The Scarface narrative is a hood favorite. Rags-to-riches stories are standard fare, but the tale of Tony Montana embraced the antihero version of the standard with a sense of style, flash, and fatalism that connected with ghetto children. Born amidst blight, watching petty criminals sport the trappings of wealth to which they aspire, the cutthroat Cuban immigrant gangster was an ideal fantasy.
This self-made mafioso trope first took hold in hip-hop in New York in the late ’80s, most notably with Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s Road to the Riches, but was fully entrenched in the mainstream through the ’90s. Nas, Biggie, and Jay Z, the three biggest hip-hop stars of the decade, all used mafioso characters in their raps; it was just part of their brand (remember ‘Nas Escobar’ or Willie Esco?). But most of them had moved on (or passed) by the aughts, and the “street” sounds that had dominated the airwaves in the mid-’90s gave way to dance-oriented, house-influenced records.
It’s not that rappers stopped making mafioso rap; it merely faded from hip-hop’s mainstream as hip-hop was absorbed into the pop-music mainstream. But Rick Ross has been on the mafioso tip since he first burst onto the scene with “Hustlin’,” off his 2006 album Port of Miami. He was unique in that everyone knew he was a fabulist but didn’t care — authenticity was paramount in hip-hop before Biggie and 2Pac’s assassinations — and before long he had graduated from Hustlin’ to being a John Gotti-worshipping Teflon Don.
On his latest LP, Black Market, Ross finds himself in a mode of contemplation similar to the one that characterized his teaser mixtape from earlier this year, Black Dollar. The portly 39-year-old had a rough 2015; after a disappointing late-2014 release of his LP Hood Billionaire, he spent some time in jail and had to scrape together $2 million to get out on bail. The ascendance of Port of Miami gave way to the “We made it!” of Teflon Don, then evolved into a period of reflection. Black Dollar tracks like “Foreclosures” and “Money Dance” (which also appear on non-streaming copies of Black Market as bonus tracks) paint Ross as a pensive Don, ruminating on life experiences to impart some sort of gangster wisdom.
Like most things Ross, the more you focus on the content of Black Market, the more laughable it becomes — his absurdity knows no bounds. For evidence, look no further than the incredibly delusional track-by-track breakdown Rozay did for Billboard.com. For “One of Us,” a gangster murder-pact ode with a feature from Nas, he tells Billboard of the song’s origin: chilling at a corporate yacht party with Nas. Then there’s “Ghostwriter,” where he talks of all the raps he says he wrote for other rappers. It makes you wonder what the state of affairs is in hip-hop when people are paying money to pretend that they wrote a Rick Ross verse. And don’t even get me started on his “Silk Road” claim that he’s “more Rakim than a Master P.” LOL.
So, why is this record a big deal, sporting features from the likes of John Legend, CeeLo Green, Nas, DJ Premier, Mariah freakin’ Carey, Chris Brown, and Future? Why is it guaranteed to be bigger than whatever Roc Marciano puts out next? We’ve touched on this a bit before, but Ross’ auteurship has never lied in his rhymes. His voice is as luxurious as velvet, but at his core, he’s a maestro — a filmmaker, directing his own version of Scarface, mapped out over a career of albums, mixtapes, and news appearances. He’s woven a tale so compelling that whether or not it’s true is irrelevant, only that you enjoy the ride.