Portland Trailblazers Superstar Damian Lillard is a rare breed. He is an extraordinary basketball player and a great rapper. In the beginning, I had skepticism about his foray into Hip-Hop, considering past basketball players, not named Master P, haven’t been the best rappers; Shaquille O’Neal was okay, and Allen Iverson didn’t take the time to hone the craft. To fans, it has become a black mark on their respective career since they try not to talk about much unless it “Can’t Stop The Reign.” Unlike them, Dame has grown to create an authentic identity with his music. His past work isn’t bad, but they were slightly basic. However, on his new album, Different On Levels The Lord Allowed, Damian personifies the acronym from his moniker with unique flows and verses, albeit some generic choruses and production.
Looking back on Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson’s work, the sound is a time capsule for the time. And like them, Dame has done so with the sound of his music. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This sound is prominent with conscious hip-hop; however, Damian Lillard brings slick wordplay and rhyme schemes. It’s a glaring difference between the music from the past and then. Damian is a kid from Oakland, and he doesn’t shy away from his roots, even though it doesn’t always reflect the final product for each song.
But to me, there is no doubt Damian Lillard is talented, and his verses/writing speak for themselves. Unfortunately, he has consistently faltered into mediocrity due to the surrounding aspects of his music. The production usually takes familiar beats from current styles in hip-hop, except they don’t explore it beyond a basic concept. It isn’t as noticeable, and Damian is to thank. His intricate flows and wordplay have brought about more depth than expected.
Damian Lillard has witty wordplay and metaphors, which shows the range of his talent. It speaks louder when he can deliver songs with a positive message and avoid being hammy. And at the same time, reflect that on his verses. Unfortunately, he is limited to two styles as his love-centric songs end up hammy. There is unison between the love-centric “For Me” and “IYKYK” that their tangent is written off quickly as Dame circles back to what he knows best. That is why, Different On Levels The Lord Allowed starts and ends on a high note, as we hear Damian Lillard at his near best.
Starting with “The Juice,” Dame delivers a statement that significantly contrasts himself from others with his approach to music and social commentary. He is more like Q-Tip, who was more subtle than Tupac and Radio Raheem of Do The Right Thing. “The Juice” is a reflection of him as a rapper, full of confidence and clarity. From here, listening to Different On Levels The Lord Allowed felt like a breath of fresh air because, albeit some basicness, Dame still has a high level of confidence to back his braggadocio nature on some songs.
As the album continues, it starts to act like a rollercoaster ride with the highs and lows. After “The Juice,” there is a small low with “Overnight,” as its runtime left me wanting more, similar to J. Cole’s “Punchin The Clock.” “Right On” takes us back up as Damian brings Lil Wayne and Mozzy to spit about their status in their respective hoods. The vibrant percussion has the thermostat high, and Lil Wayne and Mozzy break it with the heat from their verses. Mozzy, being a non-pop artist, brings the mojo that the other two bring their A-Game, and there is nothing more refreshing than a non-pop Lil Wayne feature. But this isn’t to say Dame is never on his A-Game. He is constantly delivering; however, some off-color and standard choices make certain songs forgettable.
The choruses are the weakest aspect, as they don’t stand out. Blxst and Jane Handcock don’t deliver bad vocal performances, but the lyrics come across as bland. Sometimes they fall in line with standard conventions of uplifting soul. And it isn’t just them, as it stays an issue when Dame is in control of the chorus. Similarly, Derrick Milano delivers a simple 1-2-3 hip-hop chorus on “Kobe,” which doesn’t come as a surprise as he did it before in the song “For Me.” “Kobe” has solid verses from Damian Lillard and Snoop Dogg over an adequate, albeit simple percussion-heavy beat.
The high note Different On Levels The Lord Allowed ends on makes you feel better about the poor non-factors of the last few songs (the choruses). After the journey Dame has taken you on throughout the album, “GOAT Tier” reminds you about the flawed nature of Dame. He speaks on his failures and shortcomings as a way to demonstrate strength from growth. It is like the three-year span where he didn’t make an All-Star game after previous selections, to being 1st Team All-NBA and a Top 5 MVP Candidate in back-to-back years, respectively. The bouncy production is my favorite as the soulful tones elevate add levels of creativity, especially with Raphael Saadiq’s eloquent performance on the outro.
The production’s wrought simpleness doesn’t hinder the final product, but it does leave you saddened that Damian Lillard’s ear for beats isn’t as profound. It works for what he is going for, and if it doesn’t affect you, then this is for you. It connects on many fronts, as the production does fit the style cleanly. As well, the features bring a lot of energy to elevate the surrounding aspects of the album. And fortunately, it doesn’t take away from the focal point, Damian’s rapping.