Whatever happened to Elizabeth Warren’s favorite HBO half-hour dramedy, Ballers? Just kidding, a quick Google reveals that it was canceled unceremoniously in 2020, leaving a respectable legacy of five seasons. The title of the show is a double-entendre, of course, literally referring to the fact that the characters are or interact with athletes, and in a more colloquial sense, that they are absolute fucking powerhouses. Wealth, power, sex appeal—these aspirations pass from screen to viewer…but not for Mega Ran. The artist, born Raheem Jarbo in Philly, can relate to the dream of balling, but he’s in it for himself and nothing and no one else. His 2021 record, Live ‘95, is proof.
Now, full disclosure, I’m not that familiar with the sport of basketball. (In fact, I really am not qualified to write about any sports.) I played it during aftercare at elementary school sometimes, but usually only HORSE. I made the JV team in sixth grade but was not overly invested in it. (My mom scolded me once for playing patty-cake with a fellow benchwarmer on the team, but she was right in pointing out that that’s why our coach never put us in.) I used to follow the Miami Heat before I went to college, but when I actually lived in Miami, I realized that my mom’s love for the sport was what drove my interest. Still, I won’t turn it off if I see it’s on TV.
Insert Live ‘95 by veteran nerdcore rapper Mega Ran. Audio clips from basketball legends dot the record, adding authenticity to what is ultimately a love story. It took me a few listens to realize that the year in the album title is not necessarily a significant year in basketball, but rather a year that Jarbo recalls vividly. “I remember it all, summer ‘95,” he says on the album opener, marking time in a way that only ballers can, “Three years after the Sixers had traded Charles…”
If you didn’t know him already, you would immediately know from his moniker that Mega Ran is a play on Mega Man, a video game franchise that debuted in 1987. The game not-so-accidentally came to define Jarbo, both because he loved to play the sidescroller in his youth, and now because his professional career is centered on the little blue robot. But it’s not just Mega Man; Jarbo has released so many records either discussing or using sounds from games, it can seem like that’s his entire worldview. So in a statement accompanying Live ‘95, he clarifies: “90’s hoops were just as influential as any video game or comic book I picked up. Now I get to give back.”
And give he does. He’s a generous name-dropper, giving Michael Jordan more than a couple shoutouts. He’s also not shy to share vulnerable moments, as on “1995 (Generation Of Miracles),” where he gives an oral history of his life. “Flight 2.0,” one of my favorite tracks, is lighter but still heartbreaking: Jarbo breaks down his need for flashy Jordans but his mother refuses to understand his plight. “She ain’t know what it was like on the yard/Getting no love for something you had no control of,” he explains over an electrified beat by DJ DN3. Mom still had good advice to buy as many pairs of sneaks as he wanted once he got older. “So that’s just what I did…”
Mega Ran also provides a sense of humor in contrast to his occasional “political” commentary (existence is political, fist up). He raps about relating to Craig Hodges and is critical of Jordan’s capitalist instincts for a verse or two. He drags Biden for dragging his feet in addressing police brutality, and on “In The Game” he leaves us instructions for after he dies—“Anybody I ain’t rock with/Don’t put them on my projects/Posthumous…” But on “Comeback Player of the Year,” he cuts himself off and claims that “three verses are so 2006” with a chuckle. He also has a rhyme about Scott Steiner’s math on “Faces of Fear” and includes a clip of the Sacrifice 2008 promo at the end. And there is an implication that Jarbo equates himself with the Fab Five, alongside Mickey Factz, Alfred Banks, MedafORACLE and Esoteric; I just know they were smiling throughout that studio session.
If there’s one thing Mega Ran does well, it’s to live authentically. He describes being a chubby kid lost in the world before he found video games and comic books and basketball—and those parts of himself were never lost. He used to coach eighth grade basketball. He has performed live at Comic-Con. He was awarded a Guinness World Record for the most songs written about a single game franchise. All of that he accomplished while doing what gave him life: his raps.
If “1995” is to be taken at face value, that was the year he started rhyming, or one of his earliest years before he could afford a recorder. The entirety of Live ‘95 follows as an homage to the era when he was coming up. I listen and join in his grief over losing Barkley, his envy over Jordans, and his determination to conquer The Move. And then I look at where he’s come, having asserted himself as a skilled writer and performer, even if he won’t hit the mainstream. He doesn’t need to; Mega Ran is a baller and he wouldn’t be where he is without everything that came before.