Young Dolph has scoffed at many lucrative record deals throughout his decade-long career, choosing instead to self-release mixtapes and albums under his own label, Paper Route Empire. With the proposed offers nearly doubling in the wake of his highly-publicized beef with fellow Memphis rapper Yo Gotti – one that has resulted in multiple attempts on Dolph’s life – even his most staunch supporters began to accept that the aging rapper would soon bow out of the good indie fight. And yet, “Fuck the 22 million!” was the prominent rallying cry leading up to the release of Dolph’s fourth studio album, Role Model.

In lieu of the staggering offers being thrown his way, it seems as if Dolph ultimately settled on a partnership with Empire Distribution, one that allows him greater access to resources while still maintaining his hard-fought integrity (resources that presumably allowed him to plaster the aforementioned “Fuck the 22 million!” quote across billboards as part of this new album’s rollout). Having always prided himself on his authenticity, the Chicago-born, Memphis-raised rapper has consistently presented himself as an affront to the regional politics that come with rap fame. Mutual respect is the key to earning Dolph’s loyalty and it’s how he’s built and maintained relationships with Atlanta mainstays such as rappers Peewee Longway, Gucci Mane, and Migos, as well as producers Zaytoven and Buddha Bless. At this stage in his career, it’s safe to say that Dolph has successfully skirted the thinly veiled charade that is the music industry.

The mere existence of Role Model is a testament to Dolph’s unflinching commitment to authenticity. It’s not the outright change in perspective implied by the album’s liner notes on Apple Music – the defiant bravado found within is more or less in line with the rest of his discography – however, the project does present a brighter outlook for his career. After the turbulent nature of these past two years, Role Model is a necessary reset for the dramatized narratives surrounding Young Dolph. While it’s not as well constructed as 2016’s King of Memphis, nor as incisive as last year’s Bulletproof and Thinking Out Loud, Role Model offers something more hopeful: a glimpse at Dolph as a viable pop-star. 

The features on Role Model are well-curated and highlight the rapper’s increasing cache within the industry, as well as his own transition from rising star to a battle-tested veteran. Not everyone manages to match up to Dolph’s overbearing presence – in particular, Dolph goes out of his way to welcome Memphis’s next star, Key Glock, with open arms, even though the typically charismatic rapper feels amateurish alongside Dolph – but these are calculated choices meant to continue his recent streak on the Billboard charts. (Thankfully, Kash Doll – another rising star, this time from Detroit – is more successful in seizing the opportunity here, as her irreverence serves as an effective foil for Dolph’s unapologetic womanizing). All of Dolph’s last few projects have made impressive debuts, due in part to the beefs, but also because of his natural progression as an artist, and features from Offset and Snoop Dogg can only help bolster his chances of becoming a consistently viable commercial force.

But despite all the forward momentum, Role Model, unfortunately, suffers from a considerable amount of filler. Stray cuts like  “Lipstick,” “Still Smell Like It” and “Playin Wit a Check” are as colorful as any of Dolph’s best work, but neither of the chosen singles – “By Mistake” or the Offset-assisted “Break the Bank” – measure up to the autobiographical candor of 2014’s breakout street single, “Preach.” The streak of closing tracks make for a lackluster finale. Where Dolph has always sequenced his albums in a manner that lends to undeniable replay value, this one seems purposefully more sprawling. Additionally, throughout this project, Dolph’s traditionally idiosyncratic flow also gives way to some of-the-moment aping. In some cases, it’s merely what everyone else in the industry is already doing – that is, biting the infectious flow of Chicago rappers Valee and Z Money. At other times, it’s to make his allegiances clear; he slyly disses Memphis’s most recent breakout star Blocboy JB, who’s signed to Yo Gotti, by freely repurposing his “Rover” flow. These moments are a notable diversion from the uniquely captivating cadences of his past efforts. 

In conjunction, these drawbacks give us the sense that Dolph’s operating on autopilot, a stark contrast to the vividness of his 2017 efforts. And this sense of lethargy isn’t helped by the fact that Role Model’s most impressive moment arrives early, on “Black Queen,” the utterly unexpected intro that doubles as an ode to his mother. It’s a sparse ballad that sees Dolph rapping, “I love you to death, it is what it is/Shit so crazy, you look just like my kids,” over a subtle piano melody. The uncharacteristically disarming backdrop and the scattered instances of tender lyricism do a great job at subverting expectations before the predictable debauchery that follows.

As a body of work, Role Model threatens stagnation for the tireless rapper. However, as a bookend for this chapter of his career, Role Model is proof that Young Dolph is capable of building an empire on his own terms. At the very least, this effort will hopefully afford him a brief respite from the headlines so that he can return refreshed and rejuvenated, ready to deliver the exuberant and joyfully unbothered anthems we’ve come to love.