Damian Lillard on Why He Turned Down Kanye to Make His Own Album Instead
Dame Time, they call it, when Damian Lillard dominates on the basketball court with such fierce self- assurance — such shrug-off deployment of every skill in the bag — that his buzzer-beater stare has become a meme staple of NBA Twitter.
Off the court, the Portland Trail Blazers superstar point guard is a renaissance man of equal nonchalance, even and especially in a time of selective celebrity outspokenness. The NBA was all raised fists and bent knees last summer from its Covid-proof bubble, only for Rolling Stone to reveal a player revolt against vaccines last month. All the while, Lillard has remained the adult in the room, at the front of a George Floyd march and behind the mic at the press-conference podium.
Oh, yeah. For a top-ten player in the league, he’s also one of the most multi-faceted rappers in the game.
Lillard sees a Childish Gambino-level of second career in his musical alter ego Dame D.O.L.L.A., having spent this off-season getting notes from J.Cole, Lil Wayne and Common while laying down his fourth studio album, Different on Levels the Lord Allowed. He did all of this while training with Team USA for the Olympics and planning a bold-faced wedding.
We caught up with Lillard on the phone from Portland on Tuesday, to find out what it felt like recording across a casino floor from Kanye West and why he was willing to leave behind basketball for social justice. He had a pseudo-off-day — not that Dame Lillard or Dame D.O.L.L.A. takes time off — following a pre-season loss to the Golden State Warriors. “There was no secret meeting,” the Oakland native told RS, referring to rumors that he might demand a trade. The 31-year-old looked at the time, then hustled back to his three children and newlywed wife.
So, who was the better wedding band: Common… or Snoop?
I think Common probably had the best freestyle of all time, but, I mean, obviously Snoop is a crowd favorite. Everybody still loves Snoop.
The whole top-five rapper thing, it’s pretty played out. Kinda corny. Can we agree, though, if you’re more like a rapper who just also happens to be an athlete, that the worst athlete rapper of all time is most definitely Shaquille O’Neal?
The worst? I think it’s different eras. The styles is different now. What’s hot is different now. Back then, it was like, people was rockin’ with it. People respected it. So I think you gotta respect his accomplishments.
What was it like finishing up this record while playing for Team USA? Weren’t you in one hotel room in Vegas for Olympic workouts, working on your album, while your friend Kevin Durant was getting a first listen in another room… with Kanye?
Kanye was trying to get us to come listen to his album. I knew he was recording in the hotel. And I had my engineers drive down from L.A., ’cause I wanted to try to wrap up some stuff on my album before I ended up in Tokyo, so I could tighten up whatever I needed to tighten up.
Did you swap any notes with Kanye? Get any early Donda reviews from Kevin back to your room, so you could kind of have that little Vegas hotel rivalry?
They asked me to come over there, but I had to finish up my own stuff. I mean, KD was telling me he liked it, from what he had heard. It wasn’t done yet, but he said he liked what he had heard that night. I actually did a song that night that me and KD was working on in Tokyo. We just haven’t recorded it.
KD was in there with you late-night?
He wasn’t in there with me ’cause he was in the studio with Kanye, but I ended up doing the song for him to do with me. Then we was working on it in Tokyo, like just writing it. Still in progress.
So we’re gonna get that KD feature before long?
Hopefully. We’ll see if he comes through with it.
Kanye was definitely, uh, trusting his process with the mix on that thing, at Mercedes Benz Stadium.
You seem more like a guy who puts out the work and stands by it. What’d you make of that whole real-time performance art on the field, then Kanye popping in features from that bedroom off the stadium tunnel?
The creativity was crazy. He does a great job thinking outside the box and just doing things that we haven’t seen before. I think it’s the reason why people respect his mind and respect him for how he goes about his business.
Maybe he was just trolling us all. I still think he was trolling Trump. How did it make you feel, seeing such a fellow next-level creative like Kanye just show up in the Oval Office in a MAGA hat? Some people just go to that next level of troll these days.
That’s the thing: You never know what’s real and what’s not. For me, when I see stuff like that, I don’t really know the background of it, or what their intentions are, or if it’s real, or if it’s trolling, or if it’s just for attention. You didn’t really know. So it’s not just him, but when a lot of people do certain things, you don’t really know the root of it. Like, where is it coming from? What is this about? So I just kind of leave that stuff alone, and when it does pop up, I’m just like: Wow.
In your new music video, you’ve got a fist in the air at the ’68 Olympics, replacing Tommie Smith next to John Carlos. I talked to Doctor Carlos for my book, and he said more players should have boycotted the bubble to get out in the streets. You were literally leading a protest last summer, but fans remember that symbolic image on the back of your jersey: HOW MANY MORE. And then your number, zero. Do you ever feel like the NBA has become more of a symbol for justice than a spark for action?
Nah, I don’t think it’s become a symbol of it. I think it’s a business. It’s always gonna be about money. That’s what business is about, especially one at this level. But people are gonna make decisions that’s best for them and their family. Some people don’t feel like they can take a bigger stand, and others walk. There’s people that have opinions. Some people will take a stand and have nothing to lose. Others will not take a stand because of what they have to lose. If you look on social media, you’ll find a lot of people saying what athletes should have done, and what entertainers should have done, what they would have done. But, you know, they probably wouldn’t walk away from $15,000. If they had the opportunity to take a stand or take $15,000, they probably would take that $15,000.
Or take a knee. Another one of your idols, Kobe Bryant, talked about how Colin Kaepernick brought “an immediacy that wasn’t there before” to long-standing issues. Do you feel like you’ve done right by Dr. Carlos and Mr. Smith? Made Colin and Kobe proud?
I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to make anybody proud. For the guys that you mentioned, they did things that they believed in. They stood up for what they believed in. That doesn’t mean my beliefs, or what I think, or what I’m passionate about, is going to be directly in line or the exact same thing as them. But my way of going about it is just standing up for what I believe in, doing the things that I care about and trying to have an impact on that. So I did participate in a march. I did take a knee in the bubble. When we had a hold in the bubble, and there was talk about us leaving the bubble, I was with that. If that’s what it came to, if we was going to make that type of stand and that type of statement, I was down with that.
Some people are looking to their heroes on the court to be avatars for everything they’re looking for off the court. There’s been all this controversy about the vaccine. About looking up to our heroes in America’s most influential, most progressive, most off-the-court league. Do you feel like it’s your job to be there, as an influencer, for everything?
No. I think people see us that way. And that’s kinda what we signed up for, becoming who we’ve become. But you stand up for what you believe in, and you stand on that. And I think that’s the best you can do. I don’t think it’s a good thing for people to do what they feel like everybody else wants them to do.
Listening to LeBron last week, he was saying it’s “not my job” to be advocating for what people put in their body with the vaccine because “we’re not talking about something that’s, you know, political, or racism, or police brutality.” I would argue that obviously the vaccine is political, but how do you balance what to speak on, what not to speak on, what’s gonna be your day job, your night job, and your job for your fans, who are looking to you to do a little bit of everything?
I think when you care about something enough, you make time for it. You give yourself a window of opportunity and make that thing quality, whatever it might be. I don’t really concern myself with who thinks my job is what.
You said last week that you got the vaccine just like you got vaccines when you were a kid — without big research, because you still don’t understand how the flu shot works. What do you make of players who call out fans for not knowing anything about the game — you maxed out at JV! — then act like being an All-Star makes you some expert virologist?
I just know what I know. If it’s something that I’m not in the know about, I don’t speak on it. I’m not going to just jump in on the topic because somebody asked me and I feel like it’s important that I have an opinion on it. If I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m going to say less. I’m not going to speak on it. But if it’s something that I do know about, and I have feelings on it, or I have thoughts about it, I’m going to say it. It’s that simple for me. It’s that simple.
Everybody gets on Michael Jordan for joking about “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” You know, it’s a personal choice to call something a personal choice. It’s a personal choice to call something your job or not your job. Would you rather change the world, or sell sneakers?
I don’t choose to play the games sometimes and then not play the game other times. All of that comes down to how people brand themselves. And, you know, I gotta sell sneakers. I gotta be marketable. All those types of things. And for me, my brand is not something I’ve had to deal with by saying certain things to make people think a certain way. I just be me. I just do me. I remain the same. And however I feel about something. I’m not going to let it weigh into my decision, or what I say, because of, “Oh, I need to sell shoes.” I say it how I really feel. I’m not faking the funk for nobody.