These days, Rick Ross might best resemble Tony in the pilot episode of The Sopranos: standing over a grill in his golf polo, looking out at his precious, healthy, ordered ducks, taking in the glow of the golden hour with a lit cigar. His pool is big and his house is even bigger. Things are stable, which is as close as they get to being good in this wacky business. 2010’s Teflon Don, produced at the height of Ross’s myth-making, was The Godfather, while his 10th album is much closer to the ground—15 tracks, featuring another sturdy, posthumous Nipsey Hussle verse, and finding Ross settled into a groove, if not at his very best. Port of Miami 2 sounds like it was finished in the Sopranos’ suburban home, where The Godfather is just another movie replaying on AMC.
Not that Ross has lost his taste for the fantastical: On the album’s standout, “Turnpike Ike,” after the piano keys but before the strings kick in, he declares he can no longer be fucked like a king, because, “she gotta make love to me like I’m an emperor.” A minute later we’re told he has 20 houses, 50 cars, and access to Oprah’s yacht. As always, any time spent thinking about how much of this you can take to the bank is much better spent basking—Rick Ross’s allure has always been tied to how well he can weave a fiction. In 2006, when his first single, “Hustlin’,” happened—not “dropped,” or “arrived,” but happened—he’d already bought six Dodge Magnums, and his operation was already trans-Atlantic. The story didn’t need to be true to be exciting. He shook concrete with every piece of emphasis in this line: “Who the fuck you think you talkin’ to, I’m the fuckin’ BOSS.”
The “Boobie Boys” tee and crinkly raw denim of Ross’s label debut appears modest next to, say, the traditionalist fantasy and silk robes of Deeper Than Rap opener “Mafia Music,” which catches Ross stalking the halls of his mansion, eating lobster tail, gazing into the distance from stucco balconies while giant curtains sway filmily in the breeze. Music writer Paul Thompson said, not about Ross, that the easy line on rap is that it’s poetry, “but the best rap is really cut from dense crime novels.” It’s a good nodal point of critique—especially when considering Ross, his made-man status, and his various illegal revenue streams.
First with Port of Miami and then Trilla, Ross cemented a hustler’s persona, becoming one of Def Jam South’s biggest cash cows in the process, along with Young Jeezy. He’d gone from riding Daytons to cutting eyes through the cracked windows of Maybachs, from switching lanes to whipping speedboats, from strength to strength, all off of drug money, in this world he created. Then in 2009, 50 Cent “outed” Ross as a former corrections officer which, along with the tepid critical reaction to his first two albums, could and should and might have, in a previous era, diminished his commercial appeal. But instead of backtracking or explaining anything, Ross doubled down with Deeper Than Rap, exploding his alter ego beyond its logical, extravagant extreme. (On a song literally titled “Yacht Club,” he tours the Caribbean with his ill-gotten gains and a gaggle of women who don’t speak English, imagining himself as the black Tommy Lee.) He appeared on an XXL cover that year blowing cigar smoke, next to a pull quote that read “I never had a credibility problem and still don’t.” It didn’t really matter that his origin story was fishy, just like it didn’t really matter that his Louis Vuitton sunglasses were fake, so long as his work was making a lot of money for someone (Def Jam, his peers), which is largely why he survived 50’s offensive. In the same way that many of today’s TV antiheroes are somewhat indebted to Tony Soprano, both Drake (former Degrassi star turned mob boss) and Pusha T (coke rap specialist who hasn’t touched a brick in well over a decade) owe a little to Rick Ross. Many rap fans view Ross brushing off 50’s attacks as an acceleration point in the loosening of rap’s strictures on “realness.” “The rumors turn me on, I’m masturbating at the top,” he raps on “Mafia Music.”
But the thing about being Tony Soprano is that reality eventually intrudes, and the ducks all fly away. There’s a lot of writing about what exactly the ducks in The Sopranos represent; the only thing you really need to know is that they trigger the panic attack that finally sends Tony to therapy.
We almost lost Rick Ross last year. On March 1, the 42-year-old rapper was “found unresponsive” in his Florida home, “slobbing from the mouth.” A similar incident happened in 2011 en route to the opening of one of his Wingstop restaurants in Memphis; Ross swept aside any public concern on 2012’s God Forgives, I Don’t, proclaiming that the second of two seizures that year was the result of a mile-high blowjob. This go-around, Ross has been glamorizing his health scare in a, uh, different way. From Gucci Mane’s most recent album:
Bend over, I got a bitch I pay to wipe my ass
Caught a seizure, I’m the shit, this time I peed my pants
He mentions the seizure in passing a few times on Port of Miami 2, but confronts it most directly on “I Still Pray,” which begins with an imitation news blast about his condition, beeping medical equipment, and Ross waking from a coma with tubes down his throat. “You could have the biggest clique, but you gon’ die a loner,” he raps. Listening to the sequel to his debut, it’s impossible not to think about the ways in which Ross—and the appeal of Ross—has been cowed by time. His voice doesn’t come through as forcefully as it used to, with the noted exception of album opener “Act a Fool.” But he’s comfortable now, and doing just fine—“I lost some weight, and now designers wanna get to know me” he raps on the appropriately named, for this legacy phase of his career, “Vegas Residency.”
Ross’s rise began during an economic downturn, his commercial peak was at some point during the Obama years. As the years have worn on, and as general skepticism has grown, his myth-making and maximalist approach have become a little less en vogue, his preoccupations a little more quotidian. Later on “Vegas Residency,” he references his scrape with mortality again, but it’s really a line about the American health care system: “Another seizure so I woke up in intensive care / Pray you treat a poor man like you treat a millionaire.”
As everyone pores over Port of Miami 2, “Maybach Music VI” will obviously grab the most headlines, for its conspicuously absent Pusha T verse, and also because it’s the most expensive-sounding song on the album. That drama is by design. Speaking to Peter Rosenberg on Hot 97 on the day the album was released, Ross gazed into the future and saw a Drake-Kanye–Lil Wayne–Pusha T record, and saw that he was involved in it.
Will that happen for “Maybach Music VII?” Probably not. But don’t you want to believe it?