"Thinking Out Loud" caps off a triumphant 2017 trilogy from Young Dolph.
Young Dolph is on a roll. On his whopping 13 solo tapes between 2008 and 2015, the Memphis rapper had flashes of brilliance, where his charisma and infectious honk of a voice yielded bare-bones hits like "Preach" and "Pulled Up." However, those were coupled with moments where Dolph blended into the scenery of similar-minded Southern rappers rapping over similar beats. Listening to subpar Dolph songs was always frustrating, because you could tell this guy had the magnetic personality, the "it" factor, but in favor of something more down-the-middle, wasn't always harnessing it.
In the past two years though, there simply haven't been many supbar Dolph songs. Starting with February 2016's King of Memphis, Dolph's debut album, all of his solo projects have achieved a level of consistency that eluded him for the majority of his career. KoM and Rich Crack Baby, released later that year, were both lean and uncluttered, but in 2017 Dolph's pared down his approach even further, much to his benefit. February's Gelato, April's Bulletproof, and last week's Thinking Out Loud are all just ten tracks, none run over 35 minutes, and none have more than four guest vocalists. Minimalism doesn't work well for everyone, but for a certain class of straightforward Southern rapper (look at Gucci Mane's DropTopWop and Future's 2015 run of Beast Mode and 56 Nights), rapid-fire release schedules seem to fare better with less moving parts.
Let's stick with Future's now-legendary 2015 run for a second. It may seem sacrilegious to suggest this, but I see similarities with Dolph's current streak. Obviously Dolph, a non-melodic, more hardscrabble presence on the mic, hasn't reached the crossover appeal or "Commas"-level hits that Future has, but to devoted trap fans, his sleek consistency is something that's eluded peers like PeeWee Longway, Migos, Young Thug, Bankroll Fresh, and until he went on a similar mini-mixtape run last year, 2 Chainz.
Dolph's independent label, Paper Route Empire, also allows him to capitalize on momentum a la Future tweeting "I think the world ready for me to drop my album" ten days before DS2 arrived. Just over two weeks after being shot seven times, Dolph shared a video of him leaving the hospital, which also doubled as a Thinking Out Loud announcement. Eight days later, the album arrived. That turnaround isn't quite the masterclass in promo that was the genius song titles on Bulletproof, but yet again, Dolph and his team flipped a life-threatening situation into a cunning release strategy. It's horrible that Dolph has had to endure all of this, but if he has to, he might as well show his assailants that he only gets stronger with each attempt on his life.
Thinking Out Loud clearly wasn't planned as a response to the latest shooting— it was released too soon afterward and shares little of Bulletproof's sneering defiance— but "While U Here," the only track that could be dovetailed into a discussion of his brush with mortality, was wisely shared as a pre-release single. On it, Dolph graces what might be trap pioneer Drumma Boy's most heartfelt beat with tributes to his family and reminders to his listeners to take nothing for granted. Its heft is definitely increased by Dolph's recent tribulations, and while it's a little out of place on an otherwise buoyant, stunt-heavy project, it basically had to be the closing track.
The rest of Thinking Out Loud consists of Dolph honing his increasingly recognizable personal style. His unique voice has always been a giveaway, but recently, it's gone beyond that and beyond the signature ad-libs. There is now a distinct Dolph delivery, the most obvious feature being the way he'll repeat lines with an emphasis on the last bar ("Ever since my cousin CROSSED ME" or "They come with infrared BEAMS" are two examples from the intro track), but the boisterous personality extending to aspects of the flow as well. Dolph finds the diamonds hidden between hypnotic grooves and blunt lines that cause them to screech to a halt. One second, he's stringing together a verse built on a single rhyme scheme, the next, he'll interrupt it with an impromptu switch-up or refrain. It keeps you on your toes, as prime mixtape-era Gucci used to with his volatile rapping.
Dolph might actually be the most devoted of GuWop's many stylistic offspring. He rarely veers into his peers' autotuned singing, but still lets his expressive voice do much of the heavy lifting. He's still decidedly aggressive and boastful, but he also seems like an approachable dude with a sense of humor. More than anything, he's someone you want to root for, someone whose outlook on life can inspire those who've never come up in his world.
In a particularly memorable couplet on "Drippy," Dolph claims that he couldn't attend his prom because he was too busy selling drugs. "Damn I wish I coulda went to the prom," he mumbles as an ad-lib, before he reconciles it: "But I got rich anyway so motherfuck the prom!" It's one of those moments that's vulnerable but hard, basic on paper but crucial in practice. It perfectly encapsulates the X factor that makes Dolph so compelling and listenable: you can't describe his appeal to someone who's never heard him.