The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Young Dolph’s heaviest rhymes made this lethal world feel lighter

Young Dolph performs during the 2019 Astroworld Festival at NRG Stadium in Houston. He was fatally shot on Wednesday while inside a cookie store in Memphis. (Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Images)
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Maybe the only thing a rapper can truly control is the words. Listen to the music that Young Dolph made with his mouth and count the ways. The way he flattens the curves of his Memphis drawl into something stiff and stern. The way he tightens the pitch in his throat when he’s floating an especially pungent taunt. The way his phrasing clenches while he slowly rolls up the volume in his lungs — as if he’s losing his temper because we aren’t listening. But of course we’re listening. He isn’t losing anything. Everything’s under control here.

So when word spread that the 36-year-old — born Adolph Thornton Jr. — was shot and killed while buying cookies at a shop in South Memphis on Wednesday afternoon, it was hard to square the hurt with “100 Shots,” a song from 2017 about how Dolph had gone unscathed after his SUV had been sprayed with bullets earlier that year. “I got a sweet tooth but I stay away from suckers,” he raps in the opening verse, trying to locate some levity in a chaotically dangerous world.

Dolph issued four juggernaut albums that year, each fraught with verses that made him sound edgy and impatient, like an old-school disciplinarian, but classically funny, too, like Ralph Kramden or a fuming Looney Tune. Even when he didn’t have a proper punchline handy, his pressurized timbre allowed him to do two kinds of work, shouting back at life’s cruelty while still joking his way through it. Rhyme after rhyme, he knew how to deliver the double catharsis we feel whenever we laugh at our own existential anger.

He released his music on his own Paper Route Empire label, (he reportedly turned down a $22 million record deal in 2018), and when the pandemic hit last year, Dolph went back and photoshopped all of his album covers so that he would be pictured wearing a mask — a gesture that seemed to meld his sense of altruism with his sense of humor. When someone from GQ asked him about his pandemic experience, Dolph explained how he’d been spending his quarantine days playing with his children, jumping on trampolines and trying to squeeze into his daughter’s play castle. “I’m in their world right now,” he said. “Everything they like to do, everything they play, I’m all in that world right now.”

He deserved to stay in that world, but unfortunately he lived in this one. And so Young Dolph joins a devastating list of rappers killed by bullets over the past six years — Bankroll Fresh, XXXTentacion, Jimmy Wopo, Young Greatness, Nipsey Hussle, Pop Smoke, King Von and others. But let’s be clear about this. Rap music doesn’t have a gun problem. America has a gun problem. Last year was the deadliest year of gun violence in our country in decades. This year could be even worse. We’re all living in an increasingly lethal place, and nobody seems to be in control.

Read more by Chris Richards:

The Astroworld tragedy is impossible to understand, even if you’ve spent a lifetime in crowds

Yeat redefines what it means for a rapper to rock the bells

Our biggest pop stars keep falling for lowercase letters (AND CAPS LOCK, TOO)

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