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Ballin’ for real: What’s the OED say about hip-hop’s ‘baller’?

The other day I had an earworm stuck in my head, an old rap song which goes:

 Wanna be a baller, shot-caller, 20-inch blades on the Impala…

 [N.B. 20-inch blades are wheels, and the Impala is a type of car]

After mouthing that line to myself for a few hours, it occurred to me that I’d never heard anyone say baller in the UK, at least not in the way that Lil’ Troy does in “Wanna Be a Baller”. I wondered: do the British know about ballin’?

I wish I was a little bit taller…

In the States, it’s common to hear (or read) baller used in a couple of ways.  The first refers to a ballplayer (the Oxford English Dictionary defines this sense at their entry for baller, noun¹ as “a player of a ball game”).  Recently, this usage is fairly specific to basketball, and only the best players on the court are lauded with that label.  Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, these guys are ballers (a couple of whom just won the NBA finals).  It’s not exclusive to the pros, though.  Stop by a pick-up game on most any neighbourhood blacktop court, and you’re likely to hear the word thrown around there as well.

The other way baller gets used in the US is precisely how Lil’ Troy drops it in the rhyme I quoted above.  The OED defines this sense:

*In researching this article, I came across an earlier example in Ice-T’s “The Syndicate”, from his 1988 album Power.  We hope to incorporate it as soon as possible!

This sense of baller seems to have originated in hip-hop music a little over 20 years ago, when it described a hustler who’d struck it rich and was celebrating.  Around that time, many MCs began focusing their lyrics on wealth and bling.  This new focus was informed by the image of high-earning professional basketball players (the NBA’s average salary is just over $5 million—not exactly chump-change), who often caught the public eye with extravagant suits, jewelry, cars, etc.  Thereby, baller came to refer to someone who showed the kind of flash and cash typical of these professional ballplayers.

A baller ain’t a baller if he ain’t got…

When baller’s used in this manner, it’s usually pretty clear from the context that the referent isn’t a star athlete, but someone who’s doing well in another, non-sports-related way.   Take this line from Slim Thug, for example, who raps:

 I can’t hoop, but people still call me a baller,
and I can’t shoot, but people still call me a shot-caller.

—“Dirty South”, from the album Boss Hogg Outlaws (2001)

Here it’s obvious that Slim’s not talking b-ball.  However, he gestures to those origins in order to mark out this use of baller as different, something unique to his milieu.

On occasion, though, the meaning is not so obvious, because baller’s deployed in such a way that either the hooping or the hustling sense would seem appropriate.  Even after interrogating the surrounding verse, could you definitively say whether Skee-Lo’s yearning for more skills on the court or cash in his pockets?

I wish I was a little bit taller, I wish I was a baller,
I wish I had a girl who looked good, I would call her.
I wish I had a rabbit in a hat with a bat,
And a 6-4 Impala.

—“I Wish”, from Skee-Lo’s I Wish (1995)

 Actually, he probably would’ve been happy with either.

Straight ballin’

Baller has cropped up in some interesting variations as well.  Often it modifies another noun, meaning something like superior, excellent, very good, etc., as in:

B****es be jockin’ us because we got the baller status.

—“Westward Ho”, from Westside Connection’s Bow Down (1996)

 [Ladies love us, because we’re at the top.]

 If you look and listen in the right place, you’ll encounter it modifying baller itself:

I’m a baller baller, you’re not at all a baller.

                —“Dipset (Santana’s Town)”, from Juelz Santana’s From Me to U (2003)

 [I’m the best of the best.  You’re not even in the same class.]

 Alternatively, the Notorious B.I.G.  applies the suffix -like:

 Sometimes I get kind of peeved at these weak MCs with the supreme baller-like lyrics.

—“What’s Beef?”, from Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death (1997)

 [I’m tired of y’all’s wannabe rhymes.]

Combining with a verb is also possible.  This construction typically implies an action performed on or against a baller, as in the following example from Ludacris:

People in the way wanna baller-block.  Little do they know that I’m callin’ shots.

—“Southern Fried Intro”, from Ludacris’s Chicken-n-Beer (2003)

[Some people try to hold me down; they just don’t know I’m the boss!]

For fans of the simple, straightforward approach, Snoop Dogg pairs baller with the verb ball:

Now you knows how a hustler hustles, and you knows how a baller balls.

—“Hustle & Ball”, from Snoop Dogg’s Da Game Is to be Sold, Not to Be Told (1998)

[Snoop’s just schooled you to the game.]

And that’s just a brief sample to pique your interest.  Keep an ear to the ground, and you’re sure to happen upon more, maybe even in the UK eventually!  In the meanwhile, hope you enjoyed this little intro.  Stay ballin’.

Image: by Keith Allison (originally posted to Flickr as Kirk Hinrich) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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