Breaking down what makes Rick Ross a true boss.
Hip-hop has built an enduring monument to the come up. To the struggle, often overcome through sheer grit and audacity. This monument is at once unnerving and enthralling: a stark reminder of the institutional failings that marginalize black communities and birthed a music genre in perpetual revolt; at the same time an exciting journey for hopeful, young rappers and their fans, where tenacity and self-confidence construct a narrative with heroes immortal and where that journey has no limits. This dualism is further complicated by the reality that new avenues of freedom always generate craftier systems of control. And in the music industry, artists of color feel this more acutely than anyone. In the 1990s Prince endured a protracted legal battle with Warner Bros. Records over artistic ownership, one that culminated in him performing with the word “SLAVE” written over his face. Earlier, Ice Cube had confronted those barriers with a baseball bat in the offices of Priority Records. And in 2013, Kanye West devoted an album and a string of frenzied interviews to tackling corporate control. Where there’s a slave (and they all felt that), there’s someone in charge. The owner, the Boss. That’s something Rick Ross must have been tapping into when he set out to brand his music.
Boss is the obverse to SLAVE. In this sense, Ross’ ideology is the come up on a bigger scale, one more way of wrestling control from external forces. And like any come-up, it begins with self-confidence that borders on self-delusion. Remember Rick Ross dropping into the game on “Hustlin’” with no street cred to back up his bars? That single heralded his arrival with a bang. Its first line introduced him as the “Boss” we never knew Miami had, one with connections to Noriega and Pablo Escobar. It didn’t matter that so much of this had been fabricated, that a couple years later 50 Cent would out him as a former corrections officer who had, on a whim, decided to take up rapping. Teflon Don’s boss aesthetic begins with subterfuge— fake it ‘til you make it.
And he sure made it. Port of Miami went platinum, and by his next album he could deliver that timeless celebrity boast, “You know me,” without actually having revealed any depth to his story. What we do know about Rick Ross is built on fantasy (he borrowed his name from a famous drug kingpin); and his music career is an ongoing extension of these fantasies, each new album a more indulgent, immersive reverie. In this sense, Teflon Don was a cinematic masterpiece, delivered at a crucial moment when Ross was facing criticism over his authenticity. It was the moment he showed that his kind of Boss doesn’t backpedal. Rick Ross is the kind of Boss that pushes deeper into the special effects and theatrics, because by that point the fantasies had become reality.
That isn’t meant as entirely critical. Rick Ross’s doctrine is not perfect, but it does speak to a certain kind of Boss ethos. It’s tempting, because he makes it so easy, to go after his buffoonery, his platitudes on success, his middle-tier entrepreneurial ventures that leave him looking like a poor-man’s Jay Z. But when you consider the bleak economic opportunities available to people of color, his story represents a more accessible come up— he is the Everyman Boss. The come up that Rick Ross follows doesn’t pretend to be revolutionary, it’s quite conservative in its aims. Since when does orthodoxy preclude sincerity, though?
Earlier this year, Rick Ross bought a Checkers franchise in Carol City, Miami, his hometown. A promotional video revealed that this wasn’t just another fast-food joint added to his portfolio. He invested in the exact franchise he had spent his paycheck on every day as a kid after long hours at the car wash across the street. A simple story. Nonetheless, it is shaped by more sincerity than has ever touched his music, and it highlights the moral imperative that drives so much of his Boss doctrine. “Buy Back the Block” isn’t just hot wind, it’s Rick Ross pushing against those systems of control that drove Prince to write “SLAVE” on his face; he has positioned his community for a shot at equality by bringing empathetic leadership to their businesses. Because a Boss needs ownership. Tangible, hard cash (or a couple dozen Wingstops). Untethered from the control of the original bosses, he can make moves that empower workers and react to their unique socioeconomic condition.
The larger question raised is if his ownership— endorsements and the businesses— make him complicit in a bigger system of control. There’s no denying that, on a day-to-day level, Rick Ross’ endorsements are Boss moves. Not only is a filling his pockets, but as the face of Bumbu Rum, Cîroc, and Belaire, he influences a whole generation’s tastes and party behavior. What does it mean, though, when he doesn’t have a say in pricing, and encourages fans without much money to drop four hours’ pay on a bottle of vodka? It’s a question that won’t lead very far, and one that could just as easily be aimed at A$AP Mob’s AWGE apparel, or your favorite athlete’s Nike collab. Keeping it on Rick Ross, we can pose the question differently: He has left an indelible mark on the community by leading the way in black business ownership, inspiring younger generations and hiring black workers, but how much can we expect him to push against the private equity firms that control the franchise when they want to restructure the company? Or, when workers at his twenty-five Wingstops all want higher wages? This isn’t suggesting that he’s running on the Diddy model (sweatshops in Honduras), but it’s a challenge posed to his kind of Boss because of how traditionalist the doctrine really is.
Even with all that, a bet on Rick Ross’ good character wouldn’t be misplaced. The key feature that completes his Boss aesthetic is the same thing that led him back to Checkers— count on Rick Ross to look after the younger generations. In the music industry, that centerpiece is Maybach Music Group. His ownership has quickly transformed into something like a wise patriarchy, where he can be counted on to give artists guidance, a fair shake, and a chance at growth. Think to that rapey line on “U.O.E.N.O.” that lost him a Reebok endorsement; the Boss of Rick Ross albums would have ignored it and pushed forward, but the man behind Maybach Music explicitly referred to it as a “learning situation” for artists on his label. As a businessman, Rick Ross’ decisions are characterized by this more responsible, forward-thinking attitude. Interviewed on The Brilliant Idiots, he outlined the work ethic he expects his artists to abide by when recording, saying, “This is the studio, this is about business.” It’s a motto that translates into a very exclusive recording space— no posse and no girlfriends. Just like any good Boss, Rick Ross leads by example. In the last ten years he has released nine studio albums, almost as many mixtapes, and five collaborative albums.
And Rick Ross continuously lifts up younger talent, not just those artists he already has. To this day, even as Maybach’s star dwindles, he hasn't slowed down signing new artists. Ross has acknowledged that he often chooses passion over talent, convinced that the latter can be cultivated down the road—a fitting attitude for a guy whose own music career prioritized style over quality, but also telling of his relationship to people under him. Videos of Rick Ross depict a loveable goofball palling around with his artists or with Wingstop workers behind the register. Because he's a Boss that respects the hustle, any hustle. Sam Sneak, Maybach’s touring DJ, was perhaps the earliest beneficiary of this respect. At just fourteen-years-old, he snuck into a Miami nightclub to meet Rick Ross, then just a local rapper, and so impressed him that Ross immediately hired Sneak. In the years since, Ross has become something of a father-figure to Sam Sneak, as he has for many of his artists. It seems inevitable, then, that this month Rick Ross would reignite a feud with Birdman over the Cash Money mogul's shady business practices and mistreatment of Lil Wayne. You can look at it like a Boss showing a pretender how it should be done, but it could just as accurately be described as parenting disagreements.
Good deeds aside, there is an element of publicity and theatrics that needs to be acknowledged in this whole Boss image— it’s not like Rick Ross is entirely benevolent. His brief tenure as an advice columnist in Rolling Stone was as much a branding campaign as a Boss-effort to help out people on their come up. You can’t expect anyone to actually believe his cheesy proverbs on success or recommendations to cheat on exams. Like his Snapchat stories, and even the Birdman beef, those are stunts that build hype around the idea of being a Boss.
These are motivations to be aware of, but they don’t diminish his more substantive contributions, the moves that really make him a Boss. In terms of reach and long-term value, Rick Ross’ most important contribution has been his quietest one. Last year his franchises paired with Wingstop’s philanthropic arm to fund grants so local kids and employees could pay for school. So perhaps it was too hasty of a judgement to say that he isn't revolutionary. What has more potential for change than giving the next generations the means to bring that revolution, to make the world just a little more equal?
Picture this: No fancy ribbon cutting ceremony, no Ricky Rozay pulling up in his Maybach, just some kids diligently filling out applications to pay for textbooks and tuition. If nothing else, the Boss in him is guided by that hopeful kid he once was, washing cars for pocket change in Carol City.