Portland Trailblazers point guard Damian Lillard released his debut hip-hop album just this past Friday. It feels like it’s been a long time coming, and not just because you heard whispers about Dame’s skills on the mic from interviews with some of his teammates, or because you heard him spit a few rhymes in that nifty Adidas commercial (let’s not forget about this either). The way Dame D.O.L.L.A’s debut record feels, you know this guy’s been wanting to do this for years.
It’s almost no surprise that Dame gets a lot of help on his debut, The Letter O. Teammate CJ McCollum told Zach Lowe that the 26-year-old point guard is “rapper good.” A few names you’ll recognize sharing the mic with Dame include Lil Wayne, Jamie Foxx, and Juvenile. And yet, these appearances never overshadow Dame’s performance. Even with some high profile friends, Dame runs the show here, and with a subtlety that may surprise you.
If there’s one influence more obvious than the rest on the album, it’s Jay-Z. Though Dame’s lyrics have little to do with Hova’s subjects, his delivery owes much to some of those unique vocal rhythms from classics like The Blueprint. For his beats, the selections aren’t too far from those found on Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, but Dame keeps things pretty chill through the record. It’s a bit of a surprise, and a good one at that. Between his beats and rhymes, Dame never tries to overcompensate the fact that he’s an NBA star, rather than Aftermath’s hottest new talent.
One thing you’ll notice quickly is the lack of a parental advisory sticker on the album cover, and no notes on your Spotify or iTunes about “explicit” tracks. Dame doesn’t throw around any cuss words. It’s a fascinating contrast to most hip-hop albums, but what’s more is how Dame’s lyrics don’t lose any potency. He doesn’t need to be edgy—that would be overplaying his hand. Instead, Dame raps humbly about proving himself (“Bill Walton”), his past (“Growth Spurt”), and reconciling his celebrity without losing his roots (“Loyal to the Soil,” “Roll Call”). He might be almost too humble in his lyrics and flow, but he’s sincere. There’s a sense of weariness in a number of tracks, particularly those concerned with his roots. For a guy making millions of dollars for his exceptional basketball skills, you’ll find a great deal of humility in his words.
Overall, The Letter O is a good debut. The album isn’t an epoch-defining piece, but it doesn’t ask to be. While there isn’t anything quite transcendent on it, the album succeeds as a surprisingly quiet debut. That sense of subtlety in hooks and production makes the affair seem less like a coming out party and more like an introspective philosophical discussion. It’s that unexpected restraint that might help Damian Lillard’s rap career start off on the right foot. In its weakest moments, the album flirts with mediocrity. At its best, we get a promising statement from a professional basketball player who has legitimate skills on the mic.