Damian Lillard: Athlete Musician

The lifestyle of a professional athlete often warrants little to no time. Athletes of all sports are required to elevate their physical prowess to a level that separates them from anyone else, no matter what sacrifices that may bring. Damian Lillard, the NBA point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers, knows all about the sacrifices that lead to any level of success in his field. After finishing top ten in the MVP race multiple times in his career and gaining an All-NBA First Team selection in 2017, Damian Lillard has made it clear that he is elite and one of the hardest workers in the NBA. Among all of his professional success with basketball, Damian Lillard has managed to carve out another career for himself- as a rapper.

Before the fame and the beginning of his love for music, Damian Lillard was just a boy from Oakland, California, with some large-scale hoop dreams. He grew up shooting over curved branches outside of his grandma’s house, later moving on to milk crates with punched-out bottoms. There was nothing that could stop Lillard from putting the ball in a basket.

Coming out of Oakland High School, Lillard was minimally scouted as a 3-star recruit. He later attended Weber State University in Utah, where he played for three years. Having not appeared on any draft boards before college, he chose to take his talents to a small market school that would better appreciate his talents and let him shine. After his junior year, Lillard was all over the draft boards. He declared for the 2012 NBA draft and got selected 6th overall by the Portland Trail Blazers. Lillard was the underdog his whole life up until this point, and finally, it was his opportunity to take control of the narrative.

After winning Rookie of the Year for the 2012-2013 NBA season, the rest is history. Currently still playing in Portland for his 9th season, Lillard has made it clear how important loyalty is to him. In an interview with ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, Lillard was asked if he would be thinking about signing a major deal with a team other than Portland. He quickly responded: “I love what my situation is… Why would I be? I don’t even think it makes sense.”

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Lillard in 2018 courtesy of Frenchieinportland – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66918725)

Lillard’s sense of loyalty and responsibility is a crucial part of understanding his love for music along with who he is as a person in general. Often Lillard’s music revolves around his love for Oakland and Brookfield Village, and he even has a track titled “Loyal to the Soil” that features Lil Wayne, where they discuss the importance of remaining humble and truthful to themselves no matter how much money or fame they acquire.

Where the success story began, though, Lillard grew a strong attachment to his hometown and Brookfield Village, where his grandma lived. Without his friends and family in Oakland, Lillard would not have the musical foundation needed to develop his talents as a rapper.

Lillard grew up listening to artists such as Jamie Foxx, Lil Wayne, Common, Andre 3000, and Juvenile- all of which he would cite as influences today. However, his beginnings as a musician date back to his high school days, where his coach Phil Taylor of the Oakland Rebels created a bonding exercise for the team. A unique routine, “Pass the Mic,” gave teammates a chance to rap for one another and freestyle about whatever came to mind. Lillard would constantly practice with his teammates on bus rides and before workouts, honing his MC skills. SLAM basketball magazine published its first-ever Music Issue with Damian Lillard at its center, where he spoke about one of his first experiences making music during high school. Lillard told SLAM that “the first song I ever recorded, I was in the tenth grade and I transferred to Oakland High… Our assistant coach, he like, made beats and he had like a little small studio at his house. We all started writing to a beat he made.”

From there, Lillard knew that he wanted to keep rapping as a different kind of lifestyle when he was not playing basketball, which he always sought to keep as his top priority. Lillard’s music kept him connected to his roots, which gained respect from fellow Oakland natives. One of them being Sway Colloway.

On Colloway’s radio show Sway in the Morning, rappers and other musicians are invited to hang out, talk about their music, and occasionally kick the impromptu freestyle. Colloway calls it the valley of the hyenas, as not everyone is always able to perform impressively. After hearing about Lillard’s love for creating music, Colloway had him on Sway in the Morning for a freestyle. Before the show, Colloway had his doubts. He told Adidas in their documentary mini-series DAME TIME: The Damian Lillard Story: “I was, like, really worried for him… I don’t know if he’s going to survive this.”

Lillard “had to have bars,” said Colloway.

Appearing on the show in early 2015, Lillard was given the opportunity to prove himself as a rapper. Sway in the Morning has had a multitude of popular artists appear as guests, including Kanye West, Childish Gambino, A$AP Rocky, Tory Lanez, Logic, and many more. The bar was set for Lillard, and performing to a high enough standard in this setting would do more than just gain him a couple of fans.

Lillard stoically approached his freestyle as if he had been there many times before. After rapping for over a minute on the instrumental of Jay-Z’s “Dead Presidents,” Colloway heard all he needed to hear: “I was thoroughly caught off guard. Extremely impressed. And then even more curious about what am I hearing right now?” Colloway told Adidas. “We are witnessing the best NBA player to ever pick up a mic from a lyrical perspective.”

By the time July of 2015 came around, Lillard was ready to put out some of his own music. Under the stage name Dame D.O.L.L.A. (Different on Levels the Lord Allows), Lillard released his first single titled “Soldier to the Game,” where he showcased lyrical talent and ability as a rapper. This set him up to release “The Letter O”- Lillard’s first full-length album in October of 2016. The album featured a slew of artists ranging from Jamie Foxx to Lil Wayne, as well as his cousin Brookfield Duece.

In “The Letter O,” Lillard puts the ball player persona aside to share some details from his older life. On the track “Thank You,” which features Brookfield Duece, Marsha Ambrosius, and Danny from Sobrante, Lillard speaks about the times he spent with his grandmother and the advice she provided him. There are multiple instances on the album where Lillard breaks down his relationships with important people in his life, creating an honest picture into the mindset of an NBA All-Star and how he remains connected to the city that raised him. “Loyal to the Soil,” another standout track from the album, featured Lil Wayne and is the most streamed track on “The Letter O” today.

With the release of his first album, Lillard also conceived his own record label titled Front Page Music. Co-founded by Brookfield Duece and Danny from Sobrante, Lillard tweeted that he hoped Front Page Music would provide opportunities to young, aspiring musicians to begin to establish themselves within the music industry.

Just one year after the release of his first album, Lillard’s confidence as a rapper began to fully take flight with the release of “Confirmed,” his second studio album. 2 Chainz and BJ the Chicago Kid make appearances on the 13 track project, along with Lil Wayne, Brookfield Duece and Danny from Sobrante featuring for the second time in Lillard’s discography. Lillard took to Instagram to say that to him, “Confirmed” really meant his career as a musician was “no longer an experiment” and that the title for the album stemmed from that idea.

Lillard further explores his roots and where he’s from on “Confirmed,” along with adopting a more braggadocious tone on certain tracks like “BOSS LIFE.” Continuing to write about the perks of his multi-million dollar life, Lillard released his third studio album, “Big D.O.L.L.A.,” in August of 2019. With the birth of his first son in March of the year prior, Lillard’s time got even more limited. Maintaining balance never became an issue for Lillard as “Big D.O.L.L.A.” garnered notable commercial success, with tracks like “Money Ball” with Jeramih becoming Lillard’s most-streamed song on Spotify to date.

Lillard’s name has become synonymous with success in multiple fields. His fans respect him not only as a basketball player but also as a musician, and his passion for both allow him to shine. Lillard has a story to tell, and music has allowed him to express that. Lillard told Adidas: “I use my music to let people know, like, yeah I am a professional, yeah I do play in the NBA… but there’s another side. Like, I’ve lived another life too.”

Lillard most recently released “Hulu Doesn’t Just Have Live Sports,” a song with Hulu as part of his sponsorship deal in January 2021. He looks to continue releasing music in the future.

Featured image courtesy of Nikk_la, via Wikimedia Commons.

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