Last night I went to a party in mid-city Los Angeles, on a street dotted with streetwear stores and little else, and watched Rick Ross sit on a couch and listen to his own album. It was perfect.
The paradigm of anti-credibility, Ross was once exposed by the Smoking Gun as a former corrections officer and (presumably) not the coke kingpin he claimed to be. That was in 2008, right as Ross was beefing with 50 Cent over nothing and won, and right before he became arguably the biggest rapper in the universe—and not just in a weight sense. The iceberg-like "B.M.F.," featuring Styles P, redefined the meaning of heaviness in hip-hop, and the subsequent album Teflon Don found a perfect balance between the all-caps street mysticism of lyrics like "ROZAY / THAT'S MY NICKNAME / COCAINE / RUNNIN THROUGH MY DICK VEIN" and luxe, reality-puncturing cuts like "Live Fast, Die Young," featuring Kanye West.
Ross has released some truly excellent projects—take Rich Forever, which is for my money still the best mixtape of 2012—as well as some total dogshit ones (mainly his albums, Mastermind and God Forgives, I Don't, which trend toward anemia). Still, just when you think Rick Ross is over, he bounces right back, lodging yet another hit or a damn near-perfect guest verse, entering rap's upper echelon seemingly through survival and sheer force of will. With his Maybach Music imprint, he's managed to diversify his reach throughout rap. His two biggest moves have been signing Philly's Meek Mill—undeniably one of the most important street rappers of the past five years—and Washington DC's Wale, who despite his tepid reputation on the more fashionable parts of the rap internet quietly managed to hit number one on the charts when he released The Album About Nothing this April. Wait, scratch that, I should have referred to Maybach Music Group as the Untouchable Maybach Music Empire, which is what Ross likes to call MMG sometimes and makes it him sound like a Hun.
Still, in the past few years (in my mind at least), Ross has come to represent hip-hop's bloated hair metal era, in which top-tier producers and guest vocalists are called in to ensure that an album is too big, too star-studded, appealing to too many demographics to fail. Ross's Mastermind featured 17 different producers and 11 guests, while God Forgives had 15 producers and 11 guests. His straight-ahead basso profundo rarely wavers, seldom deviating from its stated mission of telling the listener about his outlandish wealth, how hard he hustled to get it, and the degrees to which he will lavish women and eviscerate the men who stand in his way. But this is 2015, hip-hop's grunge era, in which idle talk and flash are passé. We want the hermetically sealed worlds of Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, the rawness of Future, the slipperiness and unpredictability of Young Thug.
Ross's newest album Black Market is due out on December 4. The record follows this summer's street album Black Dollar, as well as last year's excellent Hood Billionaire and aforementioned less-than-excellent Mastermind. If you attend a hip-hop listening party in the hopes of actually understanding what an album sounds like, you will inevitably be disappointed. But if you go simply to take in the vibe, the absurdity inherent to the music industry, the jubilance that one must feel every day being Rick Ross, it is amazing.
Ross took the stage around 8:30 PM by letting out a "RRRRUMPH!," his signature ad-lib that announces his presence on a track like a war drum, or the revving of a Bugatti engine. "I just wanna relax," he told the audience, before sitting down on a baroque black couch. Prior to playing the first track—"Free Enterprise," featuring John Legend—Ross announced that his album would be out "December 4... 12 AM tonight." I looked around the crowd, trying to figure out if everyone else had also just heard Rick Ross imply that he thought it was two weeks into the future. If everyone else was as perplexed as I was, they took care not to show it.
The best I could tell, Black Market follows the same template as his albums Mastermind and God Forgives, I Don't—which is to say it's the lush and unimaginative yacht-rap that Ross tends to gravitate toward when it comes time to release a proper album. It's not that Ross is bad in this mode—his verse on Kanye West's "Devil in a Red Dress" is perhaps the greatest example of luxury-rap excellence to date—it's just that Rick Ross is at his best when he's unpredictable, like when he's teaming up with Memphis legend Project Pat to release an ode to Miami's Elvis Presley Boulevard or remixing Adele's "Hello" for no discernible reason. The world does not necessarily need another hour of songs about fucking on helicopters and diamonds so shiny they might blind Ross's concubines, and yet, here we are.
Still, it's not like Ross is ever going to go anywhere. His voice, as rich and textured as velvet or a $75,000 bottle of cognac, is one of the best instruments in all of music, on par with Isaac Hayes's vocals in the pure pleasure it conveys. Every Rick Ross album is guaranteed to offer two or three tracks that sound as good as anything else in rap, and Black Market is no different: These tracks roll over you, bathing you in vibes, if not necessarily holding your attention the entire time. Ross was clearly feeling them, too—he spent the entirety of the tracks I stuck around for simply sitting on the couch, head bowed, swaying along with the music, as if in a trance. It is this, Ross's unshakeable belief in his own supremacy in the face of all that opposes him, that keeps him around.
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