SANTA CLARA, Calif. — If Brandon Lloyd ever had to choose between rapping like Fabolous and catching passes like Jerry Rice, the San Francisco 49ers' receiver would choose football every time.
But Lloyd has an NFL player's disposable income and a burning passion for hip-hop, so he doesn't have to choose. He's free to run and to rhyme.
After practices, on his days off, even between workouts, Lloyd has been writing lyrics, polishing his flow and preparing to release his debut rap album, "Training Day," this summer.
"I'm a football player, first and last," Lloyd said. "But I love music, too."
Athletes have a long and embarrassing history of musical dabblings, but Lloyd believes he can do better. This 23-year-old, who's also an aspiring sports broadcaster, is an amateur historian of this sub-genre who can cite every significant crossover athlete and the reason he failed.
BLloyd, as he's known behind a mike, is determined to learn from the musical misadventures of Deion Sanders, Allen Iverson, Ron Artest and others -- all while never forgetting he's a football player first.
"I'm so passionate about music. It excites me," Lloyd said. "I've treated it like football. I've studied it, and I had my approach, and knew what I wanted to do, and so I just went after it and did it based on what I like to hear."
Hip-hop essentially is the soundtrack to modern professional sports, and dozens of athletes have embraced rap with varying degrees of awkwardness during the past two decades. After the 1985 Chicago Bears shambled into history with their "Super Bowl Shuffle," at least a dozen pro teams and countless individual athletes followed, arguably highlighted by Shaquille O'Neal's five surprisingly solid albums.
Growing up in Kansas City, Mo., Lloyd listened to Sanders' album and its confoundingly infectious single, "Must Be the Money." He began to work on his own sound during his sophomore year at Illinois, putting down tracks and making mix tapes for his friends.
When the 49ers drafted him in 2003, Lloyd had the money to take his pastime more seriously. His music and his broadcasting interests -- Lloyd has appeared on an ESPN morning show, among other assignments -- became a solace while San Francisco spiraled to a 2-14 record last season.
"With two home games left, I had started recording," Lloyd said. "I would go to the studio on Monday night and record 'til 3 in the morning. It got to the point where I'd be driving home and a security guard would stop me. 'What are you doing? Brandon, you're always coming down home at 3 in the morning.' I'd be like, 'I just got out of the studio.' "
Lloyd created a label, Flight 85, and found a 21-year-old producer from Orange County. They've got 16 tracks in various states of readiness so far, and Lloyd wants to roll out his songs through listening parties and clubs. Several tracks already are available on his Web site, along with the album cover.
Lloyd compares his flow to the lyrical style of Brooklyn rapper Fabolous, and he describes his sound as East Coast underground filtered through West Coast production -- but the lyrics reflect his life, not the crime-riddled ethos of much rap.
"I can't talk about drugs and shooting people, because that's not who I am," Lloyd said. "I can study all that, all the rappers who talk about that, but I can't say what they do. I can talk about football, cars, being in the club, stuff like that. I curse. It's not a children's album. It's tailored for people who do what I do, who like what I like."
Lloyd knows exactly what others will think of his hobby. He knows his rapping will be seen as frivolous by some, detrimental by others -- and if it's terrible, he'll be a laughingstock, on and off the field.
After two moderately successful NFL seasons, he still has much to prove to the 49ers, who expect him to be a starter in their new offense this fall. Lloyd was criticized last season by teammates Fred Beasley and Kevan Barlow for his braided hair, jewelry collection and attitude in practice. It's hard to tell how the 49ers will react to Lloyd's musical aspirations, though it hasn't been a problem so far.
"Some guys work on their degrees in the offseason, some guys work on their rapping," coach Mike Nolan said with a shake of his head.
"Hopefully it's a career after football, not during. I know he does a little of it now. As long as it's not a distraction, there is time in the day for those guys to do some other things. As long as they're maintaining their workouts and being at the minicamps, it doesn't concern me."
Lloyd is careful to keep football first. He thinks Artest was foolish to ask the Indiana Pacers for time off last November to promote an album, and he believes too many other athletes, from Iverson to Kobe Bryant, have been embarrassed because they were seduced by hip-hop's allure with no real idea of the balance necessary to tend to both passions.
And Lloyd would never follow in the footsteps of Houston Texan running back James Allen, who abruptly retired from his five-year NFL career during training camp in 2003 to devote himself to his music.
Allen, who raps under the name Mersilis and didn't respond to an interview request, hasn't made much of a splash in the progressive Houston hip-hop scene, but he released his debut album last year on his own record label.
While in the studio last year, Lloyd sought the guidance of rap veteran E-40, the self-styled "King of the Bay" who's famed for his tongue-twisting lyrics, inventive slang and entrepreneurial acumen.
"You've got to do it on a shoestring," Lloyd said. "He [also] said, 'This has got to be hot. It can't be average. It can't be terrible, because you catch so much flack for being an athlete and making anything.' Shaq can rap better than any rapper can play basketball. It's got to be hot."