Rick Ross albums sound expensive. That’s maybe the most broad and basic observation you could make about his music, and about the guy himself, since Ross speaks in grandiose bootstrap platitudes and affected earnings-call English. He’s scathing, and he’s funny, especially in interviews, but flaunting wealth is Rick Ross’s dominant posture — his forte, his own, personal genre. Kanye West albums sound expensive, but in a markedly different sense; his songs are all overproduced, and in many cases (such as “Otis”) Kanye makes a point of sampling popular music with prohibitively expensive clearance fees. Plus, Kanye married into the Kardashian clan and is thus — unlike most other rappers — credibly rich.
Rick Ross, on the other hand, associates himself with wealth by characterizing it very effectively, and obsessively, in every last cranny of his songs and marketing, down to his song titles. The track list of his latest album, Rather You Than Me — out Friday — is a litany of classic hip-hop luxury lingo (“Dead Presidents”), Illuminati-core buzzwords (“Scientology,” “Powers That Be”), and first-class Mad Libs (“Santorini Greece”). There’s a song on here called “Triple Platinum,” on which Rick Ross, a musician who, for the record, has only barely platinum album, lists more than a dozen achievements of luxury consumption (“Versace drawers,” “forty cars,” “double Rs,” etc.) that bestow upon him the confidence of a rapper (such as Nicki Minaj) who has actually gone triple platinum. I dare anyone to identify a rapper who conveys wealth so wildly. It’s bullshit, of course: Who cares? If there is a single virtue that American creators and critics overvalue in all lanes of entertainment — music, literature, TV, film — it is realism. Rick Ross defies realism. Rick Ross is the richest man on the planet.
The fantasy was sustainable for much longer than Ross’s many detractors and fact checkers ever thought possible. As it stands now, however, Maybach Music Group is hip-hop’s Ottoman Empire — a once-formidable power plagued by great miscalculations, overreach, incoherence, and bad luck. Meek Mill may never fully recover from his ill-advised feud with Drake. Wale, once a college-crowd favorite in the same class as his friend (turned frenemy) J. Cole, now finds himself marginalized on all fronts, the occasional, generic R&B crossover record notwithstanding. Gunplay, the squad’s wild-card muscle, has struggled with drug addiction and failed to release music with any consistency since 2012. MMG is a rap label whose most successful chart performance of the past couple of years has come from the singer Omarion.
As much as MMG positioned itself as a throwback to the Cosa Nostra posturing of Roc-A-Fella records, the truth is that street rap isn’t the cash cow it was in the 2000s, and so MMG quickly proved out of sync with real stars such as Drake, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar. As a solo artist, Ross barks, and his heaviest cadences can bend even the deepest trap booms to his will, but the simplicity of his persona deprives him of dynamism and range. Rather You Than Me is Ross’s fifth album in the past four years, a period during which Ross has proved once and again that he really did peak in 2012 with Rich Forever.
As an outsize personality who’s nonetheless relevant in terms of celebrity, he’s now been reduced to baiting and trolling, though I hesitate to say “reduced,” since Ross’s offhand irreverence is more entertaining than many of his competitors’ entire albums. He spent the better half of 2015 taunting Cash Money Records CEO Birdman and otherwise speaking rather ominously about Drake. On “Idols Become Rivals,” he accuses Birdman of child molestation, at least figuratively, regarding his alleged financial mismanagement of Lil Wayne. (He takes another, lighter jab at Birdman on “Scientology,” referring to an infamous photo of Birdman and Lil Wayne kissing.) In the first song on Rather You Than Me, Ross fires off a clickbait non sequitur about yet another Cash Money figure, Nicki Minaj. “I told Meek I wouldn’t trust Nicki,” Ross raps, referring to his protégé’s quickly deepening rift with his ex-girlfriend. There’s no good reason for Ross to involve himself so publicly in Meek’s misfortune, certainly not at this late stage. The only reason for Rick Ross to burst like the Kool-Aid Man onto the scene of this breakup is because he is one of the elite few rappers, including Remy Ma and Lil’ Kim, who is brave enough to troll Nicki Minaj. (Nicki’s previous ex, Safaree, also a troll, doesn’t count as a rapper because nobody wants to hear Safaree rap.)
Drake has a song called “Summer Sixteen.” Rick Ross has a song on Rather You Than Me called “Summer Seventeen.” While “Summer Seventeen,” one of the weaker songs on the album, isn’t very good, what is very good is that Rick Ross has a song on here called “Summer Seventeen.” Rick Ross is the Mister Mxyzptlk of rap music.
Elsewhere, Rick Ross has a song called “Same Hoes.” He released it in June, and while it didn’t make the album, it’s the very best snapshot of Ross’s appeal to the corner of hip-hop that still cherishes him. “Same Hoes” is a song where Ross raps, “Me and Steve Harvey fuck the same hoes.” In the chorus, Rick Ross names Justin Bieber, Chris Brown, Snoop, and a few other celebrities with whom he shares romantic partners. The point, I suppose, is not just that Biebz and Rozay have sex with the same women, but also that Ross is hilariously brazen enough to ground a whole single in that observation. Think of “Same Hoes” as the definitive trap version of Game and Kanye’s “Wouldn’t Get Far,” which is itself a chipmunk-soul homage to 2Pac’s “All About U.” There’s very little musical innovation happening here, but not for lack of imagination. Ross’s brain is still a massively fascinating playground for the (not actually) rich and (quite unlikely to ever become) famous.
The most important song on Rather You Than Me is “Maybach Music V,” the fifth entry in a series of decidedly overelaborate songs — complete with strings sections, key changes, and interludes — that Rozay has included on many of his albums since he included the original “Maybach Music,” featuring Jay Z, on his 2008 sophomore effort, Trilla. The “Maybach Music” series is where Rick Ross really shines, as these songs are where his maximalism maxes out. The original “Maybach Music V,” recorded a few years ago but never released, reportedly featured Bobby Womack (who died in 2014, God rest the dead). The “Maybach Music V” on Rather You Than Me has DeJ Loaf rapping a ride-or-die love story in 16 bars only to have Ross start free-associating lyrics about fine dining, Meryl Streep, and ’90s R&B. This bizarre, clueless extravagance is what Rick Ross has always done best, and done exclusively well, despite how frivolous and absurd he often sounds.
There’s a famous scene in Goldfinger where the titular villain assassinates his own assistant, whom James Bond has seduced, by having his henchman, Oddjob, incapacitate her and paint every inch of her skin with a gold paint that apparently suffocates her. Now, you’d most likely imagine Rick Ross as Auric Goldfinger orchestrating this elaborate hit. But I like to think of Rick Ross as Jill Masterson — with a twist. Ross’s old archnemesis 50 Cent would try to drown him in lethal gold body paint. Rick Ross would not only survive; he’d enjoy it.