Rick Ross has to be the most hated man in rap right now. I can understand why: he’s an enormous and ugly guy with a clumsy flow, he apes Young Jeezy’s lyrics and delivery without quite pulling off that same larger-than-life growl, and he’s somehow lucked his way into becoming Def Jam’s biggest priority right now. The powers-that-be at the label have put Nas and Redman behind a guy with exactly one single whose live show is reportedly awful and who doesn’t seem to have any real perspective on just how fortunate he is right now. Friends who have heard Port of Miami, Ross’s debut, tell me that they can’t believe so many amazing tracks were wasted on such a terrible rapper. In principle, I guess I hate Rick Ross just as much as everyone else. But I remember Ross on the last verse of one of my favorite singles of the decade, Trina’s “Told Y’all,” a frantic pileup of rippling drums and horn-stabs and bass-rumbles, and he was hard and confident and nimble enough to keep up with the track. And “Hustlin’,” Ross’s big single, reminds an absolute monster, an epic blaring bass-smear-organ-roar that effectively makes Ross’s ridiculous kingpin persona tangible enough that it’s possible to imagine him as an honest-to-God rap star. I don’t especially want to love Port of Miami, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to happen. There’s nothing I can do.
Ross has become probably the greatest beneficiary of the recent explosion of interest in Miami’s rap scene, which has come a long, long way since 2 Live Crew became the first Southern rap group to move a whole lot of records all over the country. A few months ago, the Bay Area was being positioned as this year’s Houston, and the scene seemed to have everything: a recognizable production style, a home-grown visual aesthetic that looked cool in videos, a built-in core fanbase, and a crop of stars with local fame and national credibility. But E-40’s album didn’t sell, and it looks like hyphy is probably going to remain primarily a local thing. That’s fine with me; those jittery Rick Rock drum machines occasionally congeal into something amazing but usually make me want to put my head through a window. Miami’s rap scene, from what I can tell, is a whole lot different. It’s not a bottom-up phenomenon like the Bay, where everyone found audiences and figured out their own sensibilities outside the national spotlight. As far as I can tell, Rick Ross never sold tapes out of the trunk of his car. New York rappers have been moving to Miami for years, and local rappers have had plenty of opportunities to link up with industry people. And people like Trick Daddy and Trina and Pitbull have been making hits for a good long minute now; it’s not like the city is coming out of nowhere. In fact, the city’s rap scene seems to be based on more of an apprentice system, where promising young rappers come up under rappers who already have established national profiles: Trick Daddy under Luke, Trina and Pitbull and Ross under Trick. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that a lot of these rappers are absolutely great. Trick Daddy, in particular, can rap his ass off, and he’s got a warm, vicious good humor in his rumbling drawl; his Thug Matrimony: Married to the Streets remains one of my favorite rap albums in years.
But the real reason Miami feels like the center of the world this minute is the titanically bleary synth-rap of Cool & Dre, who introduced their production style to the world by bringing it to out-of-town rappers (Ja Rule’s “New York,” Game’s “Hate It or Love It”) before using it to help turn local stars into national ones. The duo has taken the absurdly sunny candied-out keyboards of Slip-N-Slide’s post-bounce house producers and made it bigger and more dramatic, fusing it with Giorgio Moroder’s metronomic disco monoliths and turning it into soundtrack music. It sounds big and heavy and expensive, conspicuous consumption stuff. And it’s a remarkably malleable style; on the all-star remix of Dre’s “Chevy Ridin’ High,” out-of-towners like Game and Fat Joe sound just as good as Miami guys like Dirtbag. The duo is all over DJ Khaled’s shockingly good official mixtape Listennn… The Album, which goes a long way toward making the LP maybe the first officially-released mixtape to be worth more than $5. And even as their public profile grows and Dre becomes more and more likely to act like a puffed-up celebrity asshole, their singles (“Chevy Ridin’ High,” Ross’s “Blow,” Christina Milian’s “Say I”) keep getting better. They’re on a tear right now, and if they keep up like this, the world is theirs.