Young Dolph will make you believe in yourself. He talks with the passion of a preacher, rhythmically speaks with the intensity of a motivational speaker, and radiates the warmth of a father figure.
On a brisk Wednesday night, the exterior of the Times Square Burger & Lobster is ground zero for the Young Dolph rebrand. He’s calling it Role Model, a spiritual and sonic rebirth. The only thing missing is tonight’s food. According to one of Dolph’s associates, people from where they come from don’t wait to be seated in restaurants like regular people — fair enough.
Dolph exudes resilience. In February 2017, he was shot at nearly 50 times in Charlotte, North Carolina. He’d later immortalize the moment on “100 Shots” — “A hundred shots, a hundred shots/ How the fuck you miss a whole hundred shots?” Seven months later, he survived another shooting outside of the Loews Hollywood hotel in Los Angeles. The incident intensified the long-simmering beef between Dolph and Yo Gotti, who is no longer a suspect in the shooting. His views on the matter are direct: “I spent too much [of] my own money to give anybody any promo.” It also mythologized the Memphis rapper’s otherworldly durability.
The more miraculous feat is how Dolph managed to transform his unrelenting charisma, business savvy and unmatched work ethic into something marketable. In less than a year, the negative publicity is being replaced with viral videos of Dolph giving Duke baristas $20,000 after getting fired for allegedly playing “Get Paid” at work or laughing at the prospect of signing a $22 million contract from an unnamed company. The results of both are the same: Dolph is shaping himself into a new kind of role model.
“Real talk, shit, I feel like I’ll have $200 million in five years,” Dolph confidently says as he stands in the back of a black van. “They want to gottdamn give me 22 million dollars, nah mean? I’ll have 200 million in five years. Maybe it might not take that long. I’m a hustler now, so ain’t no telling where this shit gon’ come from.”
In conversation, Dolph periodically drops gems like a grizzled wizard in an RPG. On record, he knows who he’s trying to reach and how he’s trying to reach them. He describes the title of his album, Role Model, in simple terms.
“I just thought it was different. It’s powerful. It’s a statement,” Dolph shares. “It’s like us being artists, being in a situation, being in a position that we in. We gotta realize that…People, my age, people older, people younger, it’s like they look up to me. They listen to my lyrics for wisdom. They listen to my lyrics for like game. They listen to my lyrics for real deal beneficial purposes.”
The “beneficial purposes” is learning what it took for Dolph to get here. In 2008 and 2009 — before the advent of streaming — a young Dolph would press up 50,000 CDs and flyers for mixtapes like Paper Route Campaign. His goal was simple, “flood the streets and have everybody with them motherfuckers.” From there, he’d host parties as a way of retaining full control. Dolph’s manager, Allen Parks, remembers that early perseverance well. He’s been managing Dolph since 2012.
“I think my first promo run with him, before we even blew up big I think he just left the dentist getting his wisdom tooth pulled and we went and did five days on the road in the Midwest, Southeast,” Park says. “Going in the morning or whatever the case may be, we’d go get a smoothie and mashed potatoes to eat and that was before we even had the recognition or the status of saying we’re a major independent.”
Breaking down the plot and subplots of the Young Dolph machine — the same one that netted the Memphis rapper six projects in the Billboard 200 as an independent artist since 2016 — is a characteristic that runs throughout every member of Paper Route Empire.
“Only n—as that got this shit in them, they can relate to this shit, what I got in me,” Dolph explains when asked about his business acumen. “When you talk hustle with me I break that shit not down to the pound, not down to the ounce, not down to the gram. I break that shit down to the tenth, bruh, the .1 not the, 1.0.”
Role Model also finds Dolph digging deeper into his childhood and mapping his maturity. The album starts with the somber, but motivational “Black Queen.” Over simple keys, Dolph raps, “Rich crack baby, mama and daddy both used to smoke rocks / Rich crack baby, now I’m smokin’ kush with my mom and dad on a yacht.” Young Dolph gives all thanks to his grandmother, the woman who raised him and his brothers, for changing his mentality.
“She seen the neglect,” he shares. “She just seen the shutdown. I didn’t want nothing to do with ‘em. It was just short conversations. It wasn’t like no real love, like how you love your momma and daddy. Once she seen it she got on my ass about it. She straightened me all the way up about it and I love her to death for it. She like, ‘You only get one momma and daddy.’”
As for the future, Dolph is setting up his label, Paper Route Empire, and signees Key Glock for more success. On “Still Smell Like It,” Dolph taunts Def Jam, Interscope, 300, and Epic, and in conversation revels in his independence. He’s positive his latest venture, a newly inked distribution deal with Empire — “they got something to prove just like I got something to prove in the industry” — is a great one.
A decade into his career, Dolph is ecstatic at the prospect of streaming providing a more streamlined and profitable approach to reach the masses. “This shit way easier,” he exclaims, comparing his early mixtape days to the present. “That’s why I’m having so much fun for. I got this Superman ass hustle. Then for the game to be what it is right now, how this shit is, damn it’s set up for me to do my thing. You can’t lose. Either way it go, I can’t lose.”
The burgers and seafood have finally arrived. For a moment, everyone in Dolph’s orbit is content. Even a “Superman ass hustle” needs fuel.