In his lone season in a Duke uniform, Marvin Bagley III had some of the best single-season statistics in Duke history, scoring the most points ever by a freshman at the time and posting the first-ever 30-point, 20-rebound game in the Coach K era. But it turns out those aren’t the only records he’s dropping.
Last Friday at 6 p.m., Bagley released his second mixtape, “The Calm Before the Storm,” under the name MB3FIVE. The new release comes almost a year after “Don’t Blink” was dropped the night before the 2018 NBA Draft, where Bagley was selected with the second overall pick by the Sacramento Kings. In fact, Bagley’s Soundcloud account includes sporadic releases that date to before his time at Duke.
As unexpected as Bagley’s side project may seem, he is far from the first NBA star to pursue a rap career. Everyone from Shaquille O’Neal to Allen Iverson to the artist formerly known as Ron Artest has tried their hand at hip-hop, while LeBron James, perhaps to distract from a disappointing first season with the Lakers, has recently made a second career as an A&R. As for the quality of these ventures, well, there’s a reason people remember Tony Parker’s 2007 championship run with the Spurs and not the album he released that same year. Grace on the court doesn’t necessarily translate into grace behind the mic, and for that reason, the NBA’s forays into the world of hip-hop have tended to be endearingly goofy at best, embarrassingly awkward at worst.
As such, Bagley is well aware of the skepticism that will inevitably greet an effort like “The Calm Before the Storm,” and he spends much of the mixtape’s 30-minute runtime preemptively silencing his doubters (albeit through mostly PG-rated missives like “They’re talking drugs, I’m talking hooping on gameday”). His destiny as a rapper is inextricably bound with his dedication as a basketball player, and the daily grind of each pursuit — despite the haters in both realms — makes up the core motivation of “The Calm Before the Storm.”
Aside from a few throwaway lines, Bagley largely holds his own over beats that alternately evoke golden-era hip-hop, the celebratory sheen of late-aughts rap and, in a more contemporary vein, AutoTune-driven trap. Yet what sets Bagley apart from many of his basketball player-turned-rapper peers may be his deference to those who came before him. He’s obviously in tune with the wider world of hip-hop, and the list of homages on “The Calm Before the Storm” includes Biggie, Meek Mill, J. Cole and the late Nipsey Hussle. Fittingly, the strongest track, “No Hook,” boasts a nearly-unbroken four minutes of rapping that finds Bagley boldly taking on the instrumental of OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson.” (At times, Bagley’s flow in “No Hook” displays flashes of Andre 3000’s, which is as much a testament to the excellence of the original production as it is to Bagley’s own skill as an MC.)
Elsewhere, with its mellowed-out beat and epistolary structure, the heartfelt “Maya’s Letter” recalls Nas’s “One Love,” while “You Know” is a somewhat regrettable take on Drake’s particular brand of confessional sad-rap. Filling out the back end of the mixtape, “Black on Black” takes a sample of acoustic guitar and flute and turns it into something surprisingly menacing. It’s as close as the mixtape gets to a truly radio-ready banger.
If Bagley is to be believed, this rapping thing isn’t just a one-off diversion — it’s a second career. He says as much during the outro of final track “Middle Child Freestyle,” riding the beat from J. Cole’s most recent single: “Album on the way / Stay tuned.” Based on this release, it seems unlikely that MB3FIVE will become a household name in the near future. Far from being a cringeworthy spectacle, though, “The Calm Before the Storm” is an entertaining aside from a player who has already proved his talent on the court and just so happens to have another passion outside of it. As far as NBA rappers go, Bagley could be doing much worse.