words: hanif abdurraqib
art: mikey coleman
The spectrum of coolness in American bowling has two extremes: First is Earl Anthony, who most professional bowling enthusiasts would consider the greatest bowler of all time. Anthony won 43 PBA titles during his run from 1970 to 1988 and was the first PBA bowler to reach one million dollars in winnings. Anthony was also decidedly uncool. He wore his hair in a neat crew cut and wore old-fashioned glasses on his face. His fellow bowlers gave him the nickname “Square Earl,” which he reveled in (though, to be fair, his other nickname was “The Doomsday Stroking Machine.”) Earl Anthony died in 2001, after suffering head injuries in a fall.
Pete Weber wears dark, wraparound sunglasses indoors. Pete Weber is demonstrative, pumping his fist and shouting after bowling a strike, which he does often. Pete Weber is the antithesis of Earl Anthony: a bowler who— at least for a period—lived fast and hard. In the 80s, during his early heyday, Weber was known as a wild-partying bowler, who binged on cocaine and alcohol. It didn’t hinder his performance, as he dominated the era, but his lifestyle was seen as running counter to the more buttoned-up aspects of the PBA tour. In 1985, Weber insisted that he spent a four-week stretch entirely blacked out, staying awake for days on end, high on cocaine and drinking a bottle of Jack Daniels every night. Weber insisted that in between 1982 and 1984, he spend $150,000 on cocaine, alcohol, and gambling.
Weber was unpopular with his fellow bowlers, perhaps in part because he lived this lifestyle in the 80s while still having immense success on the PBA tour. Even when the hard-living lifestyle died down, Weber remained unpopular with his fellow bowlers due to his on-television antics. Weber’s unbridled emotion stands out. Fans and peers have never been too excited about Weber’s approach to the game, becoming exhausted with his shouting celebrations and brash spirit. But this is Weber’s end of the spectrum. He’s always imagined himself as more of a rock star than a bowler, invested in a performance that transcends the sport and becomes singularly about the person.
Bowling’s history can’t necessarily be traced to anywhere. Perhaps it was the ancient Egyptians who threw extravagant porcelain balls at marble pins in 3200 BC, or perhaps it was the Roman Empire, where royals and their guards threw stones at pins, or maybe it was in 400 AD, when bowling was seen in Germany as a religious ritual to cleanse the body of sin. Regardless, it bears mentioning that despite its somewhat mundane recreational American history, bowling has some extravagant roots—though not nearly as extravagant as the gold that adorns the neck of 2 Chainz, seemingly weighing his large frame down.
Despite his history as an athlete—he played college basketball for a full season at Alabama State during the 1996-1997 season— 2 Chainz is not, as far as I know, not aspiring to be a professional bowler. He probably doesn’t watch bowling on television, though I do like the image of a lanky 2 Chainz, stretched across a bed on a Sunday afternoon, forgoing the NFL games on network television for a PBA match on ESPN 2. What 2 Chainz does do, however, is rap about bowling a lot.
The sports metaphor in rap isn’t new or unique: the late great Phife Dawg was a pioneer of the athlete-specific name drop as metaphor, charting a path for rappers like Wale, Action Bronson, Nicki Minaj, and even Chainz himself, who uses his basketball background and knowledge to connect dots in a rhyme scheme. But bowling, especially used as frequently as Chainz uses it, is relatively unexplored territory for rap boasting, Maybe this is simply a rapper returning to a comfortable image bank, but the fact that these are the comfortable images in the 2 Chainz image bank speaks to what 2 Chainz embodies as a character in the world of rap: a rich man, but still everyman. Someone who could buy you out of everything you own, but still finds himself fascinated with the small joys that many working class people have access to. He just takes his joys to the next, more expensive level.
When it comes to signifiers of affluence, 2 Chainz uses the mundane as a vehicle for the less mundane. In his guest verse on Eric Bellinger’s 2015 single “Focused on You,” he brags about eating a 300 dollar hamburger (something that he basically actually did.) On 2 Chainz’s latest album, the stellar Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, the best moments are the rhymes about his house. It’s like an HGTV special on record, by someone who is living a lifestyle as absurd as the people on HGTV wish they were. In “Poor Fool,” there are so many cars in his garage that he can’t open his car door. In “Saturday Night,” there is a brief tour of his new kitchen involving a see through fridge and a 3,000 dollar microwave. There’s no immense lyrical wizardry in these moments, but it’s how 2 Chainz makes the ridiculousness of his station touchable. He loves his kitchen. He wears his Yeezys to dinner, because why not? He sleeps in late and then sometimes goes out in his pajamas.
Within much of his rhyme aesthetic, 2 Chainz is trying to make himself an everyman, at least as best as one can when they are a millionaire. The goal of the rapper who wishes to get close to an audience is to keep cashing in on the lie that there isn’t much distance between them and the audience they’re attempting to reach. I am not in 2 Chainz’s world, but 2 Chainz builds a world that is adjacent to mine, simply drowned in more riches. More excess, and more foolishness than most of us could live through in an entire year, crammed into a one-and-a-half-minute verse. He’s rich, sure, but he understands the vehicle of the metaphor as a relatable exercise.
The spirit of 2 Chainz as an MC rests in pointing at the mundane spirit of a thing enthusiastically, repeatedly, until he seems like he might be passionate about it. Everything about his presence becomes massive and cartoonish, wringing out the last drop of water from the lyrical or metaphorical towel. I don’t know if 2 Chainz has ever bowled, and I’m not sure if it matters how much he has or hasn’t. It fits into what he does best: romanticizing a kind of normalcy that is not at all normal. Crafting an image that means both nothing and everything.
On “Champions,” Chainz raps “I got a mansion full of marble floors / it look like I could go bowl in this b****”
On “Deadz”: “I might buy a bowling alley / I got money out the gutter”
On “Money Machine”: “Living room floor look like a n**** going bowling”
On the “Might Not” remix: “Gutter like a bowling alley / even in the booth”
It could be argued that these are the rhymes of someone who knows what bowling is but who has perhaps never actually bowled a real game. Even a casual observer knows that in a bowling alley, a gutter exists. But— and this is all speaking from my capacity for hope—I imagine that 2 Chainz returns to this set again and again because of a genuine interest. Besides which, the basketball metaphor in rap has long worn itself to exhaustion, making a return to this template refreshing. Outside of 2 Chainz’s kitchen and slightly upscale but still accessible restaurant rhymes, it’s another line he’s walking in an attempt to show a listener who he is. It’s all performance, of course. But he wears it well.
I imagine there are bowling enthusiasts who like Earl Anthony because they would know exactly what they’re getting from him every time, the way I pick up a 2 Chainz release and expect him to work through colorful, often hilarious imagery with deft skill and a type of well-focused alliteration. 2 Chainz approaches rhyming with a literary edge, which seems buttoned up and boring when spelled out, but he is so consistently great at it that you are left surprised only by the fact that he can do it in so many ways.
I imagine there are some bowling enthusiasts who like Pete Weber for the exact opposite reason: he’s a wild card, sometimes frustrating, but always at least a little thrilling. And there is 2 Chainz here, too trying to seduce a type of basic calm out of his raging opulence, knocking down at least a few pins every time.
Not everyone can bowl just like not every can rap. But both activities lend themselves to the type of space where everyone and anyone feels like they can enter the world. Because people bowl casually—sometimes very well—it seems like the game on a professional level is more touchable than, say, an average person making their way to the NBA. Bowling is a way for even those of average athleticism to become brief heroes. In the bowling alley in my old neighborhood, there were three plaques on the wall celebrating three perfect games, each only attained once by three different people who struck gold for a moment and never again.
Because a rapper’s most prominent instrument is their voice, and because many people have voices of their own, and because some of those people might kick rhymes in a circle of their friends, rap may seem more touchable than, say progressive rock. While this does discount things that go into impactful rapping like breath control, flow, and imagery, rap was in part created as an art form for the people because of how touchable it was. It allowed young people with few resources beyond themselves to find glory.
With intention, rap and bowling set a short distance between themselves and the public’s ability to enter the spaces they exist in. What better rapper to pull the two worlds together than 2 Chainz, an artist who balances immense wealth with a type of jarring normalcy? Whether or not he genuinely loves the sport, it is the perfect sport to imagine him loving. And so much of buying into 2 Chainz is believing that he truly lives the life he’s selling. All of music is about an artist selling some version of something to a waiting audience. 2 Chainz is reflects his audience back onto itself. He loves bowling, perhaps, the sport that you and your pals might not necessarily yourselves love but might use to kill some time in a Saturday night in a small town, or a big town, or in any town where there are pins and an alley and a jukebox where you might also be able to listen to 2 Chainz as a ball speeds down a lane.