It’s been a tough couple of years for the 39-year-old William Leonard Roberts II, a.k.a. Rick Ross, a.k.a. Rozay, a.k.a., tha Bawse. His last release, 2014’s Hood Billionaire, was poorly received by both audiences and critics, and this summer he was forced to post a $2M bond just to get out of police custody after being charged with kidnapping, aggravated assault, and aggravated battery in connection with an incident with the groundskeeper of his 235-acre estate. His next release would prove important in maintaining the relevance of both Ross and his imprint, Maybach Music Group (MMG). Was this the beginning of the end?
With the release of Black Dollar, the answer is a resounding “No.” First, to side-step any potential bad press from poor sales, Ross released the LP for free on mixtape clearinghouse DatPiff.com. And while the line between an album and a mixtape is becoming increasingly blurred, Black Dollar is clearly a record of (mostly) original material, expertly produced and sequenced from start to finish. A-list guest stars abound, with features from The-Dream, Future, Gucci Mane and Anthony Hamilton, as well as Maybach Music Group cohorts Wale and Meek Mill. The positive reviews rolled out, and the verdict was in: The Bawse is back.
But why, exactly? What is it about this portly character that people connect with? It’s not his authenticity — his past as a correctional officer is well-known, and no one actually confuses his tales of cocaine trafficking with reality. It’s certainly not his skills as an MC, as his lyrics are mostly laughable — “Major coke figure/ I’m the fresh David Koresh” — except when they’re not. And yes, the beats he raps over are consistently hot, but that only scratches the surface of why he’s endured as long as he has. It might be difficult to swallow, but Ross is an auteur in every sense of the word, with impeccable attention to detail and a keen understanding of how mood and feeling can make an album well-suited to repeat plays. If Ross is an artist, his art is not rapping, it’s Executive Production.
The mythos of Rick Ross is nothing if not absurd, but its careful construction cannot be denied. Ross’ character is an archetype long ago discovered to be salable to the American public: that of the black gangster turned mafioso kingpin. Free of any expectation to tether his character to reality, he’s allowed free reign to incorporate whatever fantasy he’s currently harboring into his music, making for a more interesting version of that tired archetype than we’ve seen to date. On Black Dollar, that fantasy includes being as rich as “Bill Gates” (track 4) or as talented as Jay-Z and the Notorious B.I.G. (track 8, the “Brooklyn’s Finest” remake “World’s Finest”). His records are elaborate fan fiction about the character he created. And if you can momentarily suspend disbelief, it’s an entertaining ride.
For a free album, everything about Black Dollar feels luxurious, be it the piano-laced beats from the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, Ross’s butter-soft leather voice, or his claims to make “the caviar of hip-hop.” At his best, his albums and mixtapes exude conspicuous wealth — it is, quite literally, music that would feel appropriate to soundtrack a ride in an Aston Martin, or yes, a Maybach. The transportive quality to his music is powerful, and we live his escapist fantasies along with him. It’s aided in no small part by his rich baritone, which would make a takeout menu sound compelling. But even rappers with great voices and legendary MC skills have faltered when it comes to EP’ing their albums (we’re looking at you, Nas), whether it be a poor ear for beats, uninspired guest appearances or just terrible sequencing. When it comes to the ability to create a mood with sound, Ross’ peers are the heavyweights: The Dr. Dres, Kanye Wests and Rick Rubins of the world. And if he can adapt as adroitly as those three have, he might just be around as long.