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Rick Ross is a smart man. He’s smarter than me, and probably smarter than you. He went from one of the most laughable men in rap music to one of the most powerful and respected, and he did it simply by betting on himself—or by betting on an imagined version of himself. More specifically, Rick Ross the person (government name: William Roberts) bet on his ability to convince the public of one of two things: that he is Rick Ross the character, or that it doesn’t matter if he isn’t. Despite predictions to the contrary, Ross the person was right, and with his new album God Forgives, I Don’t, he’s bet that Ross the character is a bulletproof brand. He’s bet that he and his album are too gloriously big to fail. I can’t help but wondering if he’s fatally mistaken.
God Forgives comes on the heels of two of the best full-length rap albums released in the last 24 months: Ross’ Teflon Don from 2010, and Rich Forever, his mixtape from this year that stands as the year’s best statement of purpose. Teflon Don—and its two titanic street singles, “B.M.F. (“Blowin’ Money Fast) and “MC Hammer”—laid out a new blueprint for Ross where synth n’ hi-hat bangers were as awe-inspiring and intimidating as the lush, extravagantly ornate productions that are the bedrock of his albums. Rich Forever went even further, gathering a host of grimy beats in the style of the omnipresent Lex Luger; Ross sounds angry and aggrieved, like he can’t believe anyone ever bet against him. His albums prior to Rich Forever conveyed a sense of untouchable wealth, but on Rich Forever Ross is suspicious and threatened. In turn, Ross the character—if not Ross the person—turned purely predatory.
Ross is still riding high off the supercharged Rich Forever. He is on the cover of the July/August issue of XXL, which calls him “the man with the golden touch” and proclaims that he “rules the game.” Compare that to the summer of 2009, when the same magazine ran a feature titled “Rick Ross Up In Smoke.” It’s hard to argue with either of their most recent assessments—or at least it would have been prior to the inarguable misstep that is God Forgives, I Don’t.
Rick Ross feat. Jay-Z and Dr. Dre, “3 Kings”
God Forgives indulges his worst tendencies, in the process rewinding time back an era when Ross was merely a big presence with bigger guests and even bigger beats. He is inarguably a better rapper now; most defenses of God Forgives point to lines or verses that are undoubtedly impressive from a lyrical standpoint. But Ross has never been about technical skill, and hyping his ability to stack syllables is missing the point. His music is based on his image, which has reverted back to that of a guy who believes that he is inherently untouchable, who can call up Dr. Dre and Jay-Z for a song called “3 Kings.” The last song on Rich Forever was a seething reaction to lurking paranoia; the last song on God Forgives is seven minutes long and features various strings and woodwinds. It’s an admittedly effective character, but it’s one that has proven to be easy to puncture. Rick Ross the person, of course, isn’t untouchable.
This has been evident immediately with the botched and lurching run-up to the album, which featured three singles that didn’t even make the album and three more that did but have yet to show up on Billboard‘s Hot 100. Rick Ross has never been a major singles artist anyway, and God Forgives will put on a decent face in its first week. But the album is stale on arrival, and it’s jarring coming from an artist that as recently as six months ago seemed to have harnessed his persona for maximum power. With his back against the wall in 2010, after a public savaging and a lackluster commercial album (Deeper Than Rap), Ross got his hands dirty and punched back. With his back up against the wall in 2012, after a string of failed singles, Ross retreated to the safety of wealth and power, surrounded himself with the most expensive beats money can buy and asked his friends to bail him out.
Maybe Ross will outlive the stigma of having blown his big opportunity, but reigns in rap can be surprisingly short. Ross has people—from Drake to L.A. Reid—that will help keep him afloat, but he’s once again propping his career up on an idea that has been seriously threatened before. He may shake God Forgives off and storm back with another “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast.),” but the man who once called himself the Teflon Don is now seriously putting that moniker to the test. I’m not sure it would be wrong to bet against him.