A former correctional-facility officer who bathes in gangster imagery and rhymes “bitch” with “shit” on his hooks has nearly written the summer’s finest album. Too bad Rick Ross is kind of a sleazebag. There’s requisite rap hot-dogging and then there’s “She had a miscarriage/I couldn’t cry though/You and I know she was only my side ho.”
We’ll remember this summer for Drake‘s reflective enormity, Eminem‘s verbosity, Big Boi‘s nostalgic acclaim, and Ross’s monstrous, blockhead anthems. Teflon Don, Ross’s fourth and best major-label offering, is a dense 11 songs about the good life. And European cars.
I guess Don was imminent. After surviving a reputation-damaging feud (reportedly ignited over a dirty look exchanged at the BET Awards) wherein 50 Cent dedicated legal resources to discrediting Ross’ very being, Ross spent 2009 dispensing celebratory, made bangers so good you never questioned whether he belonged alongside Usher and Lil Wayne. Rather than vilifying Ross for posturing, colleagues joined the bandwagon despite a bitter ex’s scathing accusations: Ross worked for the criminal justice system; Ross was behind on child-support payments.
Welcome to what’s left of gangsta rap: proven frauds pressing the narratives all the way to genre immortality, beyond velvet ropes. The cocaine trafficking was fabricated, so I’ll rap about the wealth accumulated from rapping about trafficking cocaine. I was mainly drawing reliable parallels between the crack game and the rap game. 50 Cent was right to fear Ross. It’s one thing to pounce on a cardboard thug; it’s entirely another to meet a card-carrying faker that makes better music.
Ross rises because he tries. Memorial Day’s Albert Anastasia EP featured a crowning Diddy intro and big leftovers from the Teflon Don sessions. As far as label-sponsored, buzz-building freebies go, Anastasia was cinematic (John Legend appears as “Lucky Luciano”) and commanding. “Money Maker” attacked district attorneys, its low budget video juxtaposed Ross’ rapper wealth and rural Barbados to maximize the mafia don facade.
Ross has a beautifully thick voice, an excellent ear for beats, and talented friends. He’s a resoundingly average rapper. With Don‘s minimalist approach to presentation, only the cream rises before the routine gets banal.
Ross’ jolly build and bearded face mask his snarling, high-energy style. His best moments occur when he howls over controlled, symphonic beats; No I.D.’s two production credits and the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League‘s three anchor the album. The blitzkrieg verses, presented through the grizzly, syrup pipes, afford Ross the luxury of rhyming “taste” with “taste,” “motherfucker” with “motherfucker,” and on one addictive passage, “JFK” with “JFK” with “JFK.”
For the inner circle of rap royalty, Rick Ross assignments are like a bachelor party: an excuse to get hammered and urinate on political correctness. T.I. lets loose, “[I’m] fillin’ bitches’s faces with babies.” Ditto for whomever wrote Diddy’s “No. 1” parts: “I used to move white girl out in Maryland, now my girl’s blond like Marilyn.” Kanye West hits vibrant peaks about being a deity and shopping. Ross is perpetually baked and full of esoteric, degrading misnomers, like “If she died on my dick she would live through my rhymes,” “You can find me in the Guinness Book,” and “Credit card scams? That was for the faggots.”
But dismiss Teflon Don on principal and you miss the sonic wonder. “Aston Martin Music” is Chrisette Michele as a faceless diva cooing about rolling with her boss over perfect synths, while Drake mourns lost youth, while Ross spits playful auto lines like “Pull up on the block in a drop-top chicken box.” (Hit up Google for the seven-minute extended version that features Drake’s lost rap.) “Tears of Joy” finds Cee-Lo belting the blues. Lead single “Super High” stretches Enchanment’s slow-dancing “Silly Love Song” into pulsing hustler music over which the eternally fedora-clad Ne-Yo does a note-perfect Michael impression. “Maybach Music III” is almost as good as “Maybach Music II,” but more ambitious; Erykah Badu‘s sweetly odd chorus is welcome, and the beat morphs to harbor Ross’s ceremonial closing verse, and then abruptly ends.
Best of all, Ross gets the best from the best on Don‘s two best cuts. Kanye West produces “Live Fast, Die Young,” and it’s the sort of spacey, rumbling-drums classic we’d expect to find toward the end of Graduation, only with sharper rapping from West. “Free Mason” reads like instant disappointment: Jay-Z and John Legend are listed, Richmond’s the Inkredibles produce. Any casual fan of hip-hop expects these commonly botched super-songs to cede potential to ego, label legalities, and laziness. Instead, “Mason” basks in contrived conspiracy -theorist folklore as Jay sets the record straight: “I said I was amazing, not that I’m a Mason” and Ross’ manifesto comes to fruition: moving to white neighborhoods, building iconography, joining forces with kings.