The NBA playoffs always require a stellar musical companion, especially as we enter the second round and the intensity increases. Hip-hop tends to be the genre of choice, although a generally eclectic mix of styles finds it place within the diverse league (as of today, nearly a quarter of players are foreign-born). From Jay-Z’s compiled soundtracks in NBA 2K to pregame and halftime arena jams, there’s a variety of tracks to pump up fans during the frantic playoff period.
With the conference semifinals now underway, the Warriors and Cavaliers are still alive and vying for their third-straight finals matchup, while the red-hot Rockets and balanced Celtics beg to differ. The excitement necessitates energizing anthems, and here are 10 of my personal favorites that are sure to pump you up as the race to the NBA Finals continues.
Eminem – “Not Afraid”
Slim Shady’s furious delivery and unbelievably tight writing has resulted in rap music about as powerful as anything in the genre. “Not Afraid” stands out on his 2010 release, Recovery, and that’s because it epitomizes the star’s ups and downs — including his moving on from past encounters with drugs and violence. The emotion-packed verses are contrasted by a huge, memorable chorus, and the one-two punch is perfect for a basketball atmosphere. From Eminem’s handful of sports anthems, “Not Afraid” is by far his most fitting for NBA drama.
Jay-Z and Kanye West – “Who Gon Stop Me”
Watch the Throne was a timeless hip-hop collaboration for the skills brought to the table by the two rappers involved. Jay-Z spitting over Kanye West’s superb production is as tasty a combination as peanut butter and jelly, and the addition of vocals by the latter and a slew of guests made the album a modern classic. “Who Gon Stop Me” is the most stadium-ready of the 16 tracks, with dubstep bass and the “I can’t stop” sample setting the stage for the duo’s rhyme firestorm. The song’s a straight adrenaline boost and a warm-up must for NBA teams.
Kanye West feat. Young Jeezy – “Amazing”
A drastic stylistic shift for the hip-hop icon, Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak is a polarizing album but intriguing nonetheless. Stripped down and full of autotune, the explorative record still has its moments of high vitality. “Amazing” found its place on the NBA 2K10 soundtrack, with the incorporation of percussion, piano, and beats behind Kanye’s chopped-up vocals and Young Jeezy’s second-half verse making for a thrilling four minutes. The song’s title and groove exemplifies the NBA tempo, and it’s nothing short of amazing itself.
Kendrick Lamar – “HUMBLE.”
Critics of contemporary hip-hop have been silenced by Kendrick Lamar, as he busts through the ceiling with every LP. With more modern production and digital editing, his newest record is more set for the sports world than his previous jazz-filled one. The first track to hit audiences, “HUMBLE.” was immediately thrust into the mainstream domain, whether through arena speakers or TNT’s commercial transitions. That’s thanks to its mix of electronica and piano, as well as Kendrick’s enduring lines, and it justifies the rapper’s ever-growing cultural presence.
Lil Wayne feat. Juelz Santana and Fabolous – “You Ain’t Got Nuthin”
Love or hate his crass and shallow attitude, but you can’t deny that Lil Wayne raps with immense fervor. “You Ain’t Got Nuthin” is one of the most upbeat tracks off the animated 2008 record Tha Carter III (a.k.a. the musician’s last quality release). Most of it stems from The Alchemist’s production, which adds a stealthy underbelly to a song that’s managed to find its place in sports playlists in the years since. The overuse of autotune may become a bit grating over its five-minute span, but it’s still a hardcore rap force that brings out the NBA’s gritty side.
Manafest feat. Trevor McNevan – “Renegade”
Rap and rock are forever the dueling sides of high-energy music, but Manafest has proved throughout his career that they can both be utilized to fantastic results. If you hear the booming guitars and electronica of “Renegade” in a game setting, you can understand where both worlds come together in attempts to pump up the crowd. It helps that the project’s mastermind, Chris Greenwood, enlists fellow sports anthem specialist Trevor McNevan (Thousand Foot Krutch), as the vocal dynamic between the two makes for a thunderous basketball tune.
MGMT – “Electric Feel”
Ever since MGMT’s near-flawless debut in 2007, it seems like every alternative/indie outfit has tried — and mostly failed — to copy what they did well. Despite its psychedelic tranquility, the duo maintained a buoyant vibe throughout Oracular Spectacular, preparing many of its songs for the mainstream spotlight and big crowds. “Electric Feel” is a product of the record’s calm pounce, and the diverse instrumental makeup and echoing vocals set it up for a heightened venue presence. This includes NBA arenas, in addition to the NBA 2K10 soundtrack.
Mobb Deep – “Shook Ones Pt. II”
The ‘90s was marked by the surge of gangster rap, and Mobb Deep took the East Coast scene by storm with their commercially successful The Infamous. “Shook Ones Pt. II” was one of several songs from the era selected by Jay-Z for the NBA 2K13 soundtrack, and its relentless lyrical pursuit, telling the story of inner city youths making call-outs, is about as perfect a menu track as the franchise has ever had. Though it may not be energetic or catchy enough warrant an arena presence, its lines and beats are some of the decade’s most thrilling.
Nas – “Halftime”
The choice between “The World Is Yours” and “Halftime” on this playlist (or any other song off Illmatic for that matter) was incredibly difficult. But the brisker pace of the latter, plus its titular reflection of the midway point of a sporting event, is convincing enough to place it in any basketball-themed soundtrack. Of Nas’ mad spitting throughout the record’s 40 minutes, his delivery in “Halftime” is some of his most laudable. While “The World Is Yours” it the instant classic with a fancier chorus, this selection has a hook of its own to give the prodigy a break to refuel — just like the time players to prepare for another half of battle.
The Quad City DJs – “Space Jam”
You can’t have an NBA pump-up playlist post-1996 without including the Space Jam theme. Apart from it being a childhood novelty and the highly anticipated acting debut of Michael Jordan, it does have legitimate merits — from a stellar cast of cultural heroes (NBA stars, the Looney Tunes, and Bill Murray?) to a goofy plot and stellar soundtrack. The Quad City DJs are to thank for the sonic aspect of the film’s timelessness, as the theme song’s crowd noise and hip-hop stylistics have propelled it from the ‘90s zeitgeist to the crown jewel of basketball soundtracks.