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Image via Paper Route Empire


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Will Hagle aspires to be in the GEICO commercial writers room.



Don’t ever ask Dolph where he’s going. Foolish questions have obvious answers. He’s always on the way to get the money. Don’t ask where Dolph is now. Another foolish question. Peezy, his longtime Paper Route engineer, has the obvious answer: “Dolph ain’t went nowhere. I swear to God he ain’t.”

Dolph is still on the way to getting the money. Still looking out for his family and Paper Route Empire, the independent label that he founded. In late 2022, PRE released Paper Route Frank, the first Dolph project since his November 2021 passing. Although posthumous releases are always shrouded in the sadness of irreversible truth – they can’t exist at the same time as their author – Paper Route Frank sounds like the latest in Dolph’s ongoing streak of quality albums. Another hit-stuffed tracklist with requisite money-getting mentions, and evidence of stylistic evolution.

Whereas Dolph’s earliest mixtapes were bloated, filled with overblown trap beats or unnecessary features and a repetitive vocal approach, Paper Route Frank is pared-down and more reflective of his versatility than any album since 2016’s flawless King of Memphis. His absence hovers over the music, of course. In a testament to his enduring legacy, it’s also an encapsulation of who he was before he left. A man who was living life to its fullest until the moment it ended. Once again, when it seemed like we’d never hear this again, it’s DOOOOOOOLPH!

The finished product came about under the care of Peezy, who spent countless precious hours with Dolph in the studio dating back to 2013’s Welcome to Dolph World. As a result, Paper Route Frank is not a cash-grabbing collection of throwaway tracks. It’s a cohesive project with intentional sequencing. One of Dolph’s better albums in recent memory. “We worked on this record for a minute,” says Peezy. “I wanted to make sure this record sounds like he didn’t leave. He ain’t left.”

Time heals all wounds except for one: the un-healing void that opens up when a loved one departs their corporeal form. Fans of musicians experience a fraction of the grief family members and close friends feel. But Young Dolph’s death impacted his audience and forever altered the trajectory of contemporary hip-hop. For the past year-plus, he hasn’t been here. He won’t be coming back. A posthumous album extends an artist’s life, despite not presenting the illusion that it’s resurrected him. Musicians leave behind an obvious way to celebrate their life, but rarely are those celebrations as joyous—or as quintessentially representative of the artist at the time we last heard him.

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Peezy says that there were points after Dolph’s death when he couldn’t bring himself to go in the studio. The pain was too raw. But anyone who knew Dolph, either personally or through his music, could understand that he would want to get his music out. You never needed to ask where he was going. The answer was always on his way to the studio. A crucial step in Peezy’s grieving process was reassuring himself and the label that the music Dolph was working on needed to reach the world. “This can’t be depleted. This can’t stop. This can’t be compromised, or go in vain,” he says. Dolph’s ambitious drive was so ingrained it outlasted his physical self. It’s now carried on through his cousin, Key Glock, and the rest of the Paper Route roster.

Unsurprisingly for an unabashed self-directed workaholic, Dolph had amassed an extensive bank of studio recordings. According to Peezy, Dolph would make visiting his Atlanta-based studio a daily routine. He’d listen to beats for ten to fifteen minutes, see the vision, then go into the booth and record the whole song from start to finish. He’d re-record and edit as needed, then go back over his vocals with ad-libs. He operated on pure feeling. No writing.

“One day I talked to him, I said, ‘You’re getting on your Jay-Z shit, right?’ He was like, ‘Nah man, I’m on my Dolph Gabanna shit,” says Peezy with a laugh. “We ran with it.”

The Jay-Z inspiration Peezy referenced is in regards to “Old Ways,” a track from Paper Route Frank which stands out because of Bandplay’s soulful production and Dolph’s nostalgic lyricism. The song samples The O’Jays, and lets the source material play out after Dolph namechecks the group. Although the tone is an atypical departure from most Dolph material, the vocals span the gamut of what makes his music so endearing. Dolph had a consistent knack for weaving good-natured family values around standard street hustler braggadocio. He’d pull your emotions one way then soften the blow with a hilarious non-sequitur.

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On “Old Ways” he talks about making millions and reflects on how the birth of his children impacted his worldview. He says he loves his baby mama and asked her to marry him but she “didn’t say nothin’ (Goddamn!)” His response? “I’m sorry, baby, I can only be me: a hustler (Goddamn!).” Dolph was introspective and emotional at precise moments, but never sacrificed his laser-focused, money-hungry essence. The juxtaposition between his more serious lines and his funnier ones never felt forced. They reflected his personality.

“It was never a dull moment with him,” Peezy says. “There wasn’t a time I didn’t see him smile or he wasn’t in a happy state. Even when it got to the point that we got in a serious conversation, it was never to the point where we was uncomfortable or wasn’t happy before or after the thing.”

That quick ability to switch from serious topic to carefree joke came across in much of Dolph’s writing. It’s paradoxically what gives his first posthumous work an extra bit of heaviness. Dolph was the guy we could depend on to laugh in the grim reaper’s face. His defiant attitude was brazen enough to induce a smirk somewhere behind the endless darkness veiled beneath Death’s designer cloak. No other rapper could have been capable of turning one of multiple assassination attempts into an indefensible rhetorical diss hook: “How the fuck you miss a whole hundred shots?” Dolph saw death repeatedly and laughed at it: the perfect ad-lib. Now that he’s gone, hearing him contemplate the darker aspects of his life with a mischievous smirk alters the perception. But just because it hits different doesn’t mean it doesn’t hit.

The closer “Getaway” also emphasizes Dolph’s reflective side. In the context of his death, it could be interpreted as morose. For the first time, we hear Dolph deeply probing the downsides of his lifestyle. He says he was tired of trapping, and now he’s tired of rapping. He tastes codeine when he burps. He feels cursed. “Fuck some fame, fuck a Grammy,” he raps. “I wish I could go be with my granny.” He wants to get away. The repeated echoey vocal sample matches the song’s title, and punctuates each declaration. Like “Real Life” on King of Memphis—where Dolph talks about a car wreck that almost cost him his life, and screams about how the only thing he ever wanted in life was some fucking money—“Getaway” closes Paper Route Frank with a hard-hitting gut punch.

The somber tone of “Getaway” could be a fitting finale to Dolph’s career. A further emphasis of his tragic ending. Peezy insists that that is not the case. Like “Real Life” on King of Memphis, it’s merely the fitting finale to another Dolph classic.

“‘Getaway’ is not a farewell, say goodbye song to Dolph,” Peezy says. “But by being the last song on that record, you really get a true understanding, personally, who he is. After hearing everything else, when it comes to that, it gels and it all makes sense.”

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The album’s closing song is a contrast to its opener, “Love for the Streets.” You can ruminate on the sadness of opening this posthumous album with an ode to the lifestyle which in direct and indirect ways led to Dolph being gunned down in broad daylight at a hometown cookie store. But Dolph wouldn’t be Dolph if he didn’t continuously express his love for the streets. There couldn’t have been a better way to begin his posthumous catalog than with this song’s quick and funny opening riff on how he lost his virginity at age 7, then his repeated assertion that he fell in love with the streets. No matter how he died, he remains more alive than most.

“It was a strong statement record,” says Peezy. “The streets birthed him and turned him into who he is right now. The streets ain’t easy. Especially in Memphis it’s a jungle, like truly. But to survive that, and turn dirt into diamonds… Man. Nobody did that. It’s only one done that. Nobody did it in this fashion. Nobody came before him, and there’s not gonna be nobody that comes behind him with that.”

Like so many places in America, Memphis has a storied history of inequity, injustice, violence and pain. The tragedies never end. “The city of Memphis lost a lot,” says Peezy, who’s from the city and has been involved with the hip-hop scene dating back decades. “We lost the third Three 6 mafia member, Gangsta Boo, on New Year’s Day. I ain’t gonna lie that shit was tragic. It hurt.”

Out of that continuous struggle, a flourishing music scene has thrived. The uniqueness of Memphis hip-hop resonates with listeners everywhere. Dolph declared himself the city’s king, and his impact will linger long into the future. He didn’t make feel-good music per se, but the inspirational example he set is undeniable.

“The Memphis music scene is going to be okay,” says Peezy. “They just need to find a way to get that positive electric energy back flowing and have people looking at us in a different light.

In an effort to keep Paper Route moving forward, the label’s roster of local talent gets ample opportunities to shine on Paper Route Frank. “That’s How,” featuring Key Glock was one of the songs recorded but not used for the 2019 collaborative tape Dum and Dummer. “It was just around,” Peezy says. “[Dolph] was holding it for a reason. So we let it fly.” Big Moochie Grape and Snupe Bandz show up on “Infatuated with Drugs.”

There’s also “Roster,” featuring Gucci Mane: one of Dolph’s most high-profile frequent collaborators. The styles of those two artists complement each other in classic vintage. The label gave Gucci the opportunity to hop on a verse after Dolph’s death. It’s safe to say, given their previous track record, that Dolph would have approved. It wouldn’t make sense to deny the world the opportunity to hear these two together again. Gucci doesn’t eulogize. Just says, “It’s Gucci Mane and Dolph.” They’re still together. Nothing’s changed, even though everything has.

Although the music sounds like another Dolph project, nothing emphasizes his absence more than Paper Route Frank’s YouTube playlist. Most Dolph albums had music videos to accompany every song. Rather than videos featuring Dolph, each song for the Paper Route Frank playlist has an accompanying “visualizer”: looped 3D-graphics of PRE-stamped gold bars behind a bank vault, dope cooking in a rundown house, or a fountain of dolphins spraying purple liquid. The visual for “Love for the Streets” is the most poignant. It depicts 3D-animated Dolph praying in the front pew of a church. The camera zooms past the altar, adorned with the PRE logo. Focuses on the nautical-themed orca in the stained glass window, then absorbs into a flash of heavenly bright white.

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Although the music sounds like another Dolph project, nothing emphasizes his absence more than Paper Route Frank’s YouTube playlist. Most Dolph albums had music videos to accompany every song. Rather than videos featuring Dolph, each song for the Paper Route Frank playlist has an accompanying “visualizer”: looped 3D-graphics of PRE-stamped gold bars behind a bank vault, dope cooking in a rundown house, or a fountain of dolphins spraying purple liquid. The visual for “Love for the Streets” is the most poignant. It depicts 3D-animated Dolph praying in the front pew of a church. The camera zooms past the altar, adorned with the PRE logo. Focuses on the nautical-themed orca in the stained glass window, then absorbs into a flash of heavenly bright white.

Regardless of Dolph’s death, Paper Route Frank remains an evolution. He uses a new type of flow on “Whoah.” Rapping quickly, almost Migo-esque, he stuffs a jumble of lines in between the spacey refrains of “Whoah, whoah.” It’s somehow both comforting and disheartening to know that Dolph was still refining his craft to the end.

“He was never satisfied. Even though he got better and better and better as an artist, and outside of running his label that was thriving, he never settled for like, ‘This is where I need to be. This is Dolph. I ain’t changing.’ None of that,” says Peezy. “[Dolph] shows growth with every record…. It never went down. It always went up. Going into this record, I wanted to make sure I didn’t jeopardize anything for that record not to go up.”

Although Peezy says that “90-98%” of the music Dolph recorded has been released, he assures me that there is still plenty in the vault. It will never be new. Never exactly how he envisioned. Always marked by tragic reality. But Dolph will live on.

“The thing about Dolph’s legacy and Paper Route… It doesn’t end with him. We’re not through throwing Dolph out into the world. With everybody else on the label, we also feel like we Dolph as well. Because we have to keep working and doing what we do and being the best we can be in that fashion that we know of,” says Peezy. “Dolph left this for us. This was us together. Now he’s not here. Everybody has to take if not some pieces of Dolph, then a lot of pieces of him. Just to have the same type of drive and motivation and go out and get it mentality. So as long as we all stay where we is with him being resilient and standing on this Paper Route Business like no other, we’ll make sure it will never fall on our watch.”

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