Lonzo Ball isn't new to controversy. Last year, before his father had a screaming contest with ESPN's Stephen A. Smith on national television, before he thumbed his nose at every major sneaker company and before the video announcement of his $495 shoe, Lonzo Ball was already in the crosshairs of many. Because it was last year when the UCLA-bound then-18-year-old tweeted out a list of his top five rappers of all time:
Lonzo Ball @ZO2_
Top 5 all time in order... Wayne Future DMX 50 Pac2016-5-27 04:23:22
The inevitable one-and-done tweeted that Lil Wayne and Future were atop his all-time list, leaving the rap-purist community displeased. In Ball's defense, he's representing hip-hop's millennial generation, which generally doesn't demand as much lyrical dexterity from the leaders of their new school (hi, Lil Yachty!).
But Ball isn't just a fan of rap—he's a participant. When he isn't lighting up courts with deft passes and his unorthodox jumper, he spits. At the beginning of May, with his name all over the top of mock drafts, the eldest Ball brother decided to showcase his updated flow by dropping a written "freestyle" to Drake's "Free Smoke" instrumental.
The verse offered what one might expect from a 19-year-old: a lot of tough talk and "balling" metaphors—from basketball to expensive shopping. The eyebrow-raiser, though, was how profane the freestyle was. Not surprising coming from someone with Weezy as their favorite rapper ever, but certainly surprising from someone hoping to be the top pick in the 2017 NBA draft.
(Warning: video contains NSFW language)
A little over a week later, the NBA's current rhyme champ, Damian Lillard, released his own "Free Smoke" version. The maturity in Lillard's pen stood out next to Ball's. He spoke about self-reflection and uplifting his nephews to think like kings. Of course he still had fun, flexing his millions with butler and expensive-trip brags, but for the first time ever, the NBA player-slash-rapper had the ear of two different generations of rap fans. One: a Migos and Future-loving teen. The other: a J. Cole and Kanye fan who's waving "hi" to 30.
Ultimately, though, after hearing Ball and Lillard rap over the same song, there's one question fans will be left with: Whose was better?
We gathered a small collective of hip-hop music minds to attempt to answer this question. First is DJ Drama: Shade 45 radio DJ, creator of the legendary Gangsta Grillz mixtape series and head of the Generation Now label (home to Lil Uzi Vert). Second is producer 9th Wonder, who has cooked up beats for some of the greatest ever—from Jay Z ("What More can I Say") to Kendrick Lamar ("Duckworth").
Rounding out this triangle is Wu Tang Clan favorite Raekwon the Chef, an unquestioned rap legend who is approaching the 20-year anniversary of his famed sports-centric ending to the song (warning: link contains NSFW language) "Triumph." Word to Rod Strickland.
Bleacher Report: So what was your opinion of Lonzo Ball's freestyle?
DJ Drama: I was actually kind of impressed. It felt like it was good timing cause he knew this was going to be listened to. His bars were kind of in the direction of what he does, so it wasn't off-topic. It felt like he was really spitting about where he is in life.
Raekwon: He sounded like he was supposed to sound. He did his thing. I'm analyzing what you're saying, and he was talking his talk.
9th Wonder: [His verse] wasn't necessarily based on a message. Some aren't supposed to be. One of his top-five favorite rappers of all time is Future. You're influenced by who you like. So for him it's more of a flow melodic situation as opposed to wowing someone with your metaphors. But you can definitely hear the difference between Lonzo Ball's style and Damian Lillard's style. There is no right or wrong.
How long have you known that Lillard has skills?
9th Wonder: Three to four years. In the Bay, hip-hop is just ingrained in the culture. From E-40 to Mac Dre. I wouldn't be surprised if Gary Payton could spit a little bit.
Raekwon: I knew he was rhyming way before. I heard that in the streets. But hearing that verse, I can tell dude is really taking the time to perfect his craft. I want to hear more.
DJ Drama: At least since 2014, since I knew Lillard wasn't playing. As far as rappers in the league, I'm sure he's at the top of everybody's list. His cosign isn't as big as LeBron. If you wanna get a record off, you still have to give it to LeBron first. But Lillard is the truth. He's just as good on the court as he is at rapping. Tell him holla. Let's get a mixtape in.
So who do you feel had the better verse?
Raekwon: I probably got to give it to Lillard. He kind of went off on it. But they both represented. They both rode the beat with the same style that Drake rode it [with]. He inspired the flow. But at the same time, I'm listening for cleverness in the lyrics. They were both were saying some s--t—just swagged out and talking about the lifestyle that they're into. I didn't get the vibe like, "What are these guys doing?"
DJ Drama: Skill-wise I'm definitely gonna go with Lillard. One's just coming out of college and one's been in the league for some time now. I see a lot of potential in the young'un, but he still has to play a couple more games. Lillard sounds a little more polished.
9th Wonder: To me, Damian because Damian is the better rapper. And this isn't to slight Lonzo Ball, because Damian Lillard is better than a lot of rappers [laughs]. If ever he said, "I don't wanna do this NBA thing anymore," and sat down with the right producers to craft an album, it be scary. Because Damian has a serious story to tell. With Lonzo, the only story you get to hear is from his dad. He don't even get to tell his own story.
Are you for or against the increase of hoopers rapping publicly?
Raekwon: I'm OK with it. I would feel a way if they sounded trash, but if you sound good, who am I to say you can't do it? I remember before I was rapping, all I wanted to do was play sports. Everyone has multiple talents in them, so if you feel rapping is one of yours just come correct. Don't play no games.
9th Wonder: I don't have a problem with basketball players rhyming because I have a kid signed to me that played basketball for the University of North Carolina and won a championship with them—Quentin Thomas—but his stage name is GQ. He can rhyme his face off.
But I prefer rappers that can ball instead of ballers that's trying to rhyme. I think rappers that can hoop take the culture a lot more serious. They grew up on the culture and studied it. They actually believe in MCing, as opposed to ballers who maybe scribbled down a few lines.
Now that ballers make a bit of money, one of their passion projects may be Oh I want a studio in the crib or I wanna mess around with rapping. As opposed to a dude like Lillard, who probably got millions of rhymes. You can tell he didn't just start rapping for the fun of it.
DJ Drama: I think it's a great thing. I come from a generation that saw Shaq go platinum. In my opinion, hip-hop and basketball go hand in hand. One wouldn't be what it is without the other. Just look at the NBA Awards. Who is it being hosted by? One of the hottest rappers in the world [Drake]. We have this connection for a reason.
Look at my man Devin Booker. You'll catch him at an Uzi Vert show. So I don't know why anybody would have a problem with it. You just gotta come with it. Like if we see artists playing ball and their jump shot is off—shout out to Tory Lanez—we're gonna talk about it. But he might've won that game against Quavo [laughs].