By critical and commercial consensus, Rick Ross peaked around 2010 on the Teflon Don album, which paired the MC with Lex Luger on several tracks. Luger was redefining hip-hop’s production palette at the time, and together, the two men seemed an indomitable team: the rapper’s stentorian thunder and the producer’s battering-ram beats against the world.
But hip-hop moves fast, and lately, Ross has not been setting—or keeping up with—the trends. Since 2010, MCs like Future and Young Thug have enjoyed success painting with strange, technologically-enhanced tones; Ross, in contrast, has little in the way of stylistic innovations to offer. A post-Drake world values soul-baring and sensitivity, which are not Ross’ preferred modes. And thanks to Kanye’s Yeezus and DJ Mustard (and his million imitators), minimalism is in favor. Again, this does not suit Ross’ sensibilities.
But the MC seems unfazed by these transformations—in fact, he may be working harder than ever before. He released two albums in 2014, a stream of one-offs and the Black Dollar mixtape so far in 2015, with another full-length on the way. This year Ross isn’t simply resting on his laurels: he’s been diversifying his approach, with surprising results. Check out some of the highlights of his recent output below.
Khaotic, “Dime Piece” Remix: The stabbing synths in Khaotic’s track evoke a Ross classic: “Aston Martin Music,” from 2010. But while that song was plush and leisurely, “Dime Piece” has some of the frenzied energy common in modern hip-hop production. Ross is sure-footed and slick on the track, grounding Khaotic’s fluttery, neon vocal runs and driving home his verse with four lines in which he rips into every syllable.
Meek Mill, “Been That:” The beat here shudders and heaves with the nervous energy of a city before an air-raid. But when Ross shows up, he’s impervious to the madness clattering around him, a cool contrast to Meek’s jumpy excitability. I used to mop the floors, now who the motherfucking boss?
“Foreclosures:” Ross is in fine form here, chiding others for fiscal irresponsibility while simultaneously asserting his own mastery in financial matters. But there’s a more complicated argument at work—what really matters is Ross’s talent for peddling fantasy: Your family fortune is forever what you stood on/ Sold dreams, fantasies that put the hood on/ You reap what you sow, and they speaking repossessions/ To the culture itself, these are powerful lessons. The beat, partially produced by Ross’ longtime comrades in J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, has its own virtues—at a time when surges of hi-hats have a stranglehold on rap production, this is practically a ‘90s boom-bap record.
“We Gon Make It:” Ross is not known as a “conscious” rapper—what are politics to a man of his stature? He exists outside the world of mere mortals. But he starts “We Gon Make It” with a recording of the news during the protests in Baltimore following the murder of Freddie Gray, and the track turns out to be a tenacious paean to persistence. They say we just a bunch of thugs, don't stand for nothing,’ Ross raps, disgrace to our race, don’t belong in public. Then he proceeds to refute those claims: Genocide not in the plans, we gon’ make it/ Pray my son understands, we gon’ make it. He is offering hope—and even more than that, something akin to understanding.
“World’s Finest:” Ross has attempted to channel Notorious B.I.G. before—notably on “Nobody,” from the Mastermind album. That’s usually not a smart play, since Ross possesses little of the grace and intricacy that made Biggie such a compelling MC. But working with the same sample that enlivened Jay Z and Biggie on “Brooklyn’s Finest” (the Ohio Players’ “Ecstasy”), Ross sounds flexible and springy. The track starts conversationally, as if an engineer just happened to leave the mic on in the studio while Ross was playing around. Then the rapper unleashes a pair of “huh!” exclamations—an homage to French Montana, but yelpy and wide-eyed—and before long, Rozay sounds as dominant as ever: Fuck Obamacare, I want a kilo!
“Turn Ya Back:” Raw feeling is not usually Ross’ calling card—unless that feeling is exultation—but the rapper sounds genuinely wounded on this track. The beat is a glorious stream of brass, as imperious as anything Ross has rapped over. But he’s showing chinks in his famously impregnable armor. The booming edges of his voice have eroded, leaving behind a growly, haggard tangle. He repeats the phrase now I’m back several times—hurt and angry, he’s convincing himself as much as the listener.
“Beautiful Lie:” This is Ross at his most restrained, a surprisingly introspective track that stands out from the rest of his catalog. A woman keeps telling him things he likes to hear, and instead of living the fantasy to the fullest, he starts to suspect that everything might be an illusion. Is she telling the truth? Is he being used? Does it matter?
“Work:” This track has a relentlessly modern beat—thin, needling, itchy—courtesy of Jahlil Beats, the man behind Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga” and Boogie’s “Oh My.” Those are energetic records that tap into youthful swagger, but Ross moves adeptly on “Work,” keeping pace and enjoying the ride. He also issues more direct policy advice to the President: Obama let my niggas go, change all the crack laws.
“Sorry,” featuring Chris Brown: People have been hoping Brown would show more remorse for about the entirety of his career. For years, he ignored the critics—and enjoyed chart success by being unapologetic as possible—but when he finally decided to say sorry in a song, he tapped Ross to help him out. The singer soars into autotuned confessions, while the beat dresses up gentle ‘70s soul for contemporary radio. When Ross appears, he too is trying to convince listeners the depths of his emotions: Temporary thrills, all these women you think I tossed/ My feelings genuine, disregard what you see on blogs. On Instagram, Brown presented Ross as an agent of positive change. “One of the most honest records I’ve done in a while,” the singer wrote. “I appreciate ROSS for allowing me to be me on a record and speak from the heart.”