Rick Ross skillfully combines all of his personas and investigates Southern rap business practices on "Rather You Than Me."
Rick Ross is a former corrections officer from Miami who named himself after a drug kingpin from L.A., so naturally, his career was always going to suffer at least a bit from stylistic and thematic discord. He started off with pedestrian coke rap on Port of Miami, sounding like, as one pundit aptly put it yesterday, "Young Jeezy's Desiigner." He didn't peak until he decided that realism had absolutely no place in his music, with the twin pillars of Deeper Than Rap and Teflon Don functioning as opulent fantasy depictions of the mob life, and new-school trap music providing matching bombast. The Tony Montana fever dream well ran dry on 2014's Mastermind and Hood Billionaire, so Rozay tried Tony Soprano's grown man steez on for size on the following year's Black Dollar and Black Market, which suited him a bit better, though it wasn't quite as engrossing as his most heavily embellished fantasies. After more than a year off, he returns with Rather You Than Me, which is where all of his various personalities, real and fake, come home to roost.
We've met Rozay the cartoonish kingpin and Rozay the wise capo, but who we hadn't met until last week (at least in the man's music) was Rozay the successful label boss. Maybach Music Group isn't the biggest boutique label in hip hop, nor is it the one with the best track record of guaranteeing albums to its signees (paging Pill, Gunplay, Stalley, and Rockie Fresh), but especially for a big-time Southern label, it hasn't had to endure many disgruntled rants or lawsuits from its artists. Rick Ross grew up idolizing the "blessed" artists of No Limit and Cash Money, the triple platinum stars of the 1990s South who stunted with flashy cars (not rentals) and watches (not fake) in their videos, but somewhere in between Mannie Fresh leaving Cash Money over unpaid royalties and the Hot Boys' Turk failing to receive a a fitting welcome party from his former label when he returned home from jail, Ross grew disillusioned with that facade. He spends a good deal of RYTM explaining how he's tried to avoid following in Birdman's footsteps, but also finds plenty of time for his usual flair for the fantastic. As he puts it on "Trap Trap Trap," "In the jungle I'm Nas, in the label I'm Russ, in the trap I'm Rick Ross."
Rick Ross might name his daughter Hermes; he tells women his net worth just after entering them; he pays his lawyer's retainer with change he found in his kitchen cabinet; he finds out your watch is fake and it breaks his heart. This is still a man who primarily traffics in the outlandishly grandiose. The album's more languid moments match this side of him perfectly, the smooth jazz strains of "Apple of My Eye," "I Think She Like Me," and "Game Ain't Based On Sympathy" conjuring up idealized visions of Miami that look like Christopher Cross album covers. RYTM's bombastic moments are a little more hit-or-miss, as they've been on all Rozay albums outside of Teflon Don-- "Dead Presidents" is fine but it feels like something we've already heard a hundred times, ditto for "Summer Seventeen"-- but the flashy "Trap Trap Trap" and unrepentant "She On My Dick" make it clear that this is still a style Rozay should be including on his albums, as long as he's not building albums around it. These more vintage Rick Ross personas do still produce their fair share of face-palm bars though. For every nimble "Fresher than Groovey Lew at a Coogi shoot" there's a few filthy "Finger fuckin' bitches in the holy water/Then I go and tell what happened to my only daughter"s or "I'm happy Donald Trump became the president/Because we gotta destroy before we elevate"s. You don't get Rozay's most ridiculous, half-court jump shot lyricism without a few wildly off-target remarks.
The "successful music magnate" part of the album might be the best though. On one end of the spectrum, we get an unprecedented look into Ross' humble beginnings on poignant lines like "Half of my n****s headed to Attica, either traffickin' or destined to be a janitor/Diabetes rampant in my blood line, that why fat boy be happy to see the sunshine" and "A fat ugly n****, thought I'd never be nothin'/Another tree stump, happy with his free lunch." Then, with the pivotal "Idols Become Rivals" serving as the fulcrum, Rozay sets not only himself up for success, but his "Lil' bruh 'n 'em" too. Wale calls Ross the Lebron to his Kyrie. Ross recounts visiting Meek Mill in jail, something Birdman never did for Turk or BG. On "Triple Platinum," he takes stock of all he's accomplished with his label, and although MMG was founded long after the halcyon days of No Limit and Cash Money's huge sales numbers, he's found other, better ways to insure that everyone gets paid. "More money than them n****s that went triple platinum," he gloats, noticing that the financial struggles that affected nearly every one of his idols hasn't befallen anyone in his team, despite the fact that no MMG artists outside of Ross, Meek, and Wale have even gone Gold. Rozay may be a blustery icon of excess and materialism in modern rap, but he's got business savvy and loyalty that's rare for his position.
Rather You Than Me is two things: a Rick Ross retrospective and a behind-the-scenes history of Southern rap. The former is thrilling, if only to longtime Ross fans, because it's the first time Rozay's been able to synthesize all of his seemingly incongruous styles under one roof. The latter should appeal to any rap fan. "Idols Become Rivals" houses most of this underground info, from the revelation that Birdman capitalized on Scott Storch's drug-fueled bankruptcy by buying his foreclosed Miami home with publishing money that went unpaid to Cash Money artists, to the financial hole in which Stunna put DJ Khaled when he was signed to the label. This theme extends far beyond that track though, and gives Ross possibly the first real-life fuel that his music's ever had the opportunity to ignite. On RYTM, Rick Ross makes a transition that I've literally never seen anyone else, in or outside of hip hop, attempt: that from heavily fictionalized supervillain to a real-life crusader for justice.