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Not every rapper can be top dog. Someone has to take one for the team, jump on the grenade, and loudly emphasize the last syllables of whatever the headliner’s saying. If a hype man is good enough, he can move up to guesting on bigger stars’ songs. Career-wise, though, this is a dicey strategy: For every Snoop Dogg who moves up from protégé to the pros, there are a hundred Nate Doggs stuck singing the hook for all eternity, their names on liner notes always preceded by the hip-hop abbreviation “feat.”
Rick Ross guested on more than 24 tracks before releasing Port of Miami, his solo debut. The south Florida MC’s Barry White–style basso profundo, befitting his breadth of beam, has lent some much-needed heft to some catchy hip-hop tracks, especially on “Told Y’all” and “I Gotta” by rap diva Trina (herself a graduate of “feat.” spots on Trick Daddy records) and “Chevy Ridin’ High” and “Holla at Me Baby” by fellow Magic City residents Dre and DJ Khaled, respectively. Plus, his big, bald, and bearded self looks great on videos.
On Port of Miami, Ross sounds cocksure, as if he knew all along that his time as a “feat.” soldier was only temporary. The record’s first single, “Hustlin’,” opens with Ross bellowing, “Who the fuck you think you’re fuckin’ with/I’m the fuckin’ boss,” which might seem ambitious had it not sold over a million ringtone units before the actual record hit the streets.
Miami, co-executive-produced by Def Jam president Jay-Z (who also claims, with slightly more credibly, to be the “fuckin’ boss” on the “Hustlin’” remix), sounds as expensive as the Phantom-drivin’, coke-slangin’ lifestyle that Ross extols in song after song. “Push It,” the opener, finds Ross lazily chronicling his snowbiz over samples of Giorgio Moroder’s theme from Scarface. But for a man who claims to be hustlin’, Ross doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to get anywhere. His flow is slow; on “Blow”—dude, there are other drugs out there—he has trouble locking with the beats, which, oddly, has never been a problem for him on other people’s records.
Ross’ obsession with yeyo would be easier to stomach if he provided details about the drug world and revealed some nuances in his character (though his idea of a romantic ballad, “Hit U From the Back,” suggests that anyone searching for nuance may be asking the wrong questions). He doesn’t even seem to be having fun living the high life. On “Push It,” he spits, “Never traffic for fun/Only traffic for funds,” which makes being a baller seem as glamorous as managing a big-box store. “Pots and Pans,” not suitable for play on the Food Network, provides the only glimpse of the man and his history; on it he tells how he scotched a football scholarship. It’s pleasantly revealing when he says, “Couldn’t pass the test of intelligence/Couldn’t fuck with math.” Though for a man who claims to not be a mathlete, Ross seems rather numbers-minded: On “Hustlin’” he rhymes “22s” with, uh, “22s” and “Room 222”; on “Where My Money,” he speaks of “20 birds,” “dime,” “nine,” and “three-three.” There are so many digits on the track, it’s like audio kakuro.
Ross’ coke-y-cutter lyrics and his refusal to develop his own character ultimately undermine Miami. He speaks of himself in the third person, as if he’s trying to compensate for those years spent as an understudy. The over-the-top, Bruckenheimer-esque production overwhelms his hollow persona; if anything, Miami does less to advance the idea of Rick Ross, frontman, than it does to pad the résumés of its various producers. DJ Toomp, who already scored with T.I.’s “What You Know,” does wonders with “White House.” His fellow twiddlers Cool and Dre, the Runners, and J Rock all come out looking good. But Rick Ross doesn’t—way too often he sounds like a guest star on his own album.
Obie Trice knows a thing or two about seeing the word “feat.” before his name. Not only has he had to play second banana to Eminem, he wasn’t even a member of D12, arguably the luckiest group of rap-star pals in history. For a while, Trice seemed perfectly content with his subordinate role within Mathers’ expansive retinue, biding his time while 50 Cent’s debut took his boss’ attention away from Trice’s own underappreciated debut, 2003’s Cheers. That album worked precisely because of Trice’s good-natured Everyman persona (“Average Man”) and goofy sense of humor (“Got Some Teeth”).
Those elements are absent from his long-delayed follow-up, Second Round’s on Me—all that’s left is hardcore, unfun gangsta stereotypes. Though the album’s title ostensibly carries on his good-times tavern theme, the word “round” may as well be about bullets. Witness the pedestrian “Violent” and “Kill Me a Mutha,” which opens with, guess what, a dialogue sample from Scarface. (Dude, there are other drug-kingpin movies out there.)
Trice tries to compensate for his persistent minor-league status by sounding major-league tough. But his stance is about as convincing as his flow, which is way too awkward to be intimidating. On “Wake Up,” he confusingly rhymes “Niggaz’ll shoot you unconscious/With no conscience/Until you lose conscious, conscious.” The nonsequitous delivery is reminiscent of Kool Keith’s idiosyncratic style, but it lacks Keith’s hebephrenic brilliance.
It may be fitting that Trice had his biggest exposure of the year when his song “Wanna Know” was used as background music in a promo for HBO’s Entourage. The track, greatly augmented by a left-field ’70s heavy-rock sample from the Power of Zeus, is one of the highlights of Second Round’s. Luckily, the music helps distract the listener from Trice drearily complaining about a lack of respect. “Haters yell it’s the white boy behind me,” he moans. “But you couldn’t inhale a flow that’s more grimy/It would still prevail more if another label signed me.” Sometimes that persecution complex can seem near-pathological, as on “All of My Life,” where Trice even teams up with poor old Nate Dogg in a wingman all-star matchup.
Perhaps Trice’s dissatisfaction and overcompensation might be justified because, unlike Ross, he gets no favors from the beatmakers on Second Round. His boss, Eminem, produces eight of its tracks, and all but one are gloomy, Spartan, and uninspired. The exception, “Jamaican Girl,” is a mindless, bouncy party jam about island romance and the country’s indigenous lambsbread cannabis. The song’s hedonism and energy—“Sippin’ coconuts like it’s a can of some brew”—are welcome relief from the unrelenting bleakness of the rest of the album. It’s like a three-day Sandals getaway in the middle of a dreary work year.
But mostly Trice just fails to grab the brass mic because, in proving he’s ready for the Show, he’s lost any of the charm that got him to the minors. He even refers to himself as a “Shady employee” on “Mama.” Maybe he needs to go on a company retreat to rejuvenate that smiling, beguiling personality of old. Or maybe he just needs the career kick-start that can only be provided by the right kind of guest spot. CP