The rapper Rick Ross, born William Leonard Roberts II, is currently being sued by the living, breathing drug boss–“Freeway” Ricky Ross–from whom he stole his stage name. On his new Teflon Don–another nickname borrowed, without consent, from John Gotti–Ross has a song called “MC Hammer,” on which he claims to literally be the disgraced rapper. The next track on the record? “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast),” an acronym suspiciously similar to that of the Black Mafia Family, a Detroit-based crime syndicate formerly led by one Big Meech, another living, breathing drug boss currently doing football years down in Atlanta. The hook on “B.M.F.”? “I think I’m Big Meech/Larry Hoover.” Hoover, of course, is yet another real person.
Authenticity and questions about the fourth wall are nothing new for Ross–consult, for instance, Jon Caramanica’s New York Times feature of April last year (headline: “Beyond Authenticity”), in which Caramanica detailed Ross’s struggles with embarrassing revelations about his time as a Florida corrections officer (to say nothing about the sex tape of his baby’s mother 50 Cent procured and then made public, or the fur coat 50 copped for Ross’s other baby’s mother, also on camera). Pretty much every Rick Ross song is about being some variety of rich off cocaine, despite the fact Ross almost surely isn’t, and the contradictions therein haven’t much seemed to bother the record-buying public, who’ve made Ross one of rap’s biggest stars in a surprisingly short amount of time.
So why bother blithely impersonating other people, many of whom neither know him or like him? In today’s Daily News, John Gotti’s grandson unhappily tells the paper: “Only in America can you go from being a corrections officer to calling yourself Teflon Don”. In addition to the ongoing Freeway lawsuit, there’s also “B.M.F. (The Real Blowin’ Money Fast),” a not so subtle recent jab from Young Jeezy that actually features Big Meech, a man who seems none too thrilled about Ross’s appropriation of his identity. Nor, one imagines, would Bobby Seale be too enthused to hear his famous cop-killing rant repurposed by a former corrections officer turned fake drug dealer on Teflon Don‘s “Tears of Joy.” The same song on which Ross claims, incidentally, to be “Biggie Smalls in the flesh/Living life after my death.”
It’s that “my” that’s so weird and confusing. Plenty of rappers indulge in momentary flights of schizophrenic fancy, likening themselves to everyone from Barack Obama to Frank Lucas. But Ross is the first to seemingly really believe, in the moment, that he is the guy to whom he’s comparing himself. In the Times yesterday, reviewing Teflon Don,Caramanica calls this more of the same old Ross/authenticity shell game:
Mr. Ross, whose career has survived the release of a photo of him as a correctional officer, remains unbowed. “Self-made, you just affiliated,” he raps here. “I built it ground up, you bought it renovated/Talking plenty capers, nothing’s been authenticated.” Depending how you look at it, it’s either the sound of rich irony or of the triumph of being atop the new pecking order.
Our own reviewer, Jayson Greene, says something similar in this week’s Voice, calling the music of Teflon Don “11 unadulterated dispatches from BossWorld, an imaginary kingdom that only grows more vivid the more Ross visits it.” Greene’s kicker: “He used to simply refute reality, but now he transcends it.”
But another way to put this is to say that far from transcending reality, Ross is in the midst of a very public project of remaking reality in his own fat, slovenly, sublimely assured image. MC Hammer, though he’s still around to bless Ross’s invocation of his now distant glory days, is effectively no longer MC Hammer–he lost that distinction along with the mansion and the cars and the ability to make music people actually listen to. So now Ross is MC Hammer. Meech and Hoover are in jail; the Notorious B.I.G. is dead. Thus Ross can assume their identities too. Because make no mistake: Ross’s targets aren’t random. They have everything to do with what’s available. The creepy thing here is that BossWorld isn’t an imaginary kingdom at all: it’s just the sum of other people’s real lives, stitched together and donned like a grotesque, blood-colored mink coat:
What is it, really, to pretend you’re another person? From a benign perspective, Teflon Don is fan fiction, or live action role-playing; from a more sinister one, it’s identity theft. (Either way, the album is the precise antithesis of this year’s other major rap record, Drake’s Thank Me Later, on which Drake talks about nothing but the minutiae of his daily life and thoughts. Both are acts of self-mythology–it’s just that only one of the two men dares to imagine that “self” can mean whatever he damn well pleases. As long, that is, as someone else has lived it first.) That Ross’s persona mostly takes the form of diligent research, rather than any kind of actual invention, is a fitting evolution for a guy who was derided early in his career for being merely the product of the expensive production Def Jam purchased for his debut. Now, of course, Ross is larger than life. Eat that many other people, I guess, and what else would you expect?