When “Rich Forever,” the title track from Rick Ross’s great early-2012 mixtape, shows up as a bonus track on his new God Forgives, I Don’t, one line immediately jumps out: “Your shit pushed back cuz it ain’t buzzin’.” Ross has never shied away from pot/kettle/black moments, and the world has gotten used to hearing a former corrections officer who gleefully portrays an absurdist drug kingpin deriding other rappers for being fake. But that one line is especially jarring, as it immediately evokes thoughts of how often God Forgives, I Don’t was pushed back, because it wasn’t buzzin’. The album was originally supposed to land late last year, and its release-date issues certainly had something to do with the mysterious string of seizures that Ross suffered back then, always while on planes. But Ross also released a ton of underwhelming singles that utterly failed to connect with anyone. And his recent event-rap monstrosity “Three Kings” was another troubling sign of lost mojo: Dr. Dre and Jay-Z guest-verses lined up on the same song just so that everyone could sleepily intone extreme-wealth signifiers over a somnolent Jake One beat, with Jay’s rambling and personal verse only partly redeeming things. I was pretty worried that God Forgives, I Don’t was going to be terrible, a dying gasp of a once-dominant big-money rap icon. So it’s with great relief that I report that God Forgives, I Don’t is, in fact, pretty great. And moreover, it’s pretty great in a way that no other Rick Ross album ever has been before.
For one thing, God Forgives is the most expansive- and expensive-sounding Ross album yet. Rich Forever and 2010′s ridiculously strong Teflon Don worked mostly on the strength of their dinosaur-stomp bangers, post-Flocka tracks like “B.M.F.” and “Fuck You” that sounded like drug-rap takes on Sabbath sludge. When I saw Ross in Austin earlier this year, those bloody-minded anthems were easily the most exciting parts of his set, and they’re the Ross songs most fun to bellow along with when you’re driving. But he’s mostly done away with them here; even the hardest and heaviest tracks here can’t touch the stuff he was doing there. Only “So Sophisticated,” the Meek Mill collab with the utterly hilarious title, has yet caused involuntary office-chair-dancing on my part. And on Rich Forever, Ross linked with every one of this year’s ascendant street-rap stars: Future, 2 Chainz, French Montana. They’re all absent on God Forgives.
Instead, the album works in ways even more musically luxuriant than Ross’s previous crab meats/jazz flutes peak, 2009′s Deeper Than Rap. The production is all overblown orchestral silliness, with layers of strings and woodwinds and slap-bass and harps and drums all over everything. The point isn’t forward momentum; it’s maximal white-suit beauty, Ross treating every one of his beats like another crazy-expensive status symbol. “Ten Jesus Pieces” is seven minutes of weeping strings and flugelhorns. Cool & Dre’s soul-sample tapestry on “Ashamed” bursts with so much musical detail that I can’t pay attention to anything when it’s playing. There’s a suite of for-the-ladies sex tracks near the end where Ross and his producers practically sounds like they’re working as publicists for luxury hotels. And as much as I miss the forward thrust of Ross’s Lex Luger collabs, this production works — the various mercenary beatmakers in the credits doing their very best to imitate ’70s orchestral-soul geniuses. Obviously, you can’t buy your way into a peak-era Curtis Mayfield album, but God Forgives shows us exactly how close you can get. It’s impressive.
And with all this dizzy musical wealth on display, Ross has chosen this moment to become self-conscious — a weird thing to hear from a rapper who has resolutely refused to publicly acknowledge the utter goofiness of his outsized persona. Consider this line from opener “Pirates”: “Fascination with fortune afford me mansion and Porches” — he’s rich, then because people love to hear him talk about how rich he is. It’s circular reasoning rendered in a technically great rap line, all popped plosives and internal rhymes. (Ross follows it up with something that sounds like “panoramic abortions,” but that can’t be right, can it?) He also tangles, for the first time, with the ethical quandaries that come with the drug trade that he’s spent his career so lovingly mythologizing. On “Ashamed,” that’s him talking about his mother’s poverty and then saying, “Maybe one day I could put this pain away / Until then, I’ma be a D-boy, I’m ashamed to say” — this followed up by a soul sample repeating the word “shameless” over and over, as if in a fit of ecstasy. Complicated! And on “Hold Me Back,” he gets into the idea that people sell drugs because poverty doesn’t give them any other chances — an old idea in rap, but a surprisingly nuanced one for a guy whose entire image has always revolved around the specious idea that selling cocaine is awesome.
Back when Ross was first suffering those airborne seizures last year, there were Twitter rumors flying around for a few hours that he’d actually died. We probably won’t ever know how close to death he actually came, but the levels of indulgence he raps about are the sort of thing that could legitimately threaten someone’s life. And death hangs over God Forgives in some weird ways. On “Pirates,” it’s Ross saying, “At this point in my life, I’m just tryna survive” — straightforward enough. But on “911,” it’s Ross on the chorus, talking about dying, and wondering if he’ll be able to let his Porche top down when he’s on the highway to heaven — a morbid dream-logic balling-out metaphor that utterly resists unpacking. (Why would you care if you can let your Porche top down? You’re dead!) “Diced Pineapples” is apparently so titled because Ross’s doctors have been pushing him to eat more fruit. And here’s a line from “Maybach Music IV”: “Such a breath of fresh air / Get a blowjob, have a seizure on a Lear.” That’s Ross actually bragging about having seizures, and that’s something I can’t even wrap my brain around right now. He’s almost saying that he has seizures to relax.
It’s worth mentioning that Ross, once so clumsy on the mic, still continues to improve as a pure rapper, to the point where he’s maybe the most dependable A-lister around right now. So many awesome lines here. From “Amsterdam,” a track that pushes Curren$y’s stoner-rap aesthetic to blockbuster dimensions: “I’m laughing at the people who labeled me poor / Now I piss on Europeans; you’d think it was porn.” Or on “Sixteen”: “Rolling like Mick Jagger, the women just get badder / All I see is money, cream, Eric Clapton.” I will henceforth use “Eric Clapton” as a term that means “money.” But for all its great rapping, God Forgives isn’t an album about great rapping. It’s an album about excess and indulgence, stretching in all directions. After all, that “Sixteen” line comes after an intro on which Ross harrumphs about the tyranny of the 16-bar verse structure, how it quashes the feeling of pure expression he wants to reach. Of course Ross has never, ever been about pure expression, and he follows that intro with a slightly-longer verse where he just talks about money. But the idea that he’d give a shit about being an artist is a new and fascinating one. It also bears mentioning that “Sixteen” is eight minutes long, and insane.
See, Ross extends that same feeling of indulgence to the guests on God Forgives. “Maybach Music IV” is something of a disappointment, since the “Maybach Music” franchise has previously involved Ross rounding up all the biggest names he can find, and this one has no guest-rappers. He does, however, allow Ne-Yo to meow all over the outro. On “Diced Pineapples,” Wale gets a chance to experiment in slam poetry. And then there’s “Sixteen.” After Frank Ocean’s “Pink Matter,” “Sixteen” is the second time Andre 3000 has been allowed a high-profile opportunity to utterly hijack someone else’s song, rambling charmingly into the sunset, then ending things with a guitar solo. Of all the tracks on the album, “Sixteen” is the lushest and most spacious, all Miami Vice synths and smooth-jazz sax-tootles and cocktail-lounge piano and production so clean that you could eat off of it. But about seven minutes in, Ross grunts, “Break it down for ’em, Andre,” and Andre follows it with a guitar solo. And man, that guitar solo. Amidst all those bells and harps, Andre sounds like an eighth-grader let loose in a Guitar Center. It’s maybe the worst guitar playing that’s ever appeared on a major-label rap album, and its sheer discordant amateurism just rips through the track. I kind of love it.
But that’s God Forgives, I Don’t: A display of wealth and excess so magnanimous and all-consuming that Rick Ross is even willing to indulge Andre’s insane Hendrix fantasies. Because if Rick Ross is about anything, it’s the indulgence of fantasy.