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If it ain’t broke, you aren’t supposed to try to fix it. As an axiom for living and creating, they don’t get much more versatile; it’s a statement that applies to pretty much everything. But just because something works, that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. On his latest release, the roiling Rich Slave, veteran Memphis rapper Young Dolph aims for that narrow middle ground and for the most part sticks the landing, adding a few new dimensions to his working formula. The result is an intriguing listen that rounds out his boasts with subtle strains of Black history and timely rebellion.
It’s been two years since Dolph’s last proper full-length album, the chest-puffing Role Model. There are plenty of parallels between the two projects: The smirking, skew-eyed album titles; the confident formatting (14 tracks a piece, with judicious use of high-profile features keeping the focus firmly on Dolph); and the albums’ respective subject matter are near mirrors of each other, reflecting an artist with a strong sense of identity (he’s the self-declared King Of Memphis, after all).
But in those intervening years, Dolph also released Dum And Dummer with his Paper Route Empire protege Key Glock, who’s ironically a full decade younger than Young Dolph. Whereas Dolph is staid and confident, Glock brings the chaotic energy of youth and a fresh perspective to the proceedings. It’s said that both the student and the teacher benefit from the relationship; judging from Rich Slave’s revitalized, mesmeric vibe, it seems that saying was correct in this case. The title track and “Death Row” bear this out, as Dolph’s measured flow is accentuated with just a little more force and speed than usual.
Dolph’s also older, with a different set of priorities than in 2018. Just months before the release of Rich Slave, he talked about retiring from the rap game to spend more time with his kids, leaving the day-to-day business of recording and touring non-stop to his Paper Route employees Bino Brown, Glock, Jay Fizzle, and the best-named rapper in the game right now, Big Moochie Grape. That impulse — while short-lived — translates to his delivery on Rich Slave. While Dolph always sounds slightly bored with the trappings of wealth he’s accumulated over the past decade or so, here he actually counts the costs of making it in America.
Don’t get it twisted; he doesn’t suddenly turn into Killer Mike or Nas on the new project. He does, however, seem keen to reexamine his relationship to his wealth. Whereas before, it was all about grinding his way out of poverty, now he contrasts his relative comfort with the subtle stressors that pursue him. “Police pulled me over for nothin’, just because she racist,” he laments on “The Land.” “Two minutes later, it’s five police cars, they got me face down on the pavement / Just ’cause I’m a black man in America / That’s what give them permission to treat us terrible.”
That being said, the vast majority of the project’s runtime is dedicated to Dolph’s favorite things: Running up checks, having a lot of sex, and continuing to terrorize longtime rival Yo Gotti. On “I See $s,” he crows, “I f*cked this rapper baby mama by mistake / Ever since then that big head motherf*cker been hatin’ / How it feel to be a f*ck n****? Congratulations.” Some things never change. Meanwhile, Dolph again keeps the features on the project to a minimum, restricting guest appearances to Key Glock on “No Sense,” G Herbo on album closer “1 Scale,” and Megan Thee Stallion on fan-favorite hype single “RNB.”
Rich Slave may not quite be the mission statement it positions itself as from its opening skit, “Black Friday,” but what the skit does do is remind the listener that there’s always more to the experience of being Black in America than meets the eyes. In a conversation with an old head, Dolph chuckles at his debaucherous tales until he learns a tidbit of local history he didn’t know before — one that likely painted multiple aspects of his upbringing in Memphis without even knowing it. The history of cities like Memphis — truly, of the entire country — are rich, but incomplete and always looming over us no matter how many diamond chains we buy. Considering through that lens, the prospect of a Rich Slave is chilling — and a little bit triumphant.
Rich Slave is out now via Paper Route Empire. Get it here.