Art by Matthew Eisman
Abe Beame knows Jesse Jackson’s on them people’s payroll.
With hindsight, we can all look back and imagine there were clear signs and harbingers of what was coming for us with the presidential election of 2016. There was Brexit, the election of conservative governors in the four swing states in the Rust Belt, and a smug Hillary Clinton raising her arms on a convention stage and declaring to a nation of opiate-addled, distracted Americans in the withdrawal stages of late Capitalism that, “America has never stopped being great.” But for me, the clearest indication, the first canary in the coal mine, is this list I’ve compiled of the most important rapper of each calendar year dating back to 2010:
2010: Kanye West
2012: Rick Ross
2013: Kendrick Lamar
2014: Nicki Minaj
2016: Travis Scott
2018: Cardi B
Centuries from now, when this blog and all its posts have been transcribed to stone tablets and stored in the Library of Congress, there is only one inclusion on this list that will be impossible to understand but will explain everything future generations need to know about when exactly it was our country came untethered from reality. The way I compiled this list was both empirically: in terms of production, quantifiable popularity and revenue earned, and also subjectively: who was the most coveted feature, whose hit got the most requests at the club, what ticket was impossible to get when the tour came to New York? And to the aliens browsing through our post-apocalyptic records I can definitively tell you that as you consider this list, hell, when I consider this list, the hardest, most implausible, most incredible to understand or explain inclusion is for a brief moment in this late date in our culture, Rick Ross, a.k.a. Ricky Rozay, a.k.a. The Teflon Don, a.k.a. @richforever a.k.a. Renzel, a.k.a. Officer Ricky, had an untouchable and unimpeachable run of sustained dominance.
This would be equally difficult to explain if you were to travel back in time to break the news to hip hop fans in 2006. Ross emerged at a fraught moment, as what many old school alarmists considered a battle for our souls was being waged everyday in the streets, on the radio, on blogs and message boards. It’s well trodden territory we don’t need to rehash, but Ross’ place in it was as an afterthought, a derivative of Jeezy and the snap rappers running Atlanta that were all but certain to destroy hip hop and by extension an entire generation one lazy bar at a time. He was another voice in a chorus of deleterious mediocrity, a paper kingpin with faux Miami Vice swag that no one really subscribed to.
Because Rick Ross isn’t even Rick Ross. He was born William Leonard Roberts II. “Freeway” Rick Ross is an actual drug kingpin, who was amidst an ultimately reduced life sentence in prison when the rapper who took his name gained prominence with his breakout Def Jam single, 2006’s “Hustlin.” The “real” Rick Ross attempted to sue him twice for ten million dollars beginning in 2010. While this act of borrowed christening has been common throughout the history of hip hop (Ross’ foil and would be destroyer stole his moniker from a Brooklyn stick up kid and there’s another rapper named Freeway), with Ross it feels particularly pertinent. He’s a rapper whose identity has been a constant point of contention. It’s difficult to discuss Rick Ross without considering who he is and what he means to the culture.
That question came into focus in 2008 when The Smoking Gun unearthed evidence that Ross had worked as a corrections officer for 18 months beginning in 1995. The irony was so perfect it could’ve been torn from an unbearably on the nose rap satire in Spike Lee’s Final Draft. It should have been a career killer. The self-professed, exorbitantly wealthy drug lord had been making less than 40k a year as a cut rate cop a decade prior. It was fresh meat for the “keep it real” demo.
In just the last 20 years, we as a culture rejected no less a luminary than Prodigy because there were pictures of him in dancer poses as a child. Ja Rule’s career was killed by 50 Cent because his street credentials paled in comparison. 50 had famously made his bones being shot nine times and surviving after dry snitching on “Ghetto Quran.” Ja, who still probably is attached to more bodies and dirty money than 50 ever will be, was exposed, pretty much fairly, for making corny music and being a douche. But when you consider what these altercations said about us as people, it emphasized this old, supremely stupid rubric grading the perceived authenticity of the artist that goes back to the late 80s.
When 50 Cent decided to mobilize on Ross, all that was left was the formality of tagging the corpse to wheel away. But instead they engaged in a long, childish, offensive feud that is still going on. Both sides have declared victory multiple times, and few people have ever cared about the beef. It was effectively ended in 2009 with the release of Deeper Than Rap, then definitively ended in 2010 with Teflon Don, two number one albums that succeeded improbably in the face of the “revelations.” The ascendance of Ross in the wake of the CO scandal could be seen as the flash point for hip hop; when we officially cut the cord with the old reality of authenticity and traditional masculinity. What happened was relatively simple and incredibly complex: Ross dropped the pretense, and so did we.
At his apex, Ross is the first rapper I can recall considered a content creator. While it’s good we no longer evaluate our rap music based on rap sheets, in the exchange the very essential sense of personhood has largely been severed from the artist. I know Jay-Z is from Marcy Projects, it informs his music and the way I think about his music in relation to Shawn Carter the artist and human being who makes music, and whom I read countless Source features on as a kid. Ross didn’t have that same bond with his audience, the same familial relationship, and he didn’t need it. I don’t know anything about where he was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi or where he was raised in Carol City, Florida and the only reason I’ve ever even heard of those two places is because I just found it on his Wikipedia page and it doesn’t add or detract anything from the body of work I was already familiar with [ed. note: Rick Ross is from the home of the blues? wow]. We now endorse people’s brands, not people. More than ever before in the public imagination the personality is a series of successful posts. As far as I can tell in rap music, this impersonality, once unthinkable in our biggest stars, began with Rick Ross.
When the walls started to close in and the facade started to crumble, Ross went mask off by having the mask surgically attached to his face. He took what was already absurdist, fantastical Michael Bay rap and super sized it. He released two singles on the exact same beat and they’re both fucking monsters and I love them both and can’t tell you which is better. He exposed our stupidity, our desire for escapism. It’s Soderberg after Schizopolis or PTA after Magnolia, the failure that leads to freedom. In retrospect he sounds relieved.
He could stop being real and start doing what he had always been primarily interested in: swaddling his audience in velour Prada jumpsuits, blowing lines of raw uncut, drinking Ace of Spades out of the bottle and captaining a double decker yacht with us and the extras in The Wolf of Wall Street across the Gulf. Ross is the Uber middle child of history, a cipher raised on a steady diet of Don Diva back issues, Robin Leach re-runs, Rayful Edmond barber shop DVDs and foie gras terrines. It’s all second hand and learned, an entire shorthand language built in reference. And we loved him for it (Here’s something you learn when you’re working on a Rick Ross career summation: I think part of his fame has to do with how much music writers like to write about him. As you leaf through old reviews you see a kind of gamesmanship unfolding with one white nerd after another trying to drop the most outlandish, elaborate, materialist reference. Writing about Rick Ross essentially requires you to become Rick Ross. And as it turns out, being Rick Ross is a lot of fun!).
But I think it’s more complicated and sinister than that we as a fan base have rejected the idea of authenticity merely because it’s stupid. We as a people have rejected the idea because it’s impossible. As the decade has progressed our institutions, heroes and paragons of supposed virtue have fallen with such alarming speed that we have become an even more naturally cynical and skeptical nation. We start with the assumption that you aren’t who you say you are because there’s no genuine or good people left on Earth. This partially helps explain why you no longer need tax returns or a religious foundation for your domestic history or experience or a coherent ideology or governing philosophy to get nearly half the country to vote for you. We don’t care as much about the person or their story, whether we like or trust them, because we no longer like or trust anyone. We collectively pull levers for the most entertaining brand of bullshit.
And say what you will about Rick Ross, but his bullshit is entertaining. He has an gargantuan, maximalist sense of scale. Whether it be candy-colored De Palma ’80s raw or orchestral Radio City Bond Villain lush, his music always was and always will be enormous. The high octane Lex Luger buck anthems are fine, probably the shit I’d want to hear if I didn’t have any Wagner on my phone and I needed to drop a payload of napalm on a Charlie’s Point treeline. But my favorite Ross is the artery-clogging, back of the bulletproof champagne Range with the window cracked just enough to make out the shit talk with a model on his lap, gripping a magnum of Louis XIII like Life After Death never ended.
Ross rode this formula to the pinnacle of the game, with an all-time phenomenal ear for beats and an intense work ethic as one of the first rappers along with Wayne and 50 to keep his audience engaged through manic prolificacy. He also proved to be a shockingly competent label head. Where rapper driven outlets like Roc-A-Fella and G-Unit records had taken the Steinbrenner approach to hegemonic dominance, spending their cap on big names past their primes, Ross was DePodesta, finding value buys in industry prospects who had yet to realize their potential. In a million different ways, Ross simply couldn’t miss throughout the first half of the decade. It was surreal.
In the 1920s, Daisy Buchanan’s carefree, effervescent soprano sounded like money but 100 years later if Hudson Yards had a vocal register it would be the bombastic Rossian baritone. The sound of Ross clearing his throat is the sound of ravenous capital accumulating at an alarming speed, destroying anything and everything that gets in its way. It’s been said that Donald Trump is the poor man’s idea of what a rich person is like. Well as that imagined rich person eats Big Macs, shitting on his gold plated toilet between marble columns, is there any doubt as to whose music is blaring through his Central Park West penthouse villa?
There’s an appropriately half remembered anecdote I can’t find or confirm from Cypha Sounds and Peter Rosenberg’s Old Testament hip hop podcast Juan Epstein. In it, perhaps Just Blaze or some similarly crucial North East producer from the early aughts, remembers Ross when he wasn’t Rick Ross, he was merely Cool Rick, a guy who would be quietly hanging out blunted in the corner of recording sessions for the Roots. And this is my favorite version of the origin myth of Rick Ross. That he started as an Ali G, Mister Brainwash style of guerilla performance art, a gag intended to hold a mirror up to popular rap music that got away from us all at some point.
If you’ll forgive a somewhat frivolous, free associative aside (but at this late date in this series what are you here for if not somewhat frivolous, free associative asides?) there’s a great scene from the dystopian science fiction film Children of Men (A 13 year old movie I’ve spent a bizarre amount of time thinking about lately) that always comes to mind when I’m lost in the ego death reveries of another planet devouring Ross strip club anthem. Clive Owen’s Theo visits his cousin Nigel who works at the Ministry of Art, a kind of government conservancy project. Owen visits him in his home, an airless mausoleum that is covered wall to wall with the great art of the last two thousand odd years of Western Civilization. Nigel is there alone with his son, who has been infantilized and effectively lobotomized by technology, mute and completely entranced by what looks like a digital Rubix cube, barely breaking to take his meals in pill form. As they catch up, Owen asks his cousin how he can still care about this art, all this beauty and brilliance that is about to be lost without humans left to appreciate it. The past is long dead, and now even the future has died. His cousin smiles and looks out his bay window about a thousand yards beyond a literal pig flying out of a low, gray sky and responds, “You know what it is, Theo, I just don’t think about it.”
ROD: Rick Ross- Print the Legend
- Rich Forever (ft. John Legend) (Rich Forever 2012)
- What is it (ft. Gorilla Zoe) (Don’t Feed Da Animals 2009)
- I’m a Not a Star (Teflon Don 2010)
- Maybach Music IV (ft. Ne-Yo) (God Forgives, I Don’t 2012)
- Pop That (ft. Drake, French Montana & Lil Wayne) (Excuse My French 2013)
- Knights Of The Templar (Black Dollar 2015)
- Power Circle (ft. Gunplay, Kendrick Lamar, Wale, Meek Mill & Stalley) (Self Made Vol. 2 2012)
- You Know I Got It (Reprise) (Mastermind 2014)
- Flippin’ What (ft. Nina Sky) (The Epidemic Begins Now 2007)
- Stay Schemin (ft. Drake & French Montana) (Rich Forever 2012)
- Rick Ross Grunts For Two Minutes (2010)
- Free Mason (ft. Jay-Z) (Teflon Don 2010)
- Presidential (Remix) (ft. Pharrell & Rockie Fresh) (Black Bar Mitzvah 2013)
- Pirates (God Forgives, I Don’t 2012)
- Lincoln Way Nights (Shop Remix) (ft. Stalley) (Lincoln Way Nights 2011)
- Mark My Words (ft. Nipsey Hussle) (Famous Lies & Unpopular Truths 2016)
- Thug Cry (ft. Lil Wayne) (Mastermind 2014)
- This Thing of Ours (ft. Nas, Wale & Omarion) (Self Made Vol. 2 2012)
- 100 Black Coffins (Django Unchained OST 2012)
- Aston Martin Music (ft. Drake & Chrisette Michele) (Teflon Don 2010)
- Maybach Music 2 (ft. T-Pain, Lil Wayne & Kanye West) (Deeper Than Rap 2009)