The stage was set and the band ready as Arsenio Hall began to introduce that evening’s musical guest, the ‘so gangster his beard’s got warrants’ rapper and founder of Maybach Music Group, Rick Ross.
Promoting the upcoming release of his sixth album ‘Mastermind’, Ross’ musical performance and subsequent interview was seemingly the perfect promotion opportunity, yet the rapper’s performance of 2nd single ‘Sanctified’ proved far more revealing than he initially may have intended.
‘Sanctified’ boasts features from Big Sean and Kanye West, Ross’ contribution arriving third with the intention of saving the best till last. Following the introductory verse from an utterly superfluous Big Sean, surprise guest Kanye West appeared driving the crowd into raucous excitement, so much so that when Ross finally appeared the reaction was mild in comparison and something of an anticlimax. Not only did Ross’ lethargically delivered boastful verse not come close to the subject matter or delivery of his predecessor, but rather than driving the song on to a rousing conclusion, his effort actually drained the song of the little momentum it did have. Whilst Sanctified is hardly the first and certainly won’t be the last time a featuring artist upstages their host, the performance struck me as a metaphor for Ross’ career; namely that something was missing.
The band was tight, the live arrangement of an already well-produced song was refreshing and there was a noticeably joyous feel to the performance from the three artists. Yet something grated, “biggest album of the year, Mastermind in stores” decreed Ross’ hype man as the song got underway and in the final moments of the performance music made way for a pre-recorded audio clip of “Maybach music.” Whilst I’m fully aware of the duties of a hype man and understand that Ross is hardly alone in such shameless brand promotion, the fact that he still feels the need to use such tactics revealed a great deal about his mentality; first and foremost, Ross is a businessman.
There’s always been a notable anxiety about appearing to be the best within hip-hop, with rappers regularly comparing the genre to the world of competitive sport. In interviews you will find Ross continually referencing the ‘scoreboard’ of record sales that he views as confirmation that his music is an integral part of a larger cultural tapestry. Yet whilst having huge record sales often implies influence within an industry, selling lots of albums doesn’t guarantee any artist a lasting impact on the larger musical culture.
After being confronted with reviews of Mastermind that branded his drug kingpin ‘act stale and uninteresting’ Ross reacted with a bloated sense of self-importance rather than genuinely addressing the arguably valid criticism. Ross remarked that those outside of the culture (I think he means journalists) are out of touch with the reality of the genre and are simply desperate for the access artists like him have earned. Such a response revealed an unsurprising arrogance that you come to expect from most rappers these days, yet it also reinforced that Ross truly believes he has impacted the culture in a meaningful way.
I’d argue that with every album the Florida born rapper releases, his contribution to the rich musical tapestry of hip-hop gets smaller and smaller as his focus shifts further towards money and further away from content.
Though Ross has a great ear for beats and his back catalogue boasts an assortment of well-produced tracks that shine with gloss only the best studios can provide, his lethargic delivery feels more indulgent and irrelevant with every passing year. His music is aging and not like a fine bottle of his Belaire rose.
Unlike the new breed of hip-hop artists who reference emotions in a way that reveals them to actually be human beings, Ross’ subject matter is reserved for drugs, boasts about his possessions and the occasional shameless plug for products he’s involved with. His output is breaking no boundaries and if anything it’s only reinforcing the tired and damaging stereotypes people have long associated with the genre. When you compare Ross to the artists whom he perceives as his peers, it becomes ever clearer that whilst they have evolved and experimented Ross has remained within the territory he’s comfortable within, and fallen further behind in terms of relevance.
Ross has clearly become more interested in using his position of power to allow other artists on his label to grow, a noble pursuit and one that he seems committed to especially when you consider his claims of indifference towards artists he signed outselling him.
With 5 of his 6 albums reaching #1 on the Billboard chart, Ross doesn’t want for commercial success, he’s gotten it and continues to get it. Ross is also respected within the business, frequently evidenced by the high profile guests he’s able to call on for features such as Jay Z, Kanye, Dr Dre and Andre 3000, to name but a few. Despite a number of embarrassing gaffs such as denying his former career as a corrections officer and the well deserved controversy over his bafflingly stupid date-rape lyrics, sales figures suggest Ross’ fans are still remarkably loyal to the Florida born MC.