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In April, Damian Lillard did some sublimely cool shit, shooting the Oklahoma City Thunder into antimatter with the second walk-off playoff series winner of his career. In May, Lillard lead his Portland Trail Blazers to their first conference finals in more than two decades. June brought his fourth All-NBA selection, and in July, the man inked a $196 million max contract extension.
It’s here where I inform you that Damian Lillard is not going on vacation, or staycation, or any kind of cation at all. Remember when Styles P said “we on the Cayman Islands, on a yacht with our favorite albums”? To me, that’s always been the pinnacle of celebration and relaxation. Just picture it. I for sure would have gone the Styles P route with my August. But Dame Lillard is a superhero, an ice-cold basketball assassin who is somehow also dedicated and very good at other things, so of course he’s spending the month in album mode, assuming the responsibilities of both recording artist and label owner.
Rapping as Dame D.O.L.L.A., the 29-year-old Oakland native has put together quite an impressive body of work, considering offseason time constraints. He’s a confessional writer who can spit without preaching to you. He’s got an evolving ear for production and composition. And, as the league’s best rapper (yup), he can elicit strong feature performances, most notably from “sports sports sports” superfan Lil Wayne. On Friday, Dame releases his third full-length, Big D.O.L.L.A., through his own Front Page Music imprint.
The music has a distinct sense of place, and Big D.O.L.L.A.’s contributors include Oakland’s Brookfield Duece, Danny from Sobrante and the Sacramento-based Mozzy. Lillard describes the project as a space for humble flexin, but also as a transformative, assured step forward musically. It’s the latest shot in a bomb-ass HEAT CHECK that has been nothing less than thrilling to follow. — Steven Louis
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The song of yours I keep coming back to is “Hero,” the last track from the first album. It’s so … loyal-to-the-soil. How do you connect to the place that you’re from, and how does Oakland color your music?
Dame D.O.L.L.A.: The reason that I’m the way I am, it’s from that connection to Oakland. How I was raised, what the city was like growing up … from the local legends, down to the little things I’ve picked up around the city, that’s all in my music.
You write a lot about reinvesting in your community, putting your people on. Oakland is becoming a real stratified city. How have you and your family back there seen things change?
Dame D.O.L.L.A.: My neighborhood specifically, I’ve seen it change a lot. Gentrification. A lot of people that grew up with me in Oakland, my neighborhood, people I played rec league against and went to elementary school with … they’re living on the outskirts now. Fairfield, Vallejo, they’re not in Oakland. Those people got pushed out. Now, the neighborhood is a lot different, and a lot of those people are in prison or dead. A lot has changed, but I think gentrification has caused a lot of that. It’s a lot different now, but I’m getting into real estate, putting property in my family’s name. The houses my grandmother and my aunties and uncles lived … making sure we own that stuff. We’re looking at another place in our neighborhood now that’s for sale. We want to keep our family and our roots where they are.
It’s like you’re preserving actual Oakland, parts that otherwise would get wiped away by rising rents.
Dame D.O.L.L.A.: Exactly.
In that same spirit, tell me about dropping this album independently, moving with Front Page Music? What’s the motto there?
Dame D.O.L.L.A.: I have two artists on the label, and it’s all about giving them power. In the industry, you see a lot of guys going in that direction. My goal was to kick off my music career, get my music out there, and then create a platform. Now, there are two more artists on Front Page. Obviously I don’t need the financial backing, I can back myself and get things done. It’s about learning how to actually work the music, make stuff go. That’s been the process for me. I chose that route so I could be in control, so I’m not jumping into bed with all these different people.
As an artist, you must love the freedom to pick your own single, the features, all of that.
Dame D.O.L.L.A.: Yeah. That’s also a huge thing for me, having control of the creativity and what I feel strongly about. I’ve seen and read a lot of interviews, where the song that the artist is set on, the one they think should be the single or whatever…it’s not on the album or there’s not a video done. There’s always something I’m hearing about. That’s a situation I never want to be in. I want to prevent it because I don’t have to be there.
Yeah, like, “XO Tour Life” wasn’t supposed to be a hit at all … it had to leak on SoundCloud! That shift is so important. Looking at hip-hop now, when did you feel like you could hold you own, that you belong here as well as in basketball?
Dame D.O.L.L.A.: Honestly, when I got to the league. I always rhyme, my whole life I’ve been rhyming … I used to do mixtapes and freestyles back in middle school, high school. But when I went on SWAY, and I saw the reaction to that freestyle, from real big-name artists in the industry and other athletes and some actors … it was, like, a viral video. All positive, and once I saw that, I figured I could really do it. I took it a step further and dropped music every Monday on SoundCloud. There was no real negative feedback, nothing, so I just put an album together, and that’s how I was working on my first one.
The Letter O came first, then Confirmed … how is this one different? A lot of rappers seem to evolve in their careers around that third album.
Dame D.O.L.L.A.: I think that’s exactly what it is. It’s a transformation, not of who I am as a person but with where my life is. This one is different. Both of those albums kind of told a story, of coming into my own. The Letter O had a lot of storytelling, that’s my story, a calmer album. Confirmed was a little bit harder, an updated me if you’re looking at both, that one just sounds like an update … but this one is levels above that. It’s where I am now. A few max contracts in, my name is bigger, I’ve got better stuff, my life has been elevated. It’s humble flexin’ on there [laughs].
And this is what you’re using that momentum for, an independent album, not some corporate bullshit. It feels natural, like, it makes sense to have Mozzy on there, to have Wayne on there.
Dame D.O.L.L.A.: Exactly. Wayne’s actually been on every project! Every project. He’s a mainstay, it always has to happen.
What’s your relationship like with Weezy? Are you ever in the studio with him?
Dame D.O.L.L.A.: We’ve actually done a lot of music. We’ve made a lot of songs together that haven’t come out. But yeah, in the studio, for me, I was just blown away, to be there and experience it. I’ve been a Wayne fan for so long. It’s really cool to watch him work, how fast he works. I was expecting the studio to be full. Truthfully, there were three people there, the engineer, him and just one other dude, maybe his assistant … in general, Wayne just lets me do my thing. He’ll tell me what he thinks of something, like “oh that’s hard, that’s dope,” or “I gotta get you on this beat” and break it down like that. He knows what makes sense, for this reason or that reason. But he’s got a lot of faith in what I’m gonna write, you know?
Now the world waits for that Dame Lillard/Lil Wayne I Can’t Feel My Face mixtape.
Dame D.O.L.L.A.: That would be tight. We did something a while back that was supposed to be on Tha Carter V. That just took so long to come out, by that time he probably had a whole different thing. That album came out nice though, it did.
Before you head back to training, can you explain how basketball informs your music, or maybe vice versa? Is there a shared rhythm between the two for you?
Dame D.O.L.L.A.: I wouldn’t say that, exactly. Basketball itself doesn’t influence my music, but it’s taking me to places where there are things to talk about. I’m always on the road, I’m always in new environments, going city-to-city. It’s an experience, being at parties and everything that being a basketball player has afforded me. It’s given me a lot to vent about, a lot to have an opinion about, so it’s done that as an artist for me more than anything.