Rick Ross has made a career off directly opposing the idea of rap as reality, painting gangster tales with strokes so broad and bold that the final product seemed exaggerated even before we learned of his past as a corrections officer. This approach was novel for a while, producing the brilliantly mafioso'd Deeper Than Rap and the unrepentant, trap-popularizing swagger of Teflon Don, but when we arrived at two more full-lengths last year, Rozay seemed winded. Everyone's in danger of running out of subject matter, even when it's fictitious. 

After laying low and giving a few of his Maybach Music Group signees a leg-up earlier this year, the once-boisterous Miami native found new life in the luxuriant, laid-back style he'd only briefly touched upon before. The Black Dollar tape was more conducive to chin-stroking and stogie-smoking than turning up, and in the end, much more enjoyable than Mastermind and Hood Billionaire. Perhaps capitalizing on the positive reception, or else unfolding a more long-term plan, Ross has quickly followed it up with an album that's very much on the same page. Black Market, like the tape, presents itself as a fine scotch to the preceding albums' Jack Daniels (just look at that fucking fedora on the deluxe cover), but this time even more so, bringing in parent-friendly singers John Legend, Cee-Lo Green, Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige. With a pair of adult-contempo (at least by Ross' standards) tracks opening things up, the album intially seems like it'll be more tasteful and mature than his 2014 albums, but then we get to "Dope Dick" and that all but evaporates. 

"Maturation" isn't really the right word to describe what's happening here-- Ross is by no means the measured, venerated Marlon Brando of "The Godfather" to his former self's DeNiro in "Godfather 2." Instead, Black Market comes across the gritty cable drama response to the opulent and cartoonish mob films of the '70s and '80s. In other words, Ross depicts himself as Tony Soprano rather than Tony Montana. Mountains of coke and chainsaw murders are replaced by financial stress ("Forclosures") and realistic depictions of conflict (as Ross focuses more on his rap game rivals than imagined ones in cartels). In the place of Big Meech fantasies are grown-ass man problems, albeit with the crude humor and competitive nature of a crime-lifer still intact. The grotesque sex songs, "Peace Sign" as well as "Dope Dick," even bring to mind all those times we had to witness a wife beater-clad Tony huffing and puffing on top of women who were well out of his league. 

Ross never matches the grace he displays on Rockie Fresh's recent "Thank You," a glimmering, nostalgic slice of life that almost renders all of his recent solo work comical, but for once in his career, he shows self-awareness. "Silk Road," a highlight that could almost stand in for "100 Black Coffins" in "Django Unchained," finds Ross offering an honest summation of his heavily stylized career: "I entertain n*ggas under poverty lines / So I paint these pretty pictures as part of my rhymes." Of course, this pertains to more than his epic frescos of mafia dreams, and his aspirational, luxury brand bars are stepped up as well, with vivid descriptions of say, bamboo-handled Birkin bags, offering poetic displays of top-tier shopping experiences. 

At this point, the MMG heavyweight doesn't seem like he's capable of delivering full-lengths as consistently thrilling and entertaining as his mid-career high points, but going forward, Black Market stands as a much better model for success than either of his 2014 projects. By firing shots at his former collaborator Drake on "Color Money" and "Ghostwriter," he stays current, but tempers any sort of modernist trend-chasing with a refinement that he's sorely lacked for years. His timeline can almost be plotted by the producers he favors, beginning with lush J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League fare, moving onto Lex Luger's high-octane compositions, and now settling into a comfortable rhythm atop Jake One, DJ Premier and Jahlil Beats tracks. Despite his gangster persona, Rozay doesn't seem like he wants to go out in a auditory blaze of try-hard automatic weapon fire; instead, Black Market suggests that it's more likely that he'll sit down to a gourmet meal, flip on a classic, and fade to black.