t want others to suffer needlessly as I did. 

Plenty of people won't find this surprising. This isn't addressed to you!

I'm talking to the people who, extrapolating from my own psyche and those of the people I know well, reflexively dismiss the idea of Shaq’s rapping as some corny cousin to his 1996 movie Kazaam or, at best, something they might like ironically. But there’s nothing nothing ironic about this. His rap output is not "pretty good for a basketball player" or "better than you'd think" or even "lovably goofy." It truly bangs.

Here’s what I knew about Shaq’s music before I caught the bug this fall: That he rapped in the aforementioned Kazaam, that sometimes he rapped at post-championship parties, and that he stirred a brief controversy in 2008 when footage surfaced of him clowning on Kobe Bryant during a freestyle, saying, “That’s the difference between first and last place / Kobe ... tell me how my ass tastes.”

(Couple notes on that: First, it’s a pretty good freestyle and sloppy enough that it’s clearly off the top; second, it led to a memorable public statement, as far as public statements from athletes go: “I was freestyling. That's all. It was all done in fun. Nothing serious whatsoever. That is what MC's do. They freestyle when called upon. I'm totally cool with Kobe. No issue at all. And by the way, don't forget, six albums, two platinum, two gold. Anybody who knows me knows I'm a funny freestyler. Check the NBA DVD when I was rapping about Vlade Divac during my first championship run.”)

Here are some more pertinent things I’ve discovered through a deep dive into Shaq’s canon -- especially the 1995 compilation The Best of Shaquille O’Neal, which is exactly what it purports to be -- and would like to spread the gospel about:

-- Unlike on the court, Shaq is impressively versatile as an MC. His signature is a mid-tempo flow in an egregiously low register but he really goes all over the map and rises to the occasion on beats that are alternately smooth, hype, jazzy, hard, and downright scary. You might say he can do the rapping equivalent of playing the post and shooting free throws.

-- He’s a legitimately good lyricist and manages to be authentic and un-corny while avoiding the offensive or ethically questionable. Personal favorite: “AE-IOU’s an ass whoopin!”

-- His NBA references are numerous and, while not exactly amazing, still refreshing subject matter. A couple illustrative examples: “I flow like a stream, better yet a river / You need to call me Mailman since Karl can't deliver”; “Please don't play me like a shrimp / Dunk it on your head then I’ll point like Shawn Kemp.”

-- Best of Shaquille O’Neal is lined with production that encompasses all that’s great about '90s East Coast rap: bouncy drum breaks, simple crunchy bass lines, and that all-important irritating noise going non-stop in the background, a la the Bomb Squad’s production behind Public Enemy. It would be worthwhile to listen to for just the instrumentals, which is as good a litmus test as any for a monumentally good hip-hop album.

If you’ve only heard one song it’s probably “What’s Up Doc?” with the Brooklyn group Fu-Schnickens. It came out in 1993, Shaq’s rookie year, and goddamn it’s solid, to the point that prose fails. Shaq plays his role, but the other emcees really steal the show, especially Chip, who's virtuosic second verse sounds like Imani from the Pharcyde on rhythmic steroids.

Which is another point about this album. As good as Shaq is, a lot of what makes it great listening is the slate of features from some heavyweights of the era (Phife Dawg, the RZA, Redman) and some no-name East Coast guys that are just as nice.

"No Hooks," featuring the RZA and Method Man, could be the grimiest track on Wu-Tang Clan's Enter the 36 Chambers. The Phife Dawg-featuring "Where Ya At?" would be in at least the top 50th percentile of A Tribe Called Quest’s early albums, which is to say it's in the top 99 percentile of all human music in aggregate.

And then there are the people and groups that never really broke out from the underground. Along with Fu-Schnickens, there are fantastically ambitious and unique verses from guys like Ill Al Skratch, Ken Dawg, and Def Jef, plus yet another tier of contributions that aren't credited in the liner notes or anywhere on the internet. It's kind of like getting a sampler CD from a label you've never heard of before you knew how to use Google.

I owe a great debt to my friend Kevin for turning me onto this album. Kevin himself learned about it from an interview with Jonah Hill, someone just as dubiously qualified for having a strong opinion on this as either of us.

Which I suppose is my justification for a 1,000-word screed on the merits of a guy who is already famous and has two platinum albums: No one discovers ultra-fresh albums they've overlooked in a vacuum, and we're all standing on the shoulders of giants or Jonah Hill or both. I'm just trying to pay it forward.

Go forth and sleep on Shaq no more.