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VIBE/ Jason Chandler

NEXT: H.E.R. Is The Future Of R&B (And Then Some) In Plain Sight

Burgeoning R&B starlet, H.E.R., opens up about her journey to and through music. 

H.E.R. doesn’t believe in hiding. “If you know who I am, then you know who I am.” These words flow unflinchingly from the mouth of the singer-songwriter whose bewitching vocals remain unassigned to a face. Holed up inside Bowery Ballroom, away from the hundreds outside itching to witness her in person, she stares at herself in a tiny wall mirror in the artist washroom, prepping to be seen.

Her makeup is professionally done today—elegant falsies flutter with each blink, and caramel skin glows beneath subtle blush and Fenty Beauty highlight—but 20-year-old H.E.R. is a DIY gal at heart, opting to be her own hair stylist. She parts the Red Sea of fluffy waves draping past her shoulders with her fingers, then patiently rakes a paddle brush through each section. She takes her time, pulling each inch-sized bundle of strands out to its full length, finger-detangling it before tightly twirling it around the curling wand. As she makes her way from nape to crown creating the voluminous spirals her fans have come to know, the plainness of the makeshift glam room is reflected behind her. The grungy white closet-like space is bare with the exception of one lone blue bar of soap in a stand up shower she absolutely will not use. Right now, she and her mane are a quiet source of vibrancy.

“The point is not hiding,” she continues, clarifying that her professional presentation isn’t indicative of her not wanting to be known or seen. Smart fans know that H.E.R. (or “Having Everything Revealed”) and Gabriella “Gabi” Wilson, who signed to RCA Records at 14 years old, are the same person. So much can be confirmed by perusing her online catalogue of ASCAP songwriting credits. And she’s completely fine with that. Identity is beside the point. “The point is about not being so secretive. Listen to the music and accept that for what it is. Don’t worry about who’s singing it. Don’t worry about who’s sending the message.”

As evidenced by her self-titled 2017 debut—H.E.R.’s 21 tracks fuse two prior EPs plus six new songs—these vivid messages span from shutting down friend-zoned suitors (“I Won’t”), two-timing a two-timer (“2”) and falling for empty “Wyd?” texts (“Free”) to entertaining selfish lovers (“U”), being symbolically walled out (“Let Me In”) and simply wanting to be acknowledged (“Focus”). “There was no pressure when creating [H.E.R.] Volume 1 and 2," she says. "All it was, was pure emotion.”

It’s emotion straight from the heart and, sometimes, straight from the bedroom. A poet by origin, H.E.R.’s risqué requests are gift wrapped in cunning couplets and elegant verbiage. “Baby, the sound of you/Better than a harmony/I want you off my mind/And on me,” she fantasizes on “Every Kind of Way.” ”I think presenting [sensuality] in clever ways makes it universal,” the chanteuse explains. “When you say things that people are afraid to say, then that’s when it touches people the most. My approach is really just honesty and clever ways of saying things that we are afraid to say.”

“Pigment,” which feels more like a tumbling of candid thoughts than a song, is delivered in both measured spoken word and moody melodies, splicing her realizations that in relationships, nothing lasts forever:

I'm still lost, holding in all of the anger at the bottom of the ocean
And I thought you'd be my savior
I was distracted, unaware of his behavior
But when I started drowning I didn't know he was the anchor

Her songwriting is so detailed that it’s easy for listeners to feel included in the specific moment that affected her, confronting the very people who made her feel the way she did. “It’s crazy, because someone that I wrote ‘Losing’ about actually heard the song and said, ‘Are these about real life situations?’” H.E.R. rolls her eyes and lets out a laugh. “That’s the thing about being an artist, you just lay it out. I’m not responsible for what you did. I could tell all, it’s your fault.”

H.E.R. stops brushing and glances away from her reflection often to make eye contact while chatting, invested in the present moment. Listening. Responding. These traits are vital to her creative process (aside from lavender scented candles in the studio). “Conversation is my way of writing,” she says. Whether they occur in the studio—an unplanned run-in and vibe session with Daniel Caesar led to their heart-wrenching ballad, “Best Part”—or in various geographic locations, magic comes from honest and authentic encounters.

It’s one of the reasons she fell in love with New York. “I can walk outside the door and there is inspiration right there,” the Brooklyn resident says, before name-dropping her second hideaway. “But Nashville is one of my favorite places because the people there that I’ve gotten to know just take out their guitars and have a conversation, and that’s how I like to write. Just talk.”

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The Vallejo, Calif. native was practically destined to be where she is right now. Music embedded itself into her pint-sized body from both sides of the family tree. “Keep On,” the first song she can remember writing, came from a simple writing prompt her mother gave her. “She said, ‘You should write a song about never giving up’—something basic that you would give a little kid—and I wrote this hook,” she explains. “It was seven-year-old-style, but it was still amazing. People were like, ‘woah, she’s gifted,’ because not many people understand song structure, verse, chorus, bridge and hooks.”

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Thanks to her Filipino mom, family get-togethers weren’t complete without karaoke (“They love karaoke. I sing a lot of Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys and Mariah Carey ballads,” H.E.R. says). In addition to honing in on her vocals, baby H.E.R. was picking up instruments and listening to the blues with her musician father, Kenny Wilson, who founded the local Northern California rhythm and blues band, Urban Bushmen. “Guitar! No, was it piano?” she says, trying to recall the instrument she gravitated to first. During H.E.R.'s live stage sets now, audience members are not only treated to silky soft vocals and choir elite riffs, but electric guitar and keyboard breakouts. “It was definitely piano. I would sit on my dad's lap and I would just be playing anything that came to mind.”

By her own admission, H.E.R. was an outspoken child who knew exactly what she wanted, so when it later came to her growing into music, she knew exactly who she wanted to be as an artist: a multi-hyphenate. “I wanted to be Prince because he played all the instruments. I wanted to appeal to pop music, R&B music. I wanted to be genreless because Prince is genreless. He doesn’t do anything specifically for one genre. I wanted to be Lauryn Hill and touch the women and be empowering. Alicia Keys [is] the same way. She was different because she could play classical piano, sing and also appeal to women. That was what I feel like I modeled myself after.”

Because of that razor focus, H.E.R.’s stage presence is a force to be reckoned with. At Bowery, casually clad in a camouflage adidas anorak jacket, black lace-up jeans, gum-soled PUMAs and white rimmed shades, she comes out strutting, fluffing and shaking her flaming mane constantly. Her shape-shifting aura jumps from gospel devout to neo-soul savant to electric guitar-strumming rock star in the span of an hour. When she’s not bound to her instrument of choice—she juggles time seated at the piano, standing at the mic, with her guitar in-hand and drumming away behind the on-stage production tools—she's dancing around the stage, switching her hips, dropping low and scrunching up her face in delight of her own music.

H.E.R. has a few curveballs in her, too. Halfway through the night’s set, she ducks to the back of the stage, leaving surprise guest ASAP Ferg to turn up with the already rowdy crowd with his 2017 gem, “Plain Jane.” Labelmate Ro James and singers Alex Belle and Isis Valentino of St. Beauty, who left from performing with Jhene Aiko that same night, also look on from the crowd.

New York marks the tenth stop on The Lights On Tour, which started up right after a 27-city late summer stint supporting Bryson Tiller and Metro Boomin’s Set It Off Tour. Between breaths, she tells the audience how blessed she feels to be standing there, drowning in applause all for her. “I’m on my first headlining show and I'm receiving so much love,” she says. "As you should!" an enthusiastic woman (one of many that evening) yells back from the front row.

“I mean, there are definitely times where I’m like, oh shoot, I’m tired,” H.E.R. says, reflecting on her back-to-back time on the road, “but I’m so thankful for all of this stuff that I’ve been waiting for such a long time. I'd rather be busy than be bored.”

Before H.E.R.’s reemergence in 2016, Gabi Wilson had long been waiting in the wings at RCA for her turn. When artists enter a hiatus, speculators immediately assume the worst: They were locked into a contract they couldn’t get out of. More important signees took precedence. The talent lost their actual talent. Failed efforts to launch a career, caused the label to deem them shelf dust. H.E.R. insists that was far from her reality.

“People would say, ‘You’re gonna be shelved.’ I was signed for so long but I needed to find myself,” she says. “It’s not like I was waiting for something to happen, I’ve been working for something to happen.” Aside from being told that she’s too young for the subject matter of her music (“Sometimes it’s hard to receive a message from someone below you and a lot younger than you”), the most hurtful thing she’d heard was that she was never going to come out.

“I’m gonna come out when I’m ready,” she continues. “And I was ready. I’ve been with my management company since I was a little girl. They manage a lot of different female artists: Alicia Keys, K. Michelle, Keyshia Cole. Even Tyrese. Growing up under them and watching them, I was always waiting for my turn. Watching them blossom made me feel like I can’t wait until I get mine.”

And right now is the right time, indeed. When H.E.R. shared her LP last year, she was surrounded by brilliant works released by women unafraid to walk in their truths and put unfiltered thoughts on front street. “I feel like the women are being more comfortable with being vulnerable. We still have all these issues with inequality as far as the sexes, but I think that women are speaking out even more so and that has a lot to do with it,” she says. “There was an Alicia [Keys] and Mariah [Carey] and Lauryn [Hill] at one point. I think we’re the new generation of that. We’re in a place where we can say whatever. You have Cardi B, and people that are unafraid to be themselves and there is just so much room for that.”

Being that transparent and open hasn’t always been second nature, but the time spent quietly maturing, free from outside commentary, allowed her to find that comfort and confidence she has grown to love about herself.

“I love that I’ve grown into someone that is okay with being human,” she says proudly after some thought. “I love that I’ve grown into someone that is honest and comfortable with myself. I think when I was younger, even though I was outspoken, I felt like I had to be perfect. I love that I’ve grown into someone who can celebrate my accomplishments and be happy no matter what the outcome may be. A lot of people take this stuff for granted and I've learned to celebrate. I’m in a very good place.”

H.E.R. wants to keep that same energy going forward with her forthcoming project (which admittedly won’t touch our ears for a while), while also exposing us to the other sonics that makes up her DNA. “[For H.E.R.] I wanted to do something that was for R&B music, but I do so many other things,” she says, acknowledging the neo-soul, alternative R&B energy of her last LP. “But I have songs that can be like Calvin Harris. I have songs that I wanna do with Coldplay. I kinda want to be like Rihanna, who’s genreless. I think there are only two genres: good music and bad music.”

Regardless of how she gives it to you—whether it’s shrouded in mystique, nodding to R&B purism or embracing the hybrid sounds of the new school—expect H.E.R. to give good a** music to you straight. No frills, no chaser.

“Identity hidden or not, it doesn’t really matter,” H.E.R. says firmly, stretching her words for emphasis. “I’m about the music and I’m always gonna be about the music. I’m always going to be me. No matter what, through everything, I want the music to still touch people the same. They can expect the same me through and through.”

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Jenny Regan

NEXT: Kemba Makes The Song Cry On His Painful Masterpiece ‘Gilda’

Kemba doesn’t look like the stereotypical rapper. He's not loaded with expensive jewelry, a large entourage, "exotic" women, and stylish clothes. The budding MC is reserved. Remember the quiet, artsy, yet cool kid in high school who didn’t put on a thick shield of toughness, but you knew he’d fight when invited to? That’s Kemba, the seemingly reticent kid moving to the beat inside of his headphones.

It’s a dreary Thursday afternoon near the end of September. Exactly six days prior to this date (Sept. 28), the Bronx native released his sobering album titled Gilda, the follow-up to 2016's Negus album. But even in the face of album release parties and the fame that comes with having a record deal, the Republic artist refuses to put on the clichéd mask of a rapper.

The regular degular kid arrives solo, and on time, at VIBE’s Times Square office. Despite his mother’s death still fresh on his mind, Kemba seems to be in great spirits. He’s generous with posing for pictures, calmly standing where the photographer asks him to. While Kemba is totally alert, his eyes hold a glare that shows he’s pondering some valuable lessons recently learned.

One listen to Gilda, named after his mother who died of a stroke, and it’s clear that the bubbling MC is adept at sorting through thoughts and unearthing lessons from deep-rooted pain.

“I’m just getting into the habit of speaking about things and not holding anything in,” Kemba says when asked about extracting lessons from discomfort. “I haven’t had a lot of revelations yet. I’m still getting accustomed to recognizing my thoughts, and feelings, sharing my thoughts, and looking at the feeling wheel, and identifying all of the things that that situation makes me feel.”

Kebma began his rap career as YC the Cynic. With Eminem being a big influence on his early rap style, Kemba’s lyrical ambition is evident on early mixtapes like 2010’s You’re Welcome and 2011’s Fall Forward, where he’s rapping over a mix of industry instrumentals and original beats. Kemba was also doing a lot of open mics around the Rotten Apple, tapping into his gift of wordplay and building his fanbase through an old-school path of impressing local crowds. His burgeoning career leveled-up after being discovered by Queens MC, Homeboy Sandman, who introduced Kemba to Hot 97 radio personality Peter Rosenberg.

But as Kemba found his footing in the underground scene and came into his own as an artist, he decided to trade in his YC the Cynic tag for a handle more befitting to the picture he wanted to paint of himself.

“I try to separate myself from constructs. I never really had pride in my name [YC the Cynic]," Kemba recalls. "I always felt detached from my real name. So I just wanted to choose something for myself.”

“I wanted it to sound youthful, like it had african roots to it, and to sound strong," he continues. “And I really just searched a bunch of names. I went through names for about a year. Like YC the Cynic, you hear it, and you can think of the type of person that would have that name. I just wanted a name that, to where I could do whatever [musically].”

Fast forward to 2019, Kemba’s departure from the battle rhymes on Gilda is his best project to date. The album moves through a series of revelations, family issues, and takes listeners on a journey of a young man trudging through hardships.

One week after the release of Gilda, Kemba sat with VIBE for a discussion about regrets, finding meaning from traumatic situations, and controlling his narrative.

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VIBE: Gilda sounds like a project where you’re exposing a bunch of lessons that you recently learned. Kemba: I feel like it led to that. It started with me examining my life in a way that I haven’t before. It started with me not being able to process my mom’s death. At some point I started to write again and it was like, “Oh shit, this is how I feel.” But I didn’t know that until I wrote it. This is the only way I’m going to find out about myself, so let me just do this. Let me think about my childhood and write. And then at some point that became me examining myself, reading back what I wrote. I’m going to therapy now, and I’m figuring out different ways to understand myself. But that started from me realizing there was more to it than writing.

I sense that you have some regrets about the relationships in your family? It’s hard because a lot of the relationships in my family are so broken. There are a lot of family members that I love and talk to on a regular basis, but there are still some that I do not know if it will ever be repaired. And I realized that as you get older it becomes harder to link with people, and you look up and it’s been a year since you saw them. Just spending time gets really hard as you get older. But that’s the goal.

Do you wish you spent more time with your mom? I think my mom is like a whole different relationship. I wish I would’ve been there with my mom. And I did spend time with my mom. I wish it would’ve been more quality time. Now I know the difference between spending time and quality time. I wish I’d known more about her, her history, and her upbringing. So yes, there are regrets.

Has your family heard the album? A lot of my family has heard the album, and I’m pleasantly surprised that the acceptance has been as good as it has. I imagine that a lot of the people that it was about didn’t hear it. But everybody that I heard from said they were proud. Some cried at some point and said they love me. And that’s a good of an acceptance that I get from them. There’s this theme of controlling your narrative throughout your music too. How young were you when you realized that that’s important?

There's a lot of talk of controlling your narrative in your music. Most 23-years-old are not thinking about controlling their narrative. When did this become a thing for you? I can’t remember when I had that idea that that was important but I do know that in general that if you don’t control your narrative someone else will. There’s a laundry list of evidence, from the history to America to the history of hip-hop, where people don’t really stake claim, and they get the value to the point where the story is up for grabs. Like right now, for as long as I have lived it’s been recognized that Kool Herc is the Godfather of Hip-Hop and as the story goes on the story gets misconstrued. And other people take claim. So controlling your narrative is super important.

Are you into activism? Your album Negus gives me that feel. That’s how I came up. I came up being part of a community organization called Rebel Diaz. They showed me the way of the social activism. We lead and organize a bunch of marches. We went down to Ferguson,down to Baltimore for Freddie Gray. I was doing that a lot, but music took more and more of my time. But I would love to get back to that. Those are my brothers. I look to them for advice often.

What will Kemba’s story read like? I’ve thought about it. I don’t know the exact answer. I just know the things that I love to do. I want to be a part of making incredible art as long as I live. Making my own art, and helping people with their art. Whether that means creating music, helping other people create music, or just executive produce projects, producing, writing for people. I just want to be involved in art, and more involved in social service.

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Micheal Lavine

Kash Doll's Confident Spirit Earned Her The Last Laugh In 2019

It’s rightfully challenging for Kash Doll to align a track from Stacked to her everyday mood. Much like her layered debut album, Arkeisha Knight is full of admiring qualities and feelings. Charming yet vulnerable, aggressive but reserved, the rapper also possesses one thing many crave—confidence.

Her high morale has been one of the most consistent traits, earning fans from all over the boss lady's spectrum like Rihanna and Serena Williams as well as co-signs from the top rappers in the game (Drake and Big Sean to name a few). But these things aren’t aligned to her spirited aura. “It's hard to explain because it's a mix of the dance world and the confidence my mother put in me,” Kash tells VIBE. “When I was growing up I started to believe in my greatness and say, 'I am that I am that.' I'll tell you one thing, can't nobody tell me sh*t.”

Pulling that energy from within is something black women do so well. A 2017 Harris Poll arranged by Glamour and L’Oréal Paris discovered black women, in fact, are more confident than their white and Latinx counterparts. The study, comprised of 2,000 women across America, revealed black women were more likely to describe themselves as beautiful and successful. But we don’t need stats to prove what we already know.

As black women continue to break barriers, we’re often met with pushback—especially in the music industry. Women who happen to be rappers have been vocal about this throughout the genre’s existence. Think Queen Latifah’s glorious “U.N.I.T.Y.” track. Consider how people questioned the pens of Lil Kim and Foxy Brown. Take a listen to Nicki Minaj’s testimony from her My Time documentary. Even rewind the very awkward times industry heads glossed over Cardi B. With more women in rap dominating the charts and the culture, artists like Rico Nasty, Doja Cat, Rapsody and Kash Doll are bringing their own bold cocky flavor to the table.

“When you love yourself, you don't try to hide it,” Kash says. “You're either going to take me as I am or have nothing but either way, I'm going to be me. People that like me, I f**k with you and if you don't, well f**k you. I ain't gotta talk to you and you don't have to listen to my music. We don't have to fake it, for real.”

It explains a lot about Kash Doll’s identity on and off wax. Her year has been a big one thanks notable appearances at Rolling Loud’s first New York turn out, scoring crossover status with collaborations with Iggy Azalea and the star-studded Charlie’s Angels Soundtrack executively produced by Ariana Grande. Through all of this, her biggest win is the gift of loyalty received from her fans, the Kash Bratz.

“I never knew what it meant when artists said they would be nothing without their fans but I get it,” she says in between laughs. “Them Kash Bratz, they keep me on my toes. They keep me going since they only want content.” Their wishes were granted with Stacked. Released late fall, the 17-track album provides effortless bad bi**h anthems like “Paid B***hes,” reworked gems (“Cheap S**t” from Keisha vs. Kash Doll is a pleasant surprise) and strong collabs with the hottest women in R&B like Summer Walker (“No Lames”) and Teyana Taylor (“Feel Something”).

The album’s intro “KD Diary” provides a peek into the pages of Kash Doll’s intriguing life and the battles she’s faced in between. Her father’s passing at a young age makes her cherish love at a special level while legal drama with her former label taught her a lesson in pushing through the most severe blows. Now signed to Republic Records, Kash officially broke free of her previous label which kept her in a legal battle for almost two years. After wrapping up "that paperwork" she scored a hit with her major-label debut, "Ice Me Out" in 2018. It was a perfect segway from her very viral track "For Everbody" which showcased her strong storytelling skills as she imagined the conversation between Belly character Keisha and Tommy's young sidechick. As she notes on "KD Diary," touring without her music on streaming services forced her to grind at an old school level in a new school digital world.

“I just wanted to give a heartfelt moment,” she says. During her ascension to the top, her lyrical chops dished out standout tracks, but Kash wants people to get a glimpse of the woman behind that Detroit grit. “You’ve heard all these songs but do you know me? Have you ever had a chance to get an understanding of who I am? So that's what my inspiration behind it was,” she explains. “The intro was called 'KD Diary' because it really is like one. It's like I'm spilling all my beans.”

A hometown hero through and through, the rapper has been steadfast in making sure her 2019 was everyone’s golden year. On the fashion front, she rocked brands from local designers like Jennifer Walker’s Furluxx fur coats. She also surprised mothers on Detroit's east side at the 7th Annual Breastfeeding Community Baby Shower, has continued her high school prom giveaways and supplied families with free turkeys during the Thanksgiving holiday.

Her genuine nature is also extended to peers in the game as she continuously shows love to Megan Thee Stallion, Fabolous and “Crazy” collaborator Lou Got Cash. To Kash, the only thing that matters is living life to the fullest and staying clear of any drama. It’s why she remains focused on her grind and cementing her place in the game. Settling previous spats with peers Lil Kim and Cardi B has been a part of that as well as celebrating the gift of life with her day ones.

“It's amazing because it's what I always wanted,” she says of her success. “I don't want anyone to ever put me in a box. I never wanted people to say, ‘She's this kind of artist.’ It just makes me feel like this is what I was destined to do, and it's so amazing, so amazing."

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Courtesy of adidas

The 6 Degrees of Damian Lillard

It was the shot and meme that was heard around the world. Earlier this year, Portland Trailblazers' star point guard Damian Lillard hit a series-clinching jumper from beyond the arc as time expired, advancing to the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs. The shot, launched over former Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George's outstretched hands was a big deal to seemingly everyone else on the planet, but for Lillard, it was simply business as usual. “We’re a really resilient team,” Lillard told a reporter in a post-game interview. “We knew it was ups and downs throughout the series, we just had to keep our heads right, stay focused, stay together. We stayed together and it came down to one play and we executed really well and we were able to get it done.”

This wasn't the first time he had shattered a championship contender's dreams and delivered defeat as a cold dish served. In May 2014, Lillard buried a three-pointer at the buzzer to give the ‘Blazers a 99-98 win over the Houston Rockets, clinching a 4-2 win in the first round of that season's NBA Playoffs, Portland's first in fourteen years. When asked about his ability to keep his composure during these pressure-packed moments, Lillard credits his big-picture outlook with keeping him poised. "It's usually not a whole lot going through my head," he says. "I think what allows me to be confident and just keep my cool in those situations is knowing that I put the time in to give myself a chance to be successful and to end these games and staying in shape physically and just having my mind in the right place. And also understanding that I can shoulder the success and the failure of it. Whichever one happens on that night, I know I can handle both. So I go into those situations not really concerned with the outcome."

Selected by the Trailblazers in 2012 with the sixth overall draft pick, Portland, Oregon would be a culture shock for the average kid bred in the mean streets of East Oakland, California. But for Lillard, his collegiate tenure at Weber State in Utah, where he competed in Portland on several occasions, afforded him some familiarity with the city. "I always liked Portland," he shares. "Because when I was in college, at Weber, we'd play Portland State every year. So when you get a chance to come to a real city like Portland where it's like an actual downtown and stores you can go to and kind of move around, you just have a different appreciation of it when you're playing all of these different small towns. I already kind of liked the city to begin with. Now I get to explore more. My best friend was already going to college here when I got drafted so I've always liked it even before I got here. When I got here and started to meet people and learn the city, move around and just being a resident here, I've only grown to like it more. It's become more of a home to me over the years."

Many words have been used to describe Lillard's play on the court, but one of the most appropriate is "ruthless," which is a major theme of the concept behind the DAME 6, his sixth signature shoe with adidas. Released November 29, the DAME 6 is another reflection of Lillard's ties to the city. "It's a great feeling especially for me because I live in Portland," he says. "And [with] adidas being in Portland, we're able to have a strong partnership. Because of the communication and us being able to get in front of each other, it's not hard to figure things; it's always one drive. I can get to them or they can get to me and I think it makes things easier. If it's a shoe I need to see or some type of hoodie or anything, socks, whatever, they can get it in front of me right away, it's not a drawn-out process."

According to Rashad Williams, adidas Basketball Senior Director of Footwear, the brand set its sights on making Lillard one of the pillars of the three stripes not long after taking the league by storm during his Rookie of the Year campaign. "I'm from the west coast so I knew where Weber State was," Williams recalls. "And then him being a lottery pick, I think he got on everyone's radar. And Dame played in adidas growing up, all the way through college so we signed him on to the family. Then I think it was by his second or third year, we were like, 'Wow.' Not only did the Trailblazers realize they had something special, adidas realized they had something special as well."

When it comes to the shoe’s creation, Williams credits Lillard with streamlining the designing process with his own ideas and input. "I think that's the big thing with Dame, he constantly challenges us on every shoe. If something's on his mind, he'll text you or he might pull up to the office, but that's how we grow and it's real." Aside from being relentless within the confines of the game, a term that embodies who Damian is as a person is "duality." He can go from being calm and collected in the midst of family and friends to transforming into a fiery floor general. And it’s artistically reflected in the DAME 6, which has many different dimensions, layers and moving parts that speak to Lillard's multifaceted lifestyle.

"I think the best way that it mirrors me is just the duality, having both sides of the shoe looking different," the All-NBA point guard explains. "I think as a player on the court, I definitely have a mean streak. That's one side of me you won't always see, but then my demeanor and my face is completely calm. Right after the game, I'm playing with my son, during the game I'm completely different so I think that's the way that it connects. Just the duality: who I am on the court and off the court, being a rapper, being a basketball player...I just think there are so many sides to who I am.”

As a long-time rap fan and aficionado, Lillard began to share his talents on Instagram with his #4BarFriday posts. Lillard, who raps under the name Dame D.O.L.L.A. (the acronym standing for "Different on Levels Lord Allowed") upped the ante from there. In 2016, he released his debut album, The Letter O, and launched his record label, Front Page Music. Featuring appearances from Lil Wayne, Juvenile, Jamie Foxx, Marsha Ambrosius and Front Page Music's flagship signees Brookfield Duece and Danny from Sobrante, The Letter O peaked at No. 62 on Billboard’s Top Album Sales chart, a respectable debut for any new artist, let alone one tasked with carrying an NBA franchise on his back. After returning with a sophomore album, Confirmed, the following year, Lillard's reputation as a lyricist began to precede him with a number of rap artists and critics viewing him as the most talented rhymer currently in the NBA, rather than an athlete moonlighting as a gimmick.

“I think one of the things people recognize is that I'm a real student of hip-hop. I know the history of hip-hop and I respect the history of hip-hop. The reason I rap is ‘cause of some of the best people who have rapped. I'm a big, big 2Pac fan, big Nas fan. Big Andre 3000 fan, Juvenile, all of these guys. Wayne, Common...like I'm a fan of that type of music. Just creating a feeling and people being able to connect with what you're saying and because I'm a fan of that, that's the kind of rap I like to create. I like to put words together to give people a feeling and allow them to be able to connect with what I'm saying. And I think a mix of all of those things, being authentic with my music and genuine with my music, I think people can hear it and they can respect it. They can connect with it and I think they respect it more when they're like, 'This dude is a basketball player.' There are people who do this as their primary career who don't know the history of the game that they're playing. And they don't respect the history of the game that they're playing in. I think a mix of those things has allowed people to respect me doing it.”

Dame's quest to be not only the best rapping athlete but the greatest rap artist of all-time has not come without its share of challengers. The biggest contender for the crown is Sacramento Kings forward Marvin Bagley, a former No. 2 overall pick whose debut mixtape, Don’t Blink, dropped on the night of the 2018 NBA Draft. During an appearance on ESPN’s First Take, analyst Max Kellerman asked Bagley who would be the victor in a rap battle between the two, to which he responded by picking himself as the superior rhymer. As the competitor that he is, Lillard accepted Bagley's challenge, prompting the former Duke star to throw down the gauntlet with "No Debate," a direct shot at Dame D.O.L.L.A. Not one to be outgunned, D.O.L.L.A. fired back quickly with a pair of tracks, "Bye Bye" and "MARVINNNNNN???." Bagley retorted with "Checkmate," which would be the final salvo in the pair's brief yet entertaining back-and-forth.

While a number of NBA players have released material, two had never engaged in lyrical warfare, making Lillard and Bagley's battle a historic one. "That was the reason I did it," Lillard says. "At first, I was like, 'If somebody ever says something to me with some music, I'm just gonna say nothing at all' 'cause it ain't that important for me. I rap for me, I'm just pushing my own music. I ain't in competition with no athletes. He mentioned my name once before and then it was on TV and it was like a thing. I started to prepare myself for it to happen for that reason, 'cause it hadn't been done before. So to be a part of the first, it was enticing. We did it and then after that, I was like, 'I'm not gonna do it.' Unbeknownst to Lillard, his days of sparring were far from over, as one of his own comments would land him in hot water with none other than retired NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, who didn't take too kindly to a reference Lillard made during an appearance on The Joe Budden Podcast.

Lillard's remark caught the attention of Shaq, who unleashed his vengeance against Dame on "The Originator," which saw the veteran comparing D.O.L.L.A.'s net worth and lack of championship hardware with his own. Undeterred, Lillard tossed out a pair of diss tracks, “Reign Reign Go Away" and its follow-up, “I Rest My Case.” While a large chunk of the public deemed Dame D.O.L.L.A. the victor in their dust-up, Lillard makes it clear this will likely be the last time he lyrically goes head-to-head with a fellow athlete. "Again, that was it," he reiterates. “The fact that it was Shaq, and that's like a big stage for my rap career. Having such a huge figure that I'm engaging with, I was like 'That's cool.' But that's probably it for my battle rap career."

With the release of his third studio album, Big D.O.L.L.A. — which has been billed as his most impressive project to date — Lillard plans to keep his buzz afloat this NBA season. "I mean, I've only recorded during the season maybe once or twice my whole career,” he shares. “Typically I just rap in the summer and I go away during the season, but this is the first time I did a lot of stuff in advance. I recorded a lot of extra music and I partnered with a lot of different people so that my music can continue to have legs and keep moving." He continues, “I got some stuff coming up, for sure. During the NBA season, I got some stuff coming, and something else that I can't mention right now, but y'all gonna see. But next summer, hopefully, I'll have another project ready.”

Lillard looks to make up for 2018's loss in the Conference Finals and shepherd the Trailblazers toward an NBA championship. However, with squads like the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, and Utah Jazz all retooling, the western conference is as daunting as it's ever been. "I knew it was gonna be a tough season just because of every team getting better," he says. "And us coming into the season with a completely new roster, a lot of our guys that we had for the last three to four years are on new teams now. And we brought in a new group of guys, so it's like not only did everyone get better, but we're in a process where we're trying to figure each other out. We're trying to learn each other, we're still trying to put plays in and get our chemistry together and it's just gonna be a process so we're trying to find our way in an already tough western conference. I know it's gonna be tough, I know it's gonna be a battle, but we just gotta keep our head in it for the full eighty-two [games]."

And he intends to play in every single regular-season game, an anomaly of today's NBA superstars in the age of load management. Birthed by Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs and popularized by Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors, the load management theory has been pegged as a key component in winning NBA championships, with last year's Raptors squad being the latest test case. Just don't expect Damian Lillard to be sitting any games out voluntarily anytime soon. "I mean, I think LeBron said it best: ‘If I'm healthy, I'm playing,’" he says, shrugging off any notion of him logging DNPs. "I think as somebody that just loves the game and I've worked hard my life to be able to play in an NBA game, I'ma have a whole post-game career to do load management or whatever. And I also think everyone doesn't have that luxury,” he adds. “I think that's part of the reason why so many top players are teaming up and trying to go to the team that's the strongest. Because it kind of affords you that opportunity more often than not where you can say, 'Okay, I'm not feeling great. I'ma sit this one out and worry about me because we have a team that's good enough to go out there and win without me.' But me personally, I love to play the game so I'm gonna always choose to play, but I also wouldn't wanna put my teammates in that position where I put myself above the team. We all can go out there and play, I always put myself on the same level as my teammates."

Lillard's game-winning shot may have been heard around the world, immortalized in memes and gifs, cementing him as one of the most clutch performers in the game, but the story didn't end there. Upsetting the Denver Nuggets in seven games in the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs, Lillard, CJ McCollum and company were stymied by the Kevin Durant-less, Steph Curry-led Golden State Warriors, who swept the Trailblazers in four games, ending Portland's most successful season in nearly two decades. And with starting center Jusuf Nurkic not expected to return to the lineup anytime soon, not to mention losing Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Seth Curry and other key players from last year's roster, Portland is looking to integrate various moving parts on the fly. Currently sitting at 9th in the Western Conference with a 9-13 record as of press time and depleted by injuries, the Trailblazers haven't gotten off to as hot of a start as expected, but with an eighty-two game season and one of the NBA's top floor generals at the wheel, counting Portland out of contention wouldn't be the safest bet.

And if Portland's recent acquisition of free agent Carmelo Anthony—who was recently named Western Conference Player of the Week (from Nov. 25 to Dec. 1)—out of basketball exile can give a jolt to the Trailblazers’ offense, a return to form is certainly not out of the question. "I'm always optimistic about every team that I'm on so I think we always have a chance,” says Lillard, whose streak of double-digit scoring games was broken the night before this sit-down in a home loss to the Raptors. "Last season, we got to the Western Conference Finals and I think that experience of playing that deep into the season was our first time and you felt it. We were up against a championship-caliber team, an experienced team and that's where we lost it; We had double-digit leads in every game, it's just that championship mentality and that championship experience kind of outdid us. But I think it's all about that process for us to just continue to move forward and try to get better so that we can get back to that position and hopefully the outcome is different."

Back to that loss at the hands of the Raptors. Afterward, as Moda Center employees, team personnel, and security hold court by the loading dock, family and friends of Blazers players await to console them after a tough defeat. Portland shooting guard CJ McCollum emerges from the press conference first, with Lillard trailing. McCollum greets Lillard’s two-year-old son, Damian Lillard, Jr., who is being held by a member of Lillard’s entourage while the man of the hour holds court with a few close pals. Clad in street clothes and looking unlike a world-class athlete that just finished fielding questions from a room of reporters about what went wrong and what they could've done differently, Lillard shadow-boxes with his son, a moment that brings to mind a remark he shared about how he keeps up with all of the moving parts of his life while living under the constant flicker of the lights.

"It's one thing to be a professional athlete and have to deal with the era that we play in, where people have so much more access to you on social media," Lillard candidly shares. "Instagram, Twitter, all these ways to kind of just poke at you, positive and negative. Like you saw, we come back there through the tunnel, the loading dock and it's a bunch of people and you're faced with what your job is all the time. People on TV are commenting on everything you do so it adds stress and it adds pressure. It just makes it harder to play in this era. But when you’ve got that family support and your own kid and that real love, that unconditional love around you, it just keeps everything in perspective and it makes it easier to deal with what your job is. It makes it easier to step out of that, even in the arena that I just lost the game in. I'm still able to step out of what my reality is."

As pleasantries turn into farewells, Lillard picks up Damian Jr. and the pair fade into the Portland night. With the Trailblazer’s set to embark on a six-game road-trip, Dame’s stay in the city will be short, but at that very moment, his face says it all: there’s no place like home.

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