A year after Jay-Z became the president of Def Jam, the very idea of this guy working a desk job remains fascinating. What does he do in that office all day? Check Nets game seating charts to make sure Juelz Santana isn’t sitting too close to him? Get in four-hour speakerphone conversations with ?uestlove about the Sunset Rubdown album? Field PR damage-control calls about Pete Wentz’s cellphone dickpictures? Avoid LL Cool J? Play Tetris? What?
One thing he hasn’t been doing much lately is rapping. Despite all the retirement talk, he wrote enough mixtape and remix guest-verses to fill up a pretty decent mixtape. This year, he’s been just about silent. He’s rumored to be working on a top-secret new album, but we haven’t heard anything new from him. Or at least we hadn’t before today, when the long-anticipated remix to Rick Ross’s “Hustlin’,” which features Jay and Young Jeezy, finally leaked; the Fader has the mp3. Back when Status Ain’t Hood started, one of my first entries was about the remix to Young Jeezy’s “Go Crazy.” On that track, Jay’s sudden benevolence seemed like a distraction more than anything else. I didn’t like it because I didn’t feel like Jeezy needed Jay to roll through on the one East Coast-sounding track on his album and make Jeezy look like he was just basking in Jay’s reflected glory. I felt like Jeezy didn’t need Jay’s help. Things are different now, partly because Jay hasn’t been flooding the market lately and partly because Rick Ross actually does need help.
People hate Rick Ross. If you listen to my friends, he’s just a non-rapping lucky fat asshole, a guy who stumbled into one of the biggest singles of the year and a huge Def Jam push even though he can’t think of a better rhyme than “Atlantic” with “Atlantic.” His swollen-up kingpin schtick on “Hustlin'” rings false because he doesn’t have any character or specificity or credibility or history or self-awareness or anything at all besides blank swagger. He’s a pale imitation of Jeezy’s croak-wheeze coke-rap, a big empty signifier. And we know he’s a fake; he doesn’t really know the real Noriega because the real Noriega doesn’t hang out with third-string Slip-N-Slide bounce-rappers. I don’t love the guy, but all that seems a little harsh. For one thing, “Hustlin'” is an absolute monster of a track, a candidate for Single of the Year, though that has more to do with the slow-motion organs and breath-sucked-out samples and royal horns of the Runners’ epic, stormy beat than anything Rick Ross does or says. For another, the dude can actually ride a beat, which puts him ahead of damn near every rapper in New York; check DJ Khaled’s “Holla At Me” or Trina’s “Told Y’all” for evidence. And he looks like a titan in the “Hustlin'” video, red flags blowing out behind him; it doesn’t matter that he isn’t actually one. It doesn’t much bother me that his whole fat-kingpin schtick is fake; when rap stops being theatrical, people start getting shot. And it also doesn’t bother me that he’s biting Jeezy’s flow; if the bullshit Can’t Ban the Snowman mixtape is any indication, Jeezy isn’t using it much these days.
Still, Rick Ross is not half the rapper that Jay or even Jeezy is. He’s being groomed and positioned as Def Jam’s next huge star, getting huge airplay while Redman and Joe Budden and every other forgotten rapper on Def Jam’s roster falls by the wayside. People are skeptical, and there’s a good chance that “Hustlin'” will be his only real hit, so Def Jam needs to milk the track for all it’s worth. And this remix should certainly accomplish that; I’ve heard radio DJs play songs four or five times in a row on the strength of a post-retirement Jay-Z verse. The funny thing about Jay’s verse on this remix, though, is that he’s effectively biting the Jeezy/Ross breathless guttural flow, growling and adlibbing more and falling back on short, snarly punchlines (“We don’t resort to violence / We on resorts and islands”). A friend just made the point that that sort of flow-mimicking is just what people do on remixes, and that’s true, but I don’t remember the last time Jay adjusted his flow for another rapper; he usually makes other guys adjust to him. Maybe it’s just the wrong beat for Jay, but he almost never sounds this uncomfortable. Jeezy, by contrast, just tears the track to shreds, rolling his voice over it like it always belonged to him. I’ve heard people wonder what “Hustlin'” would sound like with Jeezy instead of Ross, and now we know; it would be a whole lot better. Still, Ross manages to hold his own on this remix, switching up his words but not his delivery: “I’m into distribution, I’m like Def Jam / Release fishscales, scales on my desk, maaan.” This song isn’t going away anytime soon.