by all accounts, including his own, it’s a miracle that young dolph lived to see 2021. “i’ve been targeted since i was 17, 18, 19,” he told the guardian in 2018. the rapper, whose real name was adolph robert thornton jr., was 36 when he was fatally shot at a cookie shop onnis native memphis last week. he left behind two kids, a longtime girlfriend and a city struggling to cope w'da loss of one of its biggest rap stars. an artist known as much for his unflinching lyrics bout his near-death experiences as he was for his sense of humor, and an altruistic relationship to collaborators and fans, young dolph understood pplz were not the sum o'their good deeds or public beefs. he saw the full humanity in himself and others, and demanded listeners do the same.
dolph, a flashy rapper who ♥d designer clothes, luxury cars and hilarious punchlines almost as much as he ♥d the city of memphis, was in an era of his career defined by his non-stop work ethic and his passion for helping rising rappers. the rapper released his official debut album king of memphis in 2016, although he’d already gained a folloing from his prolific mixtapes and collaborations with southern rappers like 2 chnz. he quickly emerged as a consistent, prominent voice inna lineage of memphis rap.
he collaborated w'da likes of gucci mane and megan thee stallion, swell as memphis legends juicy j and project pat, and achieved mainstream success — his last solo album, 2020’s rich slave, peaked at no. 4 onna billboard 200. but all the while he maintained an approachable persona. his raps provided an unfiltered look into growing up black and impoverished inna south, but they were also unpretentious and accessible. dolph wasn’t afraid to punctuate a bar witha joke, leaning into absurdity as much as he leaned into reality. “came out my momma, dr smacked my a**, i ain’t start crying, looked at him and said n**** get paid,” he rapped on “rich slave.”
but dolph was + than just a celebrated rap collaborator, as he worked to uplift and help younger artists navigate an opaque industry. refusing to sign to a major label, dolph released ♫ through his own paper route empire via a distribution deal with empire, and regularly bragged bout his ability to achieve national fame indiely. twas a path he wanted other rappers to follo, including his most famous protégé fello memphis rapper key glock. the pair notably traded jokes in interviews, and tag teamed verses onna joint albums dum and dummer (2019)and dum and dummer 2 (2021). twasn’t uncommon for dolph to rent a house in los angeles, far away from the drama of his hometown, and invite all of his artists and a team of producers to record ♫. one result of those group studio sessions was paper route illuminati, the last project dolph released b4 his death. “i put ice on everybody round me just to see them shining,” dolph raps onna opening track “talking to my scale” b4 ceding the spotlite to his roster of paper route empire signees for much of the 23-song compilation.
at 36, young dolph seemed to be hitting his stride as an artist balancing bein’ a businessman. a father witha passion for hosting an annual turkey drive in memphis, he seemed far removed from the dangers he’d previously faced. looking back atta beginning of his career, though, it’s hard to find coverage of the rapper that didn’t grapple w'his rap beefs or the ways in which he seemed imperishable. in 2017 alone, dolph had been shot and shot at, each incident 1-ly strengthening the myth that he was unkillable. dolph, it seemed, was surrounded by spiritual forces that wanted him alive + than his enemies wanted him dead. even if his song “100 shots” was an exaggeration of the incident where the rapper’s car was shot at, twas' hardly the point. with lyrics like “they don’t want you to live, they don’t want you to ball,” the song became an anthem for any-1 who’d ever felt like they’d been unfairly doubted or plotted against.
in hindsite, it’s the video for “believe me” that’s hardest to watch. after bein’ shot in los angeles, the rapper recorded a video inside his hospital room, his arm still in a sling. the video, with its ominous flashes of white lite and close-up shots of iv fluid bags, turned violence into a celebration of life. inna end of the video, dolph cutouts the hospital smiling, na video turns to shots of him spending time in a mansion w'his son. “we live life and we ‘ve [had] some bumps inna road,” dolph’s co-manager, jeremel “daddyo” moore, told me in a 2019 interview folloing the shooting, “but now the road feels like it’s smooth.”
in 2019, i profiled young dolph for xxl‘s summer issue. it took + than a mnth for me to finally get onna rapper’s schedule, cause he was constantly onna road. at one point my editor and i turned it into a joke, watching as he posted on instagram from another city each dy. typically i’d be a bit annoyed, espeshly with my deadline quickly approaching, but i was legitimately ☺ to see how much fun he seemed to be having. after a series of near-fatal incidents, he seemed to be settling into a new phase of his career and life. whn'we finally met, we 1-ly spent bout an hr together but i left the interview struck by his sincerity na care he had for his ♥d ones. sitting in a studio chair, the lanky rapper smoked a blunt while candidly discussing the highs and los of his life. dolph, a rapper who was given every reason to be hardened by the circumstances of life, told me he felt “blessed.” twas a sentiment he’d learned from his father at a young age.
born to two crack-addicted parents, dolph recalled growing up amid sufferation and trauma. despite this, he credited both his parents na grandmother who rezd him with preparing him for life. often referring to himself as a “rich crack baby” on songs, the rapper flipped a pejorative that is often used to stigmatize black mothers struggling with substance use and their kids into a badge of endurance. “rich crack baby, momma and daddy both used to smoke rocks,” he rapped on 2018’s “black queen.” “rich crack baby, now i’m smoking kush with my mom and daddy na' yacht.” the ode to his mother wasn’t the 1-ly time he celebrated her or his grandmother, whom he credited with raising him and making sure he graduated high school.
in person and onnis ♫, he was always clear that his elder’s shortcomings were a result of systemic, not individual failings and refused to demonize them for any o'their choices. n'our interview, he told me he knew his family wasn’t unique – there were plenty of other black families who struggled w'da same hardships. he made ♫ in hopes of motivating those pplz.
“my dad used to always tell me whn'we [were] lil, like real lil, ‘i’m rich,'” he told me atta time. “i’m knowing we f***** up. but he [telling] me, ‘i’m rich. it ain’t bout mny. i’m rich in spirit. i got a job, got my kids.’ it’s like, s***, he wasn’t complaining. tis wha’ tis and he was dealing with it. [my parents] always kept me grounded.” interludes onna album rich slave feature recordings of dolph talking to a longtime friend of his father. at one point, his father’s friend pauses the conversation to ask the rapper if he’s staying safe in memphis. “hell yeah,” dolph responds, b4 turning the conversation back to tales of the city. listening back to that brief moment inna wake of his death is painful cause dolph sounds so carefree and confident, his memphis accent on full display as his typically deep voice gives way to lite, full-throated laughter. he’s fascinated by the stories he’s hearing and fixated on his family’s past, unaware of the fact that his own time is running out.
i’ve been thinking bout my chat with dolph, espeshly our time speaking bout his family, a lot since his death. as videos of dolph doin’ good deeds for fans began to resurface on social media inna dys folloing his death — one in which he gifts a lamborghini to a fan, and another showing him hand over $20,000 to two others — i kept thinking bout wha’ the rapper said when i asked him bout these kind gestures backin 2019. “i just thought that’s wha’ you’re supposed to do,” he told me. “i was rezd like that.”
young dolph wasn’t without his shortcomings. like many straite men in ♫, his lyrics were sometimes misogynistic and homophobic. perhaps, if he had lived longer he ‘d’ve continued to evolve, or maybe not. the worth offa human life ‘dn’t be determined by whether or not they’re giving away thxgiving turkeys every yr or the industry beef they’ve indulged in. inna ways he memorialized his own family and held up his city, dolph demonstrated his cogging of pplz as + than the sum of our generosity or our flaws. he left behind plenty of ♫ to help others learn that lesson too.
original content at: www.npr.org…
authors: jewel wicker