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Where Exactly Does Rick Ross Fit in the Modern Rap Landscape?

With his 11th album, ‘Richer Than I Ever Been,’ Rozay struggles to reconcile his knack for embellishment with the sparser, darker tendencies in contemporary hip-hop

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last Thursday, Kanye West and Drake called a truce and put on a concert in Los Angeles to petition for legendary gangster Larry Hoover’s release from federal prison. To date, Hoover has served 48 years on convictions for conspiracy, extortion, and murder.

You have questions? I lack answers. Where do you even start? How would Drake performing “Way 2 Sexy” for 70,000 attendees at the L.A. Coliseum somehow culminate in Hoover walking off his six consecutive life sentences? How did Kanye talk Amazon into cosponsoring such a campaign? And, most importantly, where was Kanye and Drake’s greatest partner in common? Where was the Larry Hoover superfan, Rick Ross?

Turns out he was busy releasing an album. On Friday, Ross dropped his eleventh record, Richer Than I Ever Been, a musical cul-de-sac for a rapper who once lorded over hip-hop with a two-tone Audemars Piguet strapped to his iron fist. It’s been 10 years since Ross created an ongoing crisis in his musical career with the release of two very different projects, six months apart. Rich Forever was a white tee masterpiece; God Forgives, I Don’t was a black tie disaster. The former promoted Rick Ross to the highest command of trap music. The latter squandered Ross’s standing with too much orchestration and too many guests. He’s since struggled to reconcile his knack for absurdist embellishment and his taste for deliciously overdecorated samples with the sparser, darker tendencies in contemporary hip-hop.

Ross remains an outsized character in the hip-hop landscape: He’s the mob boss with a heart of gold. He’s an invaluable partner on songs with Kanye, Drake, and Lil Wayne; yet Ross’s own albums tend to come and go without distinction. His latest albums aren’t bad—they’re just so far beyond the mainstream viability of Ross’s neo-mafioso schtick. Richer opens, naturally, with the incarcerated drug kingpin and fellow Miami native Willie Falcon heaping gratitude upon Ross via landline from the same penitentiary that also houses Hoover. But the album then smudges so many other bits of Ross’s signatures: the ostentatious beats, the vivid and ridiculous boasts, the invincibility in his voice. By every measure, Richer tones Rick Ross down and leaves him sounding more marginal than he should.

Sometimes Ross revels in his neutralized position. Sometimes he makes his near obsolescence look like retirement to a private island in the Caribbean. But sometimes, as on much of Richer, he’s too laid-back to matter. He’s curating the best beats he’s heard in a while without straining to elevate the production. His best guests, Wale (“Blog-era supervillain, I been hard to kill” on “Warm Words in a Cold World”) and Benny the Butcher (“I know you wanna take it so that’s why I wear it” on “Rapper Estates”), can say only so much to support an exhausted host. Worse yet, Richer suffers from some turnover among Ross’s producers. Richer retains DJ Toomp (“Imperial High”) and Boi-1da (“Little Havana,” “Rapper Estates”) but sorely lacks the key-change theatrics and nouveau riche Muzak Ross often records with J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League. He’s also missing the bombast he once brought to his biggest hits with the “B.M.F.” producer Lex Luger. The all-too-brief height of Ross’s energy on Richer is “Wiggle,” an irredeemably goofy dance track with DreamDoll.

Historically, there’s so much to love about Ross. He’s big, imperious, and preposterous. In his prime creative streak—from 2008’s Trilla through 2012’s Rich Forever—Ross was in large part distinguished by the grandeur of his delusions. He’d be rapping about crabmeat, strip clubs, and 9/11 in all caps over a horn sample like the opening theme of The Love Boat. This was madness. But he’s not Action Bronson; in his absurdity Ross cultivated a certain gravitas. He’d start shouting about W.E.B. Du Bois and mechanical royalties in all seriousness on a song with Yo Gotti. Even the worst Rick Ross albums, such as God Forgives, at least tend to impress you in some distasteful way—much like the worst James Bond movies. Richer isn’t the worst Rick Ross album per se. It’s just the worst kind of Rick Ross album—one that’s too small to sound much like a Rick Ross album at all.

But this is the same Rick Ross who just a few months ago barked his way to the front of a great collaboration with Drake and Wayne on “You Only Live Twice.” He’s no longer a trap tyrant at the height of his powers, but he can still steal a show. He can still have me wondering whether Kanye and Ross together at the L.A. Coliseum on December 9 might have liberated Hoover four minutes into “Devil in a New Dress.”