Rappers, critics, and listeners may have closed the book on winter at Drake's request, but Rick Ross remembers that beneath the evaporating snow is broken concrete. Or, as he puts it in "Santorini Greece," a highlight of his ninth studio album: “When you black, lips chapped ’cause the game cold.”
It's easy to see why he might feel a chill in the air. The luxurious Southern rap that Ross made his name on is currently at a low point in hip-hop's karmic flips, and at times, the blaring horns and wistful sampling on Rather You Than Me sound like a dispatch from a bygone era. But that style still knows no better advocate than the Teflon Don, and the new album proves it's a mistake to think his time is past. Ross's street stories remain resoundingly relevant to hip-hop heads whose realities and/or fantastical machinations revolve around running, protecting, and celebrating their community, block, or being.
As always, Ross’s best assets remain his boisterous voice and reality-fudging, half-joke flow. While the pop masses go globe-trotting with the OVO crew, the Bawse is equally comfy cruising along the scorched earths of ghettos and glamorous global hubs in a top-down Wraith, and whether it’s a rental or owned outright hardly matters. What does matter is Ross’s ability to wed the concerns of the street to those of the mainstream in a way that lets you laugh at rap’s petty politics. On "Scientology," he chides someone for "thinking Craig Kallman won’t send his shooters” — an absurd line about the CEO of Atlantic Records, which distributes Ross's Maybach Music Group releases, but also a nod to a more serious observation about the way the music industry often works. Sure, record executives aren't quite John Gotti, but their word can alter the direction of artists' lives and livelihoods.
Throughout, production from Bink, Beat Billionaire, and C-Gutta makes Rather You Than Me feel like a classic Ross record, both for better and for worse. Grand symphonic strings and mercurial drum patterns adorn the record with an appropriate amount of swank — and even on songs that turn out to be solo celebrations, Rozay sees himself holding the banner for the collective: “Let’s address the past, won’t be no problems down the line / See confederate flags but I got a flag of mine.”
This spirit of collaboration recurs in A-list guest spots from Future, Gucci Mane, and Young Thug. Future brightens up "Dead Presidents," a track that tries a little too hard to be "B.M.F.," with a buttermilk syrup tone that had me popping my collar and doing my trap dance as his first line landed squarely on the one (“I got 30 white bitches like Tommy Lee”). But it's Young Thug’s quick flow changes and his penchant for playfulness on the single “Trap Trap Trap” that stand out most readily, even if the song’s prosaic chorus stands to hold it back.
Elsewhere, too, Ross often has peers and competitors on his mind. “Idols Become Rivals” opens with an unappealing skit with Chris Rock before revealing one of the album's most compelling songs, as Rozay stands with Lil Wayne and the bevy of Cash Money artists who have complained about Birdman’s alleged mismanagement. It’s a moment, amid all the grand proclamations of strength, where Ross seems legitimately hurt: “I used to see you niggas on my TV screen / And wondered what was life like, was it all a dream? … / Damn … you nearly broke my heart / I really thought you niggas really owned them cars.”
Sitting with a Rick Ross record, especially now, means negotiating what it is that you appreciate about the art of rap storytelling. Rather You Than Me is Rick Ross’s most vocally pro-black album, but it's up to listeners to decide how seriously to take his political statements. On the album’s opening cut, “Apple of My Eye,” Rozay quips: “I’m happy Donald Trump became the president / Because we gotta destroy before we elevate.” Shortly after offering this deep thought, he settles an imaginary beef between Drake and Kanye regarding their respective pool sizes by inviting both artists and “every bitch they ever met” to his own pool (which, he informs us, is “the biggest residential pool in the U.S.”). It's a jarring clash in tone. But of course, Ross is far from the first rapper to exaggerate the truth or contradict himself within the space of a few bars. What's always been paramount is the way that a rapper's words make an audience feel, not how literally true they are.
On that count, it’s hard to imagine a rapper who makes listeners feel more invulnerable to life's petty shots and sneak disses than Rick Ross. The day Rather You Than Me was released, I thought it best to pour one out for the Don, fearing that the record's buzz could hardly last under Drake’s thick and expansive humidity. But as I roamed my own city block, tripping over the protruding pavement on my decades-neglected sidewalk, it was Ross’s voice that I heard careening out of hooptie windows, scaring the city cats who’d grown fat from our scraps. It was his fantastical, hilarious portraits of parasailing in Hawaii and receiving green blessings from Snoop and interior-design concepts from Martha Stewart that transported hip-hop heads out of the suboptimal realities of their present and onto a beach in Cuba.
Line by line, Rather You Than Me conflates the serious with the imaginary, staying true to the multidimensional approach that has kept Rozay engaging even if his sound has aged. There’s not much use in a lie that’s neither fun nor believable. But a clever lie, delivered well, is just powerful enough to turn analytic squares into haters and followers into an army.