Nine years ago, it would’ve been hard to believe that we’d ever get a Rick Ross album that mostly worked as a pure rapping exercise. When he released “Hustlin'” into the world in 2006, rapping was not what Rick Ross was about. His big contributions were spurious claims of being friends with dead drug kingpins and the ability to rhyme “Atlantic” with “Atlantic.” Instead, Ross was a presence, a guy who blew Young Jeezy’s whole drug-dealing persona out to gargantuan widescreen levels, making an escapist summer blockbuster out of it. And when he was outed as a former corrections officer a few years later, it didn’t matter one bit because his claims were never even halfway believable in the first place. It was just fun to have him around. It’s not as much fun to have him around anymore. Ross has made some truly aimless music in the last few years, he’s lost a ton of weight, and he’s in that slow career-slide part of his trajectory — the part where he’s still important but he’s not exactly vital. I honestly can’t remember what his last real hit was. (Was it “Stay Schemin'”? Because that song is more than three years old now.) And yet, on his new album Black Market, Ross is rapping his ass off.
I don’t mean to imply that Ross has suddenly turned into Pharoahe Monch or anything. He’s not rapping in double-time or switching up his flows in any pyrotechnic ways. He’s still very much himself, and the traits he shows on Black Market are the traits he’s always had: The heavy and granular voice, the labored and intention-heavy cadences, the tendency to speak in grand pronouncements. But his verbiage is denser and more calculated. He’s not just talking about drug scales and marble floors. There are some strange layers to his lines: “Assassinate Trump like I’m Zimmerman / Now accept these words as if they came from Eminem.” He targets Drake but does it in such a convoluted, offhand way that it never comes off as a declaration of war. He mentions again and again that he writes all his own lines — another implied Drake diss — and he even says on “Ghostwriter” that he’s responsible for a lot of other rappers’ work, as well. And even when he’s talking about money, now and forever his favorite topic, he finds some slick ways to do it: “Grinding until my new accountant is fully at ease / Beefing with broke niggas really like pulling my teeth.” (I love the image of him watching some nervous young accountant and using the guy’s comfort level as his barometer for whether or not he’s rich enough.)
The album’s overall vibe is still unalloyed opulence, just as it is on pretty much every Rick Ross record. But there’s no real urgency to it, no fire behind all the tinkly pianos and regal trumpets. Ross isn’t chasing hits, and he hasn’t adjusted his sound at all to keep up with current rap trends. There are no Metro Boomin beats here. Instead, there’s a sheen of respectability to all this. The list of guests includes middlebrow nobility like Mary J. Blige and Oscar winner John Legend. There are only two guest rappers on the whole album: Future, who is really only half-rapping anyway, and Nas, who Ross practically deploys like another indicator of his wealth. The beats are all big, soft, pillowy things, most of which come from rap-production journeymen like Jake One and (seriously) Scott Storch. And the best moment on the whole album comes on “Black Opium,” on which Ross goes in over a sinister, slow-loping beat from DJ Premier. The very idea of Ross teaming up with the legend (and giving him a “featuring” credit!) would’ve been hard to conceive of in 2006. But Premier has had a quietly great year, landing tracks on high-profile albums from Dr. Dre and the Game as well as Ross. And why shouldn’t Premier and Ross work together? Old motherfuckers have to stick together.
Ross is 39 years old, way older than most rap stars of his stature. He’s only three years younger than Nas, even though he broke into rap 12 years after Nas did. He’s six years older that Lil Wayne, who’d been making hits for eight years by the time Ross showed up. Ross had had a full life by the time he even broke into rap. And Black Market is the first moment I can remember Ross sounding comfortable as a middle-aged rapper. He’s grunting out these dense and writerly couplets, hanging out with Nas and John Legend, making the DJ Premier track he’d probably always wanted to make. He’s rapping more about relationships, less about drug-dealing. He’s still funny, still willing to chant about how good his dick is on a song called “Dope Dick.” But he finally sounds like the grown-up that he’s been for a long time. He’s a legacy artist now. It suits him.
1. Offset – “First Day Out”
Someone could, and probably should, put together an entire blog full of the first song rappers recorded on the respective days that they got out of jail. Gucci Mane’s “First Day Out” remains the gold standard, and Migo Offset knows that; otherwise, he wouldn’t have picked the same title. And while Offset is a very different rapper and this is a very different song, it has a bit of the deranged urgency of that Gucci track. Offset’s flow is still tricky and precise, but I’ve never heard this kind of fire underneath it.
2. Wiki – “Sonatine” (Feat. Slicky Boy)
First off, Wiki deserves credit for naming a song after the second-best Takeshi Kitano movie. I’d know he was really about that life if he had a song called Fireworks (Hana-Bi). Lil Me, Wiki’s new free-download album, is full of that kind of meditative, broken New York rap, but this one strikes me as being the most immediately entrancing song on it. If the Ratking braintrust keeps cranking out tracks like this, I might stop thinking of them as “that rap group who opens for everyone.”
3. The Knocks – “New York City” (Feat. Cam’ron)
I can’t even tell you how much I love hearing Cam go into this warm, elegiac poetry-slam flow.
4. Kodak Black – “Antisocial”
I love the idea of a rapper using “I’m antisocial” as the reason why you should leave him the fuck alone. And I love how, even this early in his career, Kodak Black pretty much has his “angry, understated party-rap” style all figured out.
5. Curren$y – “Top Down”
Curren$y’s laconic ease is his gift and his curse. He makes rapping well sound like the easiest thing in the world, and he also sounds like he could fall asleep at any given moment. Too often, his beat selection mirrors that laconic ease. But here, he hijacks a Yo Gotti instrumental and delivers that muttery smoothness over some very simple, very hard music. The contrast works wonders; it’s been a long moment since I’ve enjoyed hearing Curren$y rap this much.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
For those who also want to write the Trap God and provide holiday cheer. pic.twitter.com/0YMmLdSqXg
— Matt Fastow (@mfastow) December 4, 2015