When Rick Ross lumbered onto the national stage in 2006, he was something of a blank slate. Though he was a protégé of EPMD's Erick Sermon who had signed to venerable Southern labels Suave House and Slip-N-Slide, his story was largely unknown. His debut, Port of Miami, didn't fill in many details either. He told us that he was "tha fuckin' Boss" and that he was involved in dope dealing. But that was about it. (That is, other than the obvious fabrications about Manuel Noriega owing him a hundred favors and whatnot.)
Sure, the Carol City MC's bombastic baritone worked on tracks such as "Hustlin'," which emphasized his slow flow. But mostly, the critics were unimpressed. Pitchfork gave the album a rating of 5.3 and wrote that Ross had "all the charisma of a cold meatloaf." The review added that he was "simply incapable of portraying the coke trade with Jeezy's glamour or Clipse's fatalism."
Yet four and a half years later, Young Jeezy and Clipse barely register, while Ross has become one of the industry's most celebrated rappers. And though all of his albums have sold about the same — each has gone gold — he's now almost universally respected among critics. Having survived an exposé about his past and a battle with notorious career-killer 50 Cent, he's undergone the most dramatic rap reversal of fortune ever.
In the past year, the Boss has dominated hip-hop like few others, earning year-end accolades in polls such as Village Voice's Pazz & Jop. There, his latest album, Teflon Don, placed 34th overall; compare that to his previous work, Deeper Than Rap, which came in at 228, and Trilla, which lit up the chart at number 1,659. Meanwhile, his tracks were all over Pazz & Jop's singles list, and he played a key role in Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the poll's overwhelming number one. And this time around, even Pitchfork gave Teflon Don a cool 8.0 rating.
Perhaps most remarkably, Ross has laid to rest the truism that a rapper's realness is critical to his success. We now know that real doesn't mean crap. Indeed, Ross has fed us nothing but lies, and the critics love him for it. In 2008, after a picture of him in a corrections officer uniform surfaced, the Smoking Gun officially outed him, and 50 got to work, everyone predicted Ross' quick demise. But the opposite happened. He's since been feted with increasing intensity, first on 2009's Deeper Than Rap and now on Teflon Don, in which Ross enters a whole new realm of fantasy by imagining himself as everyone from Biggie Smalls to Big Meech to MC Hammer. Yes, there were a few critics: John Gotti's grandson took umbrage with the album's title, while drug dealer Freeway Ricky Ross — the man from whom the Boss stole his nickname — tried to sue the rapper. The whole time, Ross maintained his drug-dealer shtick with a straight face.
Yet in his review of Teflon Don, Jon Caramanica of the New York Times summed up reviewers' opinions by calling Ross "a clever and loose thinker." Those are two adjectives that previously didn't go together in hip-hop.
So how has Ross been able to lie his way into critics' hearts? There are a few schools of thought on this:
Theory One: Everyone loves an underdog. At the end of the movie, the nerd gets the girl. Or the short, scrappy kid sacks the quarterback to win the big game. In other words, the favorite always loses. Which is probably why Port of Miami's portrayal of Ross as a Casanova kingpin was met with yawns. But when we learned that he had actually been patrolling the halls of the Florida Department of Corrections' South Florida Reception Center, things got more interesting. It became easier to take Ross' side, if only because everyone else seemed to be laughing at him. As for 50 Cent, some of his antics — such as buying a fur coat for one of Ross' baby mamas — were classic. When he started doing creepy things such as spying on DJ Khaled's mother, though, our patience ran out. And through it all, Ross somehow morphed into rap's Rudy.
Theory Two: The wink and the nod. It's not that people don't like liars; some liars, such as Sacha Baron Cohen, can be hilarious. But nobody wants to be deceived — they want to be in on the deception. So when Ross was outed, we not only knew he was making stuff up; we knew he knew we knew. And when it was clearly established that Ross' world of beautiful women and fancy cars funded by dope empires was fantasy, we all felt better about frolicking in it. Many critics have aptly compared his albums to summer blockbusters, as they too are big-budget flights of fancy unconcerned with realism. "He knows he's selling a Hollywood bill of goods," wrote Pitchfork's Nate Patrin in the Pazz & Jop issue, "so why the hell not wink at the camera, especially when it's what turned him from a joke into an A-lister?"
Theory Three: Ross has simply gotten better. Through it all, dude has indisputably evolved as an artist. At the beginning of his career, he lacked breath control, and Port of Miami is full of lyrical clunkers such as, "I'm in the distribution, I'm like Atlantic/I got them motherfuckers flyin' across the Atlantic." In contrast, Teflon Don is full of complex rhyme schemes: "Like Mike, my spikes — they all white/24-karat gold baby karats worth of ice," he raps on "Live Fast, Die Young." He now has the budget to employ the best producers, and hanging in Kanye's circle has perhaps motivated him to step his game up. As a result, his improved style has made it easier for critics to ignore the holes in his biography. After all, in an industry in which accused pedophiles and girlfriend-beaters are given second chances, what's a little fibbing?
Ross himself, however, wouldn't agree with any of these theories. In fact, when we spoke with him in August, he insisted he hadn't changed at all — rather, it was the critics who had changed. "I think people just listen more now," he said. "My perspective and the way I approach records, it was always a little different. But I think... people are now recognizing what I'm bringing to the table."
Yeah, right. That argument doesn't hold up to scrutiny. As with everything Ross does, it's revisionist history mixed with wishful thinking. In his mind, he's been a lady-slaying mafioso and kick-ass rapper since birth — the only question was when the world would finally recognize it. "I never needed acceptance from all you outsiders," he raps on Kanye's "Devil in a New Dress," and this has long been his M.O. He always believed his own story, which is why he never budged from it, even when it threatened to cause his downfall.
Critics tend to respect a guy who sticks to his guns. He may be full of crap. But at least he's never pandered.