Every rap empire goes into decline eventually, but Maybach Music Group hit its decline phase before it ever really became an empire. Crew figurehead Rick Ross has, over the past few years, slowly slid into his dotage, releasing sleepy and indolent music that didn’t seem that concerned with seizing anyone’s imagination. I liked Ross’ last album, 2015’s Black Market, but only as a pure rapping exercise — the money-rap equivalent of, say, the sort of thing that Buckshot might release on Duck Down tomorrow. Meanwhile, Meek Mill looked like our last great street-rap hope for about five minutes, before he unwisely picked a fight with rap’s biggest and most bulletproof star, falling right on his face. Meek still makes good music sometimes, but he hasn’t recovered completely, and I don’t know if he ever will. And Wale is what Wale has always been: an occasional hitmaker who takes himself way too seriously and comes off like an asshole. If you carry yourself like an egotistical hair-trigger headcase, you have to be able to back it up. Wale just can’t. And imagine being an MMG B-teamer like Stalley or Rockie Fresh. Imagine realizing you had jumped onboard with the wrong team, that this was your life now.
Suddenly, though, there’s hope — for Ross, at least, if not for those other guys. Ross has a brand-new label deal with Epic, and on Friday, he released the new album Rather You Than Me, a piece of work that finds him sounding more urgent and energized than he’s been in recent years. I don’t know what happened. Ross hasn’t switched up his aesthetic approach; he’s still huffing grand and extravagant money-talk silliness over lush, orchestral beats. He’s still growling about drug-kingpin bona fides that everyone knows to be false. He’s effectively cut himself off from the rap mainstream, luxuriating in his own circa-2009 sound rather than attempting to stay caught up with what the kids are doing. But somehow, he’s reclaimed his larger-than-life status. He has returned, and he once again sounds like himself.
Consider the Rather You Than Me opening track “Apple Of My Eye.” The beat is beautiful, the sort of thing where you feel like you need to dress up nice and listen to it in a concert hall, possibly while watching the orchestra through a pair of those opera-glass binoculars. It’s got a hook from silky prestige-R&B veteran Raphael Saadiq, who sounds great. But Ross has no interest in matching those classiness levels. Instead, he indulges in soap-opera pettiness: “I told Meek I wouldn’t trust Nicki / Instead of beefing with your dog, you need to give ‘em some distance.” He does some nonsensical philosophizing: “I’m happy Donald Trump became the president / Because we gotta destroy before we elevate.” And he says a few things that are just gloriously gross: “Finger-fucking bitches in the holy water / Then I go and tell what happened to my only daughter.” He’s locked back into his old role, and he sounds so happy.
The Rather You Than Me track that everyone was talking about this weekend was “Idols Become Rivals,” the one where Ross finally attacks longtime ally Birdman. Not too long ago, those guys were talking about making a whole album together. But now, the brotherhood of flossy, aging, overweight, face-tattooed Southern rap icons has dissolved. Near the end of the song, Ross mutters that he loves Birdman, and he hates that he had to attack him. And his issues with Birdman make perfect sense: He’s mad at the way Birdman has been financially fucking Lil Wayne and all his other assorted proteges. But Ross sounds most incensed when he talks about meeting Birdman and realizing that he was wearing fake jewelry. To Ross, no sin could be worse.
That largesse is all over Rather You Than Me. Some of his lines read like expert Rick Ross parodies, lush and hedonistic to the point where they don’t actually make any sense: “Santorini, Greece: Sex in the swimming pool / If the pussy dry, call her Beetlejuice” (?). Sometimes, genuine human emotion creeps in, Ross letting us know how grateful he is to have come this far and still be alive: “Diabetes rampant inside my bloodline / That be why fatboy be happy to see the sunshine.” As a rapper, he’s as good as he’s ever been, riding beats hard and rarely wasting words. But the difference between Rather You Than Me and the last, say, four Rick Ross albums is tough to quantify. It’s more nebulous: He sounds comfortable inside his own skin, like he’s continuing to grow into the role that he’s been playing for more than a decade. Rick Ross turned 41 earlier this year. It’s been years since he was anywhere near the top of the rap pyramid. So it’s strange and low-key miraculous that he sounds so undiminished here, so ready to take over again.
Of course, he won’t take over again. Ross got exactly one day to bask in his achievement before Drake returned and sucked up all the oxygen in the room. Drake is more than a decade younger than Ross, and these days, he sounds it. On More Life, Drake’s sophisticated blend of global sounds comes across as something light years more advanced than Ross’ last-decade luxury raps. It doesn’t help that Drake throws a quick More Life subliminal at Ross — “Tell your big homie I’m all for going there again / He ain’t even die, and I ball with his inheritance” — a day after Ross rapped about calling him and patching things up. But Ross at least got that one day of sounding like a real honest-to-god rap star, of sounding like his old self again. That’s more than the rest of us will ever get.
1. Starlito & Don Trip – “Yeah 5X”
I haven’t yet had a chance to absorb Step Brothers 3, the new collaborative album from these two masterfully conversational Tennessee rappers who always sound better next to each other than they do alone. But this helium-soul throwback feels like as good a place to jump in as any.
2. Raekwon – “This Is What It Comes Too (Remix)” (Feat. Ghostface Killah)
Is the “too” in the title some kind of wordplay, or is it an accidental grammatical fuckup? I know I shouldn’t let this bother me, but I hate it. I do not, however, hate anything else about this song, which serves as a powerful reminder that Rae and Ghost are still good for about one absolute fucking banger a year.
3. Isa Muhammad – “Only 4 Diamonds”
Isa Muhammad is a formerly homeless rapper who got himself signed to MMG after he rapped for Rick Ross on the street. Earlier this year, he announced that he was quitting music. Maybe he meant that he was quitting making any music that MMG would have any interest in releasing. His new EP Safe Guard Your Joy is swampy, headblown, jazz-damaged art-rap, and I really like it.
4. Mike G – “Hypnotize” (Feat. Trae Tha Truth)
Once the understated secret weapon of Odd Future, Mike G is now teaming up with an in-the-cut Houston legend to make an expertly gooey stoner-rap track, going in over a synth that sounds like a frantic butterfly. Makes as much sense as anything else.
5. Iamsu! – “Addy” (Feat. Snoop Dogg)
It’s starting to feel like Iamsu! will be making endlessly breezy summer-afternoon Northern California party-rap jams until after the rest of us are long dead.