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Young Dolph’s memorial service was fit for a Memphis titan

The rapper who spoke for the city and cared for its residents was given his flowers

Young Dolph was a voice box for Memphis throughout his short life. And while that deep, distinctive drawl bounced off every corner of the FedExForum at his public memorial on Thursday, it was the city of Memphis, Tennessee, that carried Young Dolph, repeatedly chanting his name during his homegoing service.

It’s been exactly a month since Adolph Robert Thornton Jr., 36, was slain on Nov. 17 while leaving the Black-owned store Makeda’s Homemade Butter Cookies. It’s crippling to chronicle what he leaves behind: A robust catalog of features, mixtapes, EPs and albums — the last two, Rich Slave and Dum and Dummer with his Paper Route Empire artist Key Glock, debuted within the top 10 projects in the country. A family now in the unenviable fraternity of those left mourning the impact of gun violence. Fans who not only loved his music, but found therapeutic escape in his energy. And, of course, two young children, Adolph III and Ari.

“When I die — when my kids ask who is they daddy — I’m still gon’ be they daddy,” Young Dolph once said in an interview. “That’s the only thing that I can literally say is mines when I leave here.”

For Memphis, the city in which he unabashedly dubbed himself “king,” he’s an institution whose music spoke to the complexities, beauties and tragedies of Grind City. It resonated worldwide but never lost the taste of Southern-fried home cooking. When you heard Young Dolph, it was impossible not to think of Memphis. So what was always going to be an emotional event (tickets were all claimed within 90 minutes earlier this week) became even more so. This wasn’t one man dying. It was a city losing an irreplaceable lifeline.

His music spoke to the realities Black Memphians experienced daily. On the surface, his music was, at times, materialistic. Young Dolph was a product of an environment that didn’t afford him, his parents (who battled their own demons) and his grandmother Ida Mae (the woman who raised him and he spoke of in ghetto biblical tones) anything close to a middle-class life.

For that truth-telling and his commitment to helping people in Memphis, the city renamed a street in his honor.

Young Dolph’s longtime partner Mia Jaye (center) and their children Adolph III (right) and Ari (left) speak to the crowd gathered during a celebration of life tribute for the late rapper at FedExForum on Dec. 16.

Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal/USA TODAY NETWORK

“If we honor Elvis Presley, I’ll be damned if we can’t honor Young Dolph,” said Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher at the memorial. “If we can name streets after racists, we can name a street after Young Dolph.”

The measure of a man is revealed in how he treated those around him. If Thursday’s service was the barometer, Young Dolph died an obscenely wealthy man. Former Mayor W.W. Herenton all but stamped Young Dolph as one of the most impactful Memphians ever. C-Murder sent a video from prison, and singer Monica read a letter calling Young Dolph “a bright light that was shined upon me.”

New Yorker Jose Miguel Casado spoke of his recent release from prison and how Young Dolph’s words were a source of encouragement. Timothy Fletcher, who has diabetes, came from Baltimore to recount a time he was fighting for his life in the hospital and Young Dolph reached out to him.

Others spoke of how Young Dolph would give money away, or go back into restaurants and order meals for the homeless, or give the shoes off his feet to kids, not just in Memphis, but around the world. Young Dolph may have rapped about the riches in his life — which he’d never waste an opportunity to say he did so independently — but at his core, he understood that the only thing he could take with him when his life was over was how he treated people along the way.

It’s evident in benchmarks like his Ida Mae Family Foundation — which aims to protect society’s most vulnerable souls such as kids, the elderly, domestic violence survivors and more — that he understood his place in the world didn’t only revolve around him. State Sen. Katrina Robinson read a resolution passed in Young Dolph’s honor. Nov. 17, she announced, moving forward would now be known as The Adolph “Young Dolph” Robert Thornton Jr. Day of Service in both Tennessee and Georgia, where Young Dolph had moved to pursue his music career.

Throughout Thursday’s homegoing, a dizzying amount of tags were pinned to Young Dolph. Hero. Big bro. Savior. King. “A titan of a man,” as his manager Allen Parks called him. Peers Gucci Mane, 2 Chainz, Gangsta Boo, 8Ball & MJG expressed their condolences. Juicy J nearly broke down in his video tribute, expressing an all-too-familiar plea in rap’s darkest moments to stop the violence. The emotional zenith came as Young Dolph’s aunt, cousins and siblings spoke of how “the glue to the family” is gone. Later, his partner Mia Jaye, and their children, Adolph III and Ari, spoke of the man who “had a heart of David.”

“My dad trained me to be a good man when I grow up,” his son said in the most emotionally charged moment of the service. “I’m gonna be the greatest person you’ll ever know.”

Grief is a lifelong process and, if we’re lucky, we find peace along the way. As the hip-hop world, and, more importantly, his family and friends wait to see if Young Dolph’s killers are ever brought to justice, we’re left with the memories, the music and what Young Dolph stood for as a man. All of this was on full display on Thursday.

This is the post-Young Dolph world. And referring to him in the past tense will take a lifetime to get used to.

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.