The murder of Young Dolph has been an incalculable and heartbreaking loss, for the city of Memphis, for the music industry, and most of all for his family. But a core part of what set Dolph apart from other artists was the stability and security he built, an independent foundation that he then extended to everyone around him. Thanks to the wheels he set in motion, Paper Route Empire has been able to continue to resounding success. Dolph’s latest album, and his first full-length posthumous release, caps off a banner year for the label that’s seen a resounding stream of releases from newer Paper Route recruits like Big Moochie Grape and Kenny Muney.
Though it’s been a year since his tragic passing, Paper Route Frank was thankfully completed before Dolph’s death. There’s no attempt to shoehorn the album into an awkward memorial, instead paying tribute through the simplest and most effective way possible: letting Dolph speak for himself on his own terms, like he’d be doing if he was still with us. The “Frank” in question, as Dolph lets us know on “Hall of Fame,” is Frank Matthews, one of the most successful drug kingpins in American history and the inspiration for the iconic blaxploitation film Black Caesar. There’s always been a luxurious air to Dolph’s music, a kind of regality and poise fit for the self-described King of Memphis, but Paper Route Frank doubles down on the elegance. As much as he shares with Three 6 Mafia or 8Ball & MJG, Dolph pulls from an even older Memphis tradition, the legacy of soulful legends like Isaac Hayes and Al Green.
That soulfulness more often manifests in Dolph’s presence and voice than the instrumentation itself, but the O’Jays flip courtesy of Bandplay on “Old Ways” infuses Dolph’s natural gravitas with a vintage style. Where Bandplay’s beats usually bring a driving bass, “Old Ways” is a little more laid-back, with twinkling pianos and tactile percussion behind the drums. While Dolph tracks often share familiar drum patterns, the samples are more unpredictable. Take ”Love For The Streets” which combines a distorted fragment of strings with glistening jingle bells to a sublimely eerie effect.
On tracks like “Blind Fold” and “Smoke My Weed,” synthesized voices offer an ethereal backup to Dolph’s triumphant flow. The Key Glock-assisted “Thats How” opens with a dignified string quartet, before switching suddenly into a sci-fi synthesizer that adds a sense of foreboding, embodying the duality that often exists in Dolph’s music. In one moment, Dolph might be surveying his kingdom from a luxurious rooftop, while in others he’s deep in the trenches and on the frontlines. Even at his most transparently materialist, Dolph never loses touch with the fire and hunger that brought him to the top.
Paper Route Frank sees Dolph reunite with the rapper who in many ways provided the blueprint for his own career: Gucci Mane. Much like Dolph, Gucci has long used his platform to boost other artists, from the original 1017 to its latest incarnation, and it was their 2013 collaborative mixtape East Atlanta Memphisthat helped introduce Dolph to a national audience. Though “Roster” was laid down before Dolph’s death, it’s still something of a bittersweet full circle moment for the former master and apprentice.
Gucci aside, Dolph’s sharpest collaborations are unsurprisingly with fellow Memphis natives like the the razor-blade precision of Big Moochie Grape and SNUPE BANDZ on “Infatuated With Drugs.” This plays in contrast to the lethargic offering provided by 2 Chainz on “Beep Beep,” which feels obligatory rather than celebratory.
Closing track “Get Away,” produced by 808 Mafia, offers a quick glimpse inside the mind of a relentless workaholic, an artist who made the hustle his entire life, not just for his own success, but for the family and community around him. Even in death, he’s still found a way to maintain his own independence and give back — because Dolph owned his own masters, the profits from Paper Route Frank go not to some craven label boss desperate to make a buck off tragedy, but to his own family.
“Hall of Fame” makes for a fitting choice for the album’s lead single, because Dolph wasn’t just content with being inducted into someone else’s hall of fame, he constructed his own, ensuring not just that his own legacy would remain pristine, but that others might have a similar chance to take control of their own careers. With Paper Route Frank, Dolph’s memory lives on, getting to flex one last time while highlighting the next generation he gave everything for.
This Paper Route Frank really make me miss Dolph
— Him Hardaway (@uhvawntay) December 22, 2022
Paper route Frank the only posthumous album I was satisfied with. It actually sounds like an allbum he would have dropped himself if he was still here.
— Lance (@_KicksAndWhips) December 21, 2022
NGL….. Tears ran down my face after the last song on Paper Route Frank😞
— CANNIBALSANCHEZ (@CANNIBALSANCHEZ) December 21, 2022