By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
By Hilary Hughes
By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
Jadakiss once wondered why rappers lie in 85 percent of their rhymes, and here's the answer: because they don't have the audacity of Rick Ross, who lies in 95 percent of his. Last year, the Florida don, who'd built his entire persona on his status as a criminal kingpin, was outed as a former corrections officer. For most gangsta rappers, this would be career-crippling, but Ross shook everything off—jeers from the Internet peanut gallery, 50 Cent's bullying, his own limitations—and released Deeper Than Rap, easily one of 2009's best rap records. He began rapping more cleanly than ever before, forgoing his previously favored Hall-of-Bosses punch-in echo chamber that made it feel like five fat guys were yelling at you simultaneously. His writing, too, turned startlingly vivid, and the production was incredible—late-'90s grandiosity taken to even greater heights, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy score repurposed for Ricky's Vice City home. It was like watching the portly kid in gym class suddenly high-step his way flawlessly through a field of tires.
So now Ross is enjoying a weird, wonderful renaissance: Once the very face of undeserved commercial-rap entitlement, he's now almost an underdog. Not commercially—Deeper went to No. 1, just like 2006's Port of Miami and 2008's Trilla before it—but critically, especially among the inner circle of rap-nerd gatekeepers. Recently, Pete Rosenberg, the earnest, affable spokesperson for all-consuming late-'90s New York rap fixation, told a roomful of like-minded followers—during a public sit-down interview with Diddy at 92Y Tribeca—that, in terms of consistency and commitment to craft, Ross was the best rapper working right now. Diddy had to quickly step in to calm the quietly seething masses.
The ridiculously extravagant and extravagantly ridiculous new Teflon Don is certain to only rile folks up further; in its sound, scope, ambition, and arm's-length relationship to reality, it's essentially Deeper Than Rap 2: Even Deeperer. The production is only more towering; Ross evidently decided the beats on Deeper weren't over-the-top enough, so for "Maybach Music III," the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League furnish him with a full orchestra to rap over, and after verses from T.I. and Jadakiss (plus a hook from Erykah Badu), Ross enters to darkening strings and a key change heralding his arrival. "Cigar, please," he barks, over a hilarious and awe-inspiring cascade of strings, flutes, xylophone, and Weather Report jazz-funk guitars that recall nothing so much as the scene in James Bond's You Only Live Twice when the volcano opens up to reveal the villain's secret lair.
This is the Ricky Rozay aesthetic—lifestyle music for escaping the state police via speedboat—and Teflon Don is even more utterly devoted than its predecessor, which was perhaps saddled with a couple more "ladies' tracks" than was strictly necessary. Those are gone now. All that's left are 11 unadulterated dispatches from BossWorld, an imaginary kingdom that only grows more vivid the more Ross visits it. If the cold-water shock of hearing Ross rap nimbly has worn off somewhat, he more than compensates with the new lunatic conviction in his voice: "Quarter-milli for the motherfucker!" he spits on "Tears of Joy" (referring to the cost of his watch), and you can almost hear his gut convulsing. On "Free Mason," he raps feverishly about ancient symbols, codes, and pyramids over a tangled bed of bluesy organs and a howling John Legend in the background: "I understand the codes these hackers can't crack," he concludes. Indeed. Ross the Boss has grasped the key to success: He used to simply refute reality, but now he transcends it.