Young Dolph just released the best non-Migos rap album I’ve heard in 2017. Dolph’s new mixtape, Gelato, is a ridiculously solid piece of trap music. It’s supremely consistent shit-talk with big, slow, synthy beats and absolutely no sense of introspection or innovation. You don’t go to Dolph for introspection or innovation. You listen to him because you like to hear an enormously confident man describe all the ways he’s getting money, all the ways he’s better than you.
Dolph, like so many people making great rap music right now, came up under Gucci Mane; the two recorded the East Atlanta Memphis mixtape together in 2013. But Dolph himself sounds like a more relaxed, less dad-jokey version of 2 Chainz. His punchlines can land hard: “They can teach you how to hate, I’ma show you how to get paid / I put 20K dirty money in the collection plate.” But he sells them by emphasizing just the right words at just the right time: “At Pappadeaux eating alligator / My favorite app is the calculator.” (If you can hear him deliver that line without shouting the word “calculator” along with him, you aren’t listening to rap music right.) But as good as Gelato is, there’s only one thing about it that’s really in the conversation right now: the absolutely savage verbal beating that Dolph lays on his fellow Memphis rap star Yo Gotti.
Those of us who don’t come from Memphis probably aren’t going to know the backstory of the whole Gotti/Dolph issue, at least beyond what Dolph tells us on his inflammatory anti-Gotti anthem “Play Wit Yo Bitch.” To hear Dolph tell it, Gotti once wanted to sign Dolph but didn’t have enough money to do it. He’s been jealous of Dolph for years, sliding little sneak-disses into his songs. Dolph had been sick of Gotti, but he’d been laying off him, seeing as how they were from the same city and everything. But then he finally went nuclear. There’s a lot on the song about having sex with Gotti’s baby’s mother, and there’s even more about Gotti not properly representing Memphis: “You make the city look bad, and that’s the truth / Fuck nigga, I be in North Memphis more than you.” (Dolph is from South Memphis.) Gotti will doubtless have his own version of the story, and I imagine that we’ll hear it soon. And while we might not know the particulars, the story is an old one: two rappers, both at their peaks, coming from the same place, each convinced that he’s the man. If anything, it’s thrilling to hear one of them finally decide to stop throwing out subliminals and start naming names.
Gotti is only four years older than Dolph, but the gap between the two feels vast and generational. A decade ago, Gotti was doing what Dolph is doing now: consistently cranking out solid street-music mixtapes and slowly building himself a national rep. Gotti has been releasing music since the ’90s, and he spent the middle of the last decade recording for ill-fated mega-indie TVT. He finally started scoring national hits after being in the game for years, and he always had help: Gucci Mane and Trina and an exploding Nicki Minaj on the “5 Star” remix, Jeezy and YG on “Act Right.” (Like Dolph, Gotti once had a great relationship with Gucci Mane, and they made some great records together. But Gotti incurred Gucci’s wrath in 2012 when he released his Cocaine Music 7 mixtape on 10/17, Gucci’s day.) Gotti is a blue-collar, workmanlike rapper with a gruff, haggard voice and an ability to fill space nicely. He’s been doing his thing, but he’s never felt like a star. Most of the time, he hasn’t even had the most memorable verse on his own biggest songs.
That changed last year, when Gotti scored what was by far his all-time biggest hit with the snaky, insidious, catchy-as-all-fuck cheating-on-Twitter anthem “Down In The DM,” a song with no guests. Since then, Gotti has been attempting to carry himself as a star, signing up with Jay Z’s Roc Nation and showing up in public with Kanye West at every available opportunity. In December, he released the CM9: White Friday mixtape, including one song, “Castro,” which featured West, Big Sean, 2 Chainz, and Quavo. Throughout the tape, he talks about how thrilled he is to be spending time around Jay and Kanye, even bragging about doing The Tonight Show with Meghan Trainor. CM9 is, in its way, a perfectly solid mixtape, but there’s something very last-decade about all the time Gotti spends bragging about his fame-adjacency.
Dolph has his own connections. He’s recorded a bunch with Gucci and T.I., and he scored his own biggest-ever look last year when he added a verse to O.T. Genasis’ monstrous “Cut It.” Gelato has guest-appearances from Wiz Khalifa and Lil Yachty and Migos. (Quavo, it would seem, is not taking sides in the great Memphis rap war.) But he never talks about those connections. He just talks about money and drugs and sex and violence. And he gives the impression that he’s risen to the point where he can make a Coming To America-themed music video — one where he walks a giraffe on a leash and loses a game of checkers to a monkey — without coming off like he’s relying on more-famous friends. Dolph is a good rapper, not a great one, but he acts like a great rapper. He has the confidence to elevate what might otherwise be unremarkable music. There’s no thirst in him. His shit-talk feels effortless. And that’s why he’s winning.
Memphis is, historically, one of America’s greatest rap cities. It has its own local legends, guys like Al Kapone and Playa Fly. It has 8Ball & MJG, early self-made Southern rap stars whose slick pimp-talk and narrative focus were like nothing the genre had ever heard. It has Three 6 Mafia, who turned horror-movie scores into rowdy fuck-shit-up anthems and changed the sound of rap forever. Memphis has its own sounds, its own secret histories, its own dances, its own language. In the music of Gotti and Dolph, aestheticlaly at least, Memphis sounds more like a suburb of Atlanta than anything else, but that’s really because everywhere sounds like a suburb of Atlanta these days. I’ve never even been to Memphis, so I can’t tell you whether Gotti or Dolph is more popular in his hometown. But only one of them sounds like the future, and that’s Dolph.
1. Jidenna – “The Let Out” (Feat. Quavo)
The Classic Man is one of those artists who obliterates any distinction between singer and rapper, but his slippery singsong makes the question irrelevant anyway, bringing all the melody and charisma that you could possibly want. Here, he makes that vaguely depressing end-of-club-night moment, the time when you find out whether you’re hooking up with anyone that night or not, sound like something cool, which is impression. Also, Quavo says, “Throwing cash onstage / Supporting the minimum wage,” so this one’s a winner.
2. Nef The Pharaoh, G Perico, & AD – “The Faculty”
Three of my favorite California underground stars are teaming up to form a supergroup called the Faculty, and this is their statement-of-intent first single. All these guys are great, and all of them have radically different styles and voices. But over an eerie, low-key beat like this, they all have room to flex.
3. Wiki & Your Old Droog – “What Happened To Fire?”
Another regional underground-rap supergroup team-up! Wiki, from Ratking, just recorded a whole new EP with Your Old Droog, and the title track, with its strutting blues-lope bassline and its guttural head-crack smart-assery, is the winner. There is some Paul’s Boutique in this song, and when was the last time you heard some Paul’s Boutique in a new rap song?
4. F1JO – “No Beer”
This New York club-banger is doing its part to make sure you know that beer is a bum’s drink. As someone who enjoys beer, I enjoy this characterization. Good song, too.
5. Lil Bibby & G Herbo – “Got ‘Em Sick”
These two officially have a collaborative album in the works, and it might be my most anticipated rap album of 2017. I don’t think there’s a two-man unit in rap today that sounds harder than these knuckleheads.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
twins = 2 more tidal subscribers pic.twitter.com/Qv2SJzy0oH
— g (@thugtear) February 2, 2017