Out of the current crop of NBA superstars, Dwight Howard is the most likeable and personable. Hardly anybody would dispute this. His co-opting of Shaq’s “Superman” persona was savvy not only because it came as he was passing the Big Diesel in on-court production, but also because with Howard, it didn’t seem like a put-on. As such, if there were one guy in the league who could release a children’s album without seeming calculated, he’d be it.
The premise of last year’s Shoot for the Stars is ridiculous from the get-go. It’s Dwight, backed by a crack team of studio musicians as well as a group of kids from various NBA Cares programs, singing songs you’re probably tired of hearing at every sporting event you’ve ever attended. “Let’s Get it Started” is on here. “All Star” is too. So are “(Whoomp!) There it Is,” “Shout,” and “Get the Party Started.” The covers are mostly played straight, with the exception of a spirited “U Can’t Touch This” that works in Howard’s impersonations of Charles Barkley, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Stan Van Gundy.
If this all sounds awful, well, it is and it isn’t. Howard sang in church choirs growing up and actually has a decent voice. Unfortunately, he only gets to showcase it on the ballads, Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There” and the lone original song, “Shoot for the Stars.” These tracks are the weakest on the album, mainly because of how faithful Howard’s interpretations are. It’s hard to call them missteps because they’re so immaculately produced, but if we were analyzing this like an album that wasn’t a Dwight Howard children’s album, these would be what we’d call filler tracks. The only real misfires on Shoot for the Stars are the two attempts at reggae, “Day-O” and Bob Marley’s “Jammin’.” Howard’s impersonations have made him a favorite on the ESPN and TNT studio shows over the years, but his attempt at a Jamaican accent is the only thing on here—or, really about his personality at all—that feels forced.
What makes Shoot for the Stars work is how genuinely Howard seems to enjoy working with these kids. He does the bulk of the singing, but that doesn’t stop him from playing the hype man a lot of the time. His understanding of the mindset of the kids on the album couldn’t be better. They don’t need to sing lead—they just want to do the big “chaaaaaaaaaaaange” in the bridge of “All-Star.” They want to sing the chorus on “Let’s Get it Started.” They like the call-and-response refrain in “Day-O” (isn’t that why they play it at arenas, after all?). Howard gets that, and he lets them take most of the big moments.
It’s easy to see the NBA Cares ads on TV during the season and assume the players participate in community-outreach programs primarily as photo-ops. This is often flat-out false, but we live in a cynical society. With that said, it’s almost impossible to hear Howard lead a group of grade-schoolers through “ABC” without cracking a smile. Above all else, Howard gave these kids one hell of a story to tell their children, and seemed to enjoy himself immensely while doing it. There isn’t a lot not to like about that.