Rick Ross never really seemed hungry; it was part of his appeal. When we met him, he was pushing an overblown comic-book kingpin character, talking about knowing “the real Noriega” and throwing speedboat chases into his videos. When his past as a corrections officer came to light, nobody was really mad because his whole character never seemed remotely real in the first place. (The great critic Chris Ryan once wrote, “If he’s saying, ‘I got the Evanston, Wyoming bathtub meth game on lock!’ I would take his word on that. But I heard tell that Miami-Dade Law Enforcement, when not dipping to Cuba with Gong-Li, are somewhat aware of the city’s drug problem!”) Ross lived in that character, treated his career like an absurd, escapist summer-blockbuster franchise. At his best, a Rick Ross song hits you like a helicopter shot of the sun setting over distant Caribbean mountains, city lights glimmering in the foreground. The cheap, eager-to-please grandeur of his whole style sort of blows you away. But for a while now, he’s been sleepwalking through his own career. Last year, I saw him play a godawful boring set at the FADER Fort during SXSW, a venue he’d torn down just a couple of years before. Rather than charging across the stage like a bull, he was letting his borderline-incompetent live band noodle and vamp, booming out his verses without even a hint of urgency. For most of last year, his Mastermind was 2014’s biggest-selling rap album, at least until J. Cole came along and knocked him down in a single week. But the album was soft and indolent and boring, and then Hood Billionaire, the album he released a few months later, was somehow the same but worse. Lately, he’s been nowhere near as visible as his protege Meek Mill, even though he’s been steadily working. I was vaguely dreading a new Ross album in that whole “I guess I’ll listen to it” way that we think about new music from artists whose best work is obviously long in the past. But Black Dollar, the new Ross mixtape, shows that Ross is capable of something I never imagined he’d do: Making a very good rap record that doesn’t blast you in the face with how good it is.
In the past, when Ross has been good, he’s been good in one of two blindingly obvious ways. There are the anthems, like “Hustlin'” or “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast),” that immediately grab you by the neck and throw you through a window. Songs like that are just enormous. They’re monuments to badassery, and it’s impossible to argue with them. Ross’ actual rapping on tracks like those isn’t always the most impressive, and it doesn’t have to be. He doesn’t flow over those tracks; he inhabits them, lords over them like a king standing in the highest tower of his castle. And then there are the luxurious crushed-velvet songs, the songs so lush and warm and expensive-sounding that all his talk about consuming crab meats and moving oil tankers full of cocaine in from Colombia becomes way more seductive than it should be. On tracks like his “Maybach Music” series, he invites in some of rap’s biggest stars and allows them to swim through his symphonic saxophone overtures. This is high thread-count music, and it works because it pushes things so far outside our common experience that Ross might as well be rapping about ghostriding dragons or rolling dice with the gods of Olympus. They’re sheer fantasy. But when Ross is just rapping, just casually talking shit over beats, he struggles. That was the problem with most of Mastermind and Hood Billionaire. Ross wasn’t building grand monuments to himself. He was just existing, coming across like practically any other rapper. So Black Dollar is a minor landmark for Ross. It’s the place where he manages to just rap over beats for an hour-plus. He never trumpets his own arrival or sounds like he’s spreading his arms on the crow’s nest of a cruise ship. He’s just rapping over beats. But they’re good beats, he’s rapping well, and the whole thing never outstays its welcome, even at 17 tracks.
The release of Black Dollar might be the first Ross full-length that never became a manufactured event; there was virtually no attempt to drum up excitement for it. There were a couple of early tracks, as well as the announcement that there’d be a new Ross album in a couple of days. And then, rather than an album, there was a free-download link that suddenly appeared on DatPiff last Thursday afternoon. The tape itself functions the same way: Never demanding attention, simply unfolding at a lazily assured pace. There are big-name guests — Future, Meek Mill, The-Dream — but none of them are trying to seize the spotlight away from Ross the way past guests did. The last real free Ross mixtape, 2012’s generally excellent Rich Forever, peaked when Drake took Common to task on tape closer and big single “Stay Schemin’.” There’s nothing like that here. The only guest who really leaves much of an impression is Deuce Poppito, who was a big part of Trick Daddy’s Slip-N-Slide label back when Ross was getting his start throwing guest verses on Trina songs and who’s apparently now rapping under the name Whole Slab. He breathes fire on “Turn Ya Back,” but he’s the only person on the tape who does, Ross included. Instead, Ross spends the tape sinking into these beats. The tracks are big — full of synth horns and chiming melodies — but they’re never overwhelming, the way they so often are with Ross. The highlights (“Geechi Liberace,” “Knights Of The Templar”) don’t sound like singles; they sound like implausibly pleasant album tracks. They’re subtly strong music, tracks that can command your attention when you’re on without leaving too much of an impression after they end.
That sounds like slight praise, but a pleasant, laid-back Ross actually makes for pretty great company during lazy end-of-summer weekend days. Ross is good company. He’s played his character for so long now that his boasts seem second-nature, like he’s building sentences from a set of luxury-rap refrigerator magnets. Sometimes, those lines don’t follow any logic at all: “I once made love to a princess / For security reasons, let’s call her empress.” Sometimes, it seems like he’s just listing shit that sounds cool: “Bel Air! Will Smith! Black Bottles! Trill shit!” Sometimes, there is no way to explain how he got from one bar to the next: “Hug my attorney and then we do the money dance / Whitey Bulger or a soldier leaving Vietnam.” Sometimes, he’s outright lying: “More Rakim than maybe Master P / Thirsty nigga paid in full, I’m tryna buy the beach.” And sometimes, his lines are absolutely fucking slick as long as you’re willing to suspend all disbelief, like the moment where he claims that he can give away a fully-developed 17-song album for free because he has so much cocaine money: “Head-on collisions, somehow I walk away / Give you music for free, recoup it with the yay.” It’s all silly and overblown and utterly untethered to reality, which is all we’ve always wanted from Rick Ross albums. But for once, Ross doesn’t sound determined to convince you of his own fictional largesse. He’s already created his own universe, and now he’s just living in it.
1. T.I. – “Check, Run It”
The League Of Starz beat turns clipped and minimal West Coast production into operatic monolith-music, which should be impossible. And T.I. flows over the whole thing with an absolute effortless breeziness, which should be even more impossible. For something like 15 years now, T.I. has been better at rapping than most of us will ever be at anything, and he can still just knock a new song like this out whenever he feels like it. Like it’s nothing.
2. J-Zone – “I’m Sick Of Rap”
In which the dependably hilarious grumpy uncle of New York underground rap pulls back the curtain and lets you know how lame he thinks the entire enterprise is: “I’d rather hear bluegrass, fuck it.”
3. Scarface – “Do What I Do” (Feat. Nas, Rick Ross & Z-Ro)
It was overshadowed by a whole lot of other stuff, but last week, one of the greatest rappers of all time ended his temporary retirement and released his first album in seven years. And even if Deeply Rooted isn’t Scarface’s best album, it does have his incredible gnarled preacher-rumble voice in full aggrieved-elder mode. And it also has Nas stressing about Tea Party tax policies on a track with motherfucking Z-Ro on the hook.
4. Twista – “Don’t Hate Me”
Life is all about the simple pleasures, like hearing Twista rap in triple-time over the “Sweet Child O’ Mine” intro riff.
5. Your Old Droog – “Tell Your Friends” (Freestyle)
This week’s list is entirely old guys, except for this song: A young guy who sounds like an old guy rapping over the first Kanye West beat in forever that sounds like early-’00s New York. The Weeknd might sing about being a scumbag, but does he talk about buying Newports with an EBT card, or being unashamed of his premature ejaculation?
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Possibly the greatest New Yorker cover of all time pic.twitter.com/byQk9Cf8Og
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) September 4, 2015