Rap music creates cult heroes. It always has, and it always will. That’s inherent in the way rap music works. The rappers who get famous are, by and large, people who came from massively disadvantaged backgrounds, who had to overcome every conceivable odd to find fame. Rap music depends on confidence and bravado, so it’s always in rappers’ interests to present themselves as unassailable titans. We see some version of this every time a rapper survives a shooting and brags about it afterwards, every time a rapper is released from prison and immediately releases a song called “First Day Out.”
Young Dolph, the Memphis rap star, turbocharged his own cult-hero status years ago. In 2017, a shooter in Charlotte shot 100 bullets at Dolph; Dolph’s bulletproof truck saved his life. Dolph responded to this by coming out with a song called “100 Shots” and an album called Bulletproof, publicly clowning whoever had tried to end his life. A few months later, when Dolph really was shot in Los Angeles, he made a music video in the hospital and announced his next album while checking out.
But cult-hero status is illusory. People are vulnerable. Anyone who pays attention to rap music had had to learn that lesson again and again in the past few years, as promising young rap stars have been dying in heartbreaking numbers. On his new song “I See $’s,” Dolph quietly acknowledges a couple of them: “When Juice WRLD died, I drunk a pint every day for a week/ When Doe B died, the shit was crazy, and I couldn’t even sleep.” Juice WRLD, who died of an overdose last year, was Young Dolph’s cousin. Doe B, who was murdered in 2013, was a Dolph collaborator.
Young Dolph is not, by nature, a thoughtful or reflective rapper. That’s never been why anyone comes to Dolph’s music. Instead, Dolph has built his legend on superhuman confidence, on being slick and funny and more sure of himself than any human being that you ever met in your life. This past Friday, Dolph released his new album Rich Slave, one of the most purely enjoyable rap records I’ve heard this year. Dolph pulls that classic Jay-Z trick of rapping extremely well but also sounding slightly bored by his own consistent greatness. “I make it look too easy,” says Dolph. He’s right. He does. That’s why he’s great.
On Rich Slave, Dolph does not carry himself like a man who is contemplating his own mortality. Dolph talks a lot of shit on Rich Slave. He lets you know that he will pull his dick out and piss on your feelings. He says that “your mama gave birth to a fucking rat,” and he puts Joe Pesci levels of disgust on the way he delivers the words “fucking rat.” He continues to stoke his long-running feud with crosstown Memphis rival Yo Gotti.
Rich Slave is Dolph’s first solo album in a couple of years, and he almost sounds like an anachronism now — a hard-ass street rapper who doesn’t play around with melody and who makes sure you can understand every word he says. (Megan Thee Stallion, who appears on “RNB,” is a natural fit; she and Dolph are the same kinds of deep-drawling, casually precise technicians.) The beats on Rich Slave are big and warm and solid, and most of them come from Memphis producers like BandPlay and Three 6 Mafia legend Juicy J. Rich Slave works because it’s a strong rapper talking strong shit over strong beats. It’s not going to change the way you think about rap music. It’s just going to ride hard for 45 minutes. (45 minutes, I have decided, is the ideal length for a rap albums. More rap albums should be 45 minutes.)
And yet there are hints of something deeper all over Rich Slave. There’s the title, for instance. The song “Rich Slave” doesn’t attempt to make a broader statement — “All them diamond chains, he look like a rich slave” — but anytime a Black artist uses “slave” in a title, a whole lot of history goes into it. Dolph hints at that history all through the album. Rich Slave is an incidentally political record, not an overstated one, but it’s no less poignant for that. Dolph’s success and celebrity do not, for instance, protect him from having infuriating encounters with cops: “The police pulled me over for nothing, just because she racist/ Two minutes later, it’s five police cars; they got me face down on the pavement.”
All through Rich Slave, there are pauses for phone conversations between Dolph and an older friend who talks about what life was like when he and Dolph’s father were kids. At one point, Dolph’s older friend casually mentions “Black Friday.” It turns out that Black Friday was the day Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Local kids couldn’t go to school that day, and people in Memphis gave the day that nickname.
Most of the time, Rich Slave is a great rap record in ways that are almost boring to describe. As a rapper, Dolph does the little things: Growling with perfect timing, staying in the pockets of his well-chosen beats, bragging about losing a Rolex in a swimming pool, ad-libbing a Beavis impression and then moving on like nothing just happened. But Dolph always leaves hints of bigger, sadder, more stressful things. Dolph has the skillset to become a critically beloved rap elder if he ever wants to. For now, though, cult-hero status seems to suit him just fine.
1. Sada Baby – “Funky Kong”
“I’ll leave you hung like you Sonic, got Tails on you/ Act like you blind to the facts, go Braille on you.” “Off syrup and off nay, ho, same time/ Gold gun, one shot, Skuba James Bond.” “Call Of Duty, real life on the Rust map/ Hit him from an angle, guaranteed he can’t bust back.” God bless Skuba Steve.
2. Young Dro – “Tik Tok”
I don’t like seeing aging-millennial cult heroes getting too thirsty for virality, but if that’s what it takes to get Young Dro back doing exuberantly gruff fast-rap, then I’m good with it. Also, Dro’s Pop Smoke impression is pretty good.
3. Rio Da Yung OG & Louie Ray – “One Night”
Rio Da Yung OG says, “I don’t use too much effort, kinda lazy when I rap.” Don’t believe him. He’s lying. Rio, a Flint underground hero, has been on a tear lately, and he continues to rip mean, tense, low-tech beats like this one to pieces.
4. Burna Boy – “Naughty By Nature” (Feat. Naughty By Nature)
There are many, many things to like about Burna Boy’s new album Twice As Tall. One of those things is the out-of-nowhere appearance of early-’90s New Jersey hitmakers Naughty By Nature, getting a shot on a big pop album and making the most of it. Treach, in particular, is slippery and effortless, sounding like maybe half of his 49 years. If anyone deserves a renaissance, it’s that guy.
5. DCG Bsavv, DCG Msavv, & DCG Shun – “Mmhmm”
In the past few years, a few of my friends have gotten really into golf, and I have clowned them relentlessly for this. But now I might have to rethink this whole thing. Do you really get to crash the golf carts into each other?