On Independence Day, Damian Lillard dropped his East Oakland remix of “Stay Schemin,” a 2012 song that featured Drake’s retort to Common in that slapfight they had over Serena Williams. The Portland Trail Blazers star doesn’t rap about any of those three in the song, but he does kick it off with golf metaphors. As with any other ball player’s sideline rap career, praise and critique of Lillard’s rapping alter ego Dame D.O.L.L.A. comes with qualifiers. The general consensus is that he’s good, like how we say “good” in an involuntary lilt when someone asks how we’re doing. He’s “solid,” or “not half bad.” But given that he’s kind of serious about it and apparently being courted by major labels (noise admittedly originating out of Lillard’s own camp), we’re quickly moving out of that honeymoon oh cool, you rap, too phase of his career.
I, for one, think it’s high time we determine if Dame is actually — like, for real, for real — Good at Rap.
Something of a backpack traditionalist, Dame seems to consider capital-L Lyricism his strongest suit. It’s definitely a suit, but it’s a little tedious, and not really all that strong. On “Ready for It,” which recently made the rounds, one particular word flurry links “Halloween,” “scene,” “screen,” and “Lillard IIIs” together, which probably looked a little cooler on the page than it sounded coming out.
“The furthest away from fate / it was written long ago, I ain’t making it by mistake,” though, is pretty tweetable, and also works as a Facebook status update or a Tweegram, if you’re the kind of person that goes to Instagram to see words.
Leastwise, he didn’t toss up any bricks like Mamba did with “Your love’s a sword slicing gently through my body.”
No one’s going to care about all that stuff you have scribbled in your composition notebook if you mumble and/or ride the beat like a newborn calf trying to stay upright on ice. Much like in basketball, one of Dame’s biggest positives is his borderline-irrational confidence. He tends to say it — whatever “it” is — with his chest. He went on Sway in the Morning last year and laid that (prepared?) freestyle down quite flat.
Rick Ross was spinning yarns about transatlantic drug empires over these grand, cinematic J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League tapestries, then turned prima materia into gunpowder with Lex Luger one time and stagnated for almost three years trying to re-create it. Kid Cudi’s Indicud was approximately one-tenth as good as it could’ve been because he insisted on handling all of the production himself. There are those that say Future wouldn’t even exist without Metro Boomin (though, as a torch-bearing Future evangelical, if you said that to my face, I’d have to ask you to square up).
Whether production makes a song is case-by-case, but a shitty backdrop is almost always a nonstarter, and Dame seems to have a pretty good handle on that. He’s rapped over Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones” and Jay Z’s “Dead Presidents” — which are very “I’m so hip-hop and you’re not” choices — but he’s also rapped over Future’s “Commas” and made friends with Jahlil Beats — of “Amen” and “Hot Nigga” fame — proving that Dame’s got a decent ear. And also proving, in passing, that he has range.
Dame rapped about racial harmony on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and it was wonderful. Outside of that, his material largely revolves around being war-ready or slept-on, and other platitudes you’d expect from a person who spends every other waking moment doing something basketball-related. It’s not Gary Payton bloviating about owning a beeper and a car that set him back $50,000, but it’s still pretty dry. However, Dame harks back to growing up in Oakland pretty often, and I could conceivably listen to a full-length concept album with skits about that. Maybe.
Listen. I get that the acronym is as hip-hop as, like, Timbs and running away from something and blurring out clothing logos in music videos. I really, really do. But D.O.L.L.A. (Different on Levels the Lord Allows)? How are you supposed to prosper with a name like that? Like, in this decade. It isn’t as bad as CHEIZAW (Canon Homo sapiens Eclectic Iconic Zaibatsu Abstract Words), but it’s not much better, either. I know that the meaning comes after the fact and the less-bad ones (there are no good ones) are mostly happy mistakes, but couldn’t Dame have chosen a different point of origin? We already have Ty Dolla $ign. We’re at capacity for Successful Artists With Dumb Names.
But there’s hope yet! Remember Zev Love X? No, right? But you do know who MF DOOM is. Change your name, change your life. It took 2 Chainz a few tries to find his bliss, but I think Lillard could completely turn things around just by embracing the mononym and dropping that groan-worthy D.O.L.L.A.
Final Grade: C-Plus
OK, C-plus sounds bad, but truly what it means is that Damian Lillard is fine as a rapper. Think about it visually — 79 percent is like, over three-quarters of a pie, and that’s a lot of pie! Rappers that have scored way lower on this rubric have gone on to enjoy rich success and sell plenty of albums. Dame’s already faring better than the wonky “Jewelz” chapter of Allen Iverson’s career, and hell, since the RIAA is counting streams now, Dame could use his massive SoundCloud following to go platinum and break even with Shaq.
But only if he changes his name. He should start with that.