“If Ross just rapped over soul beats, I could really fuck with him, because his raspy, textured vocals sound so good over something a little softer and more melodic; an opposites attract kind of thing. His lyrics aren't anything special, but really it's all about the way his voice sounds. He has one of the more unique, distinct voices in the game and when used properly, it can really be an effective tool.” - Lucas G. (circa 2014)
Gorgeous and grandiose, the mansion acquired by Tony Montana visually personified the wealth and prosperity of a thriving drug kingpin. Cocaine introduced luxury to a man who once only knew poverty and invited the reaper to the doorstep of a man when he was most alive―the cruel duality of drug dealing. You can’t have the great reward without great risk, the beautiful kingdom without brutal enemies, nor opulence without the looming presence of death. To be as Tony was is to live as Tony did, clutching a machine gun in the castle.
Rick Ross' past as a kingpin is questionable, but in his music, he captures better than most the roses and the thorns of a life much like Scarface. He has a gift of selecting the perfect production that embodies the duality of erupting war and yacht sailing; trap aggression and soulful magnificence are his two most notable sonic palettes.
Ross was once physically bigger than he is now, and before discovering the magic of pears the biggest boss of rap would stomp on sounds that carried a weight much like his stature. Lex Luger’s “B.M.F.” was a behemoth fit for a behemoth, Ross’ sonorous voice was a tailored match to the booming trap banger. “War Ready,” “Hold Me Back,” “MC Hammer” and “Elvis Presley Blvd” all carry elements of trap that are synonymous with Rick Ross―big, thunderous, robust―but that's only one side of Ross.
The other side of Rozay is far more light, eloquent and driven by samples dipped in and dripping with soul. The weight of his words makes for an interesting contrast, the beauty of opposites making magic―Rick Ross rapping on soulful beats is the closest we'll get to witnessing a hefty man walking on water. He may have acquired success from his boisterous bangers but some of the best Ross rap performances are over beats that sound like swimming in gold, not selling kilos of coke.
The often outspoken Tyler tweeted back in 2013 about how epic Rozay is when he swaps trap for soul and even though I love the urge to commit crimes to “Purple Lamborghini,” I would much rather smoke a fat cigar and enjoy Rick’s outrageous boasts over J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League’s lush instrumentation.
Do you remember the first time you heard Rick Ross appear on Kanye’s “Devil In a New Dress?” I don’t recall my exact reaction, but each time the song is played I’m still floored the way he moonwalks in the pocket. The song transitions from a heavenly guitar to a figure-eight flow worthy of Olympic gold from Carol City’s finest. It’s audio magic to hear Ross float while the Smokey Robinson sample plays like an angel in the background—the verse will easily go down as a career highlight. Ross and Ye have worked together various times in their careers; the songs have been more soul than trap, “Sanctified” and “Live Fast, Die Young” are noteworthy, but they aren’t of “Devil In A New Dress” caliber.
I would argue that “The Devil Is a Lie” from the Mastermind album is an epic soul record that can live alongside “Devil In A New Dress.” It’s not an equivalent rap performance, but the stentorian drums, Gene Williams' soulful vocal sample, and the blurring hi-hats―K.E. on the Track produced a monstrous beat that is both aggressive and soulful―worked perfectly for Ricky Rozay.
There was a time where if you couldn’t afford Just Blaze, you would call Kanye West for the chipmunk soul sound. Luckily, throughout his career, Ross has been able to afford both Ye and Just. The two have a short work history, but the music made will make you demand an entire project's worth. On “I Love My Bitches,” Blaze takes it back to the Dipset era with a high-pitched vocal that gives the song polarizing energy and liveliness, while the drums add an explosive knock to truly disturb the peace. Ross sounds spirited, full of swagger and gusto, talking like a pristine mafia boss with not a worry in the world. This is an album-caliber record that didn’t make it to any official project, and one can only wonder how it didn't land a spot on God Forgives, I Don't―hopefully, it lives forever online to remind the internet that Just Blaze and Ross crafted a classic. Ross' appearance on Drake’s “Lord Knows” doesn’t quite live up to “I Love My Bitches,” but both carry a certain zeal as larger-than-life music.
Over a sample of Cortex's “Oh! Lord,” Ross confessed to sharing women with Drake, a hilarious boast, the two were truly living YOLO. While Ross and Drake trading gals like Pokémon cards seems strange, “Oyster Perpetual” is exquisite―Ross sounds right at home cutting through the sampled production like a butter knife through a warm King's Hawaiian roll. This is the kind of production that will make you feel as if your salary just quadrupled. The song was meant to be simply a teaser—a song used to announce a bigger project—so it’s shorter than Dame Dash’s temper, but it's a must-hear nonetheless.
It’s easy to forget about records when an artist's catalog is ever-growing, but one song that should not be forgotten is the Black Metaphor-produced “Rich Is Gangsta.” It's the kind of song that defines gripping a machine gun in the castle―over a sample of Average White Band we get a lavishly abrasive Ross. This is around the time of gang threats surrounding the 2012 MMG Tour, you can hear the aggression in Ross' tone, he blatantly asks for war over a beat that could be played in heaven when Jesus and Reggie Lewis are engaged in a pickup game. It's an exceptional Ross record that’s perfectly titled.
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Ross is known for boasting about cars and bragging about boats, but I’ve always enjoyed when he digs a bit deeper, giving a little insight into the man behind the shades. The self-reflective “Tears Of Joy” is one of the rare times that you feel as if Ross is rapping in a church and not in a recording booth. No I.D. truly laced the MMG Boss, adding CeeLo on the hook only amplifies the Willie Hutch loop. If I had to create a list of my top Ross records, “Tears Of Joy” would be sitting high.
“Blessings In Disguise” is another soul record that’s hard to dismiss when collecting the best of Ross. He isn’t alone, Scarface supplies a level of storytelling expected from one of the greatest, and Z-Ro brings a slice of Houston on the hook that compliments the heavenly production. Reminiscing on his past life, we get a rare, insightful verse from an artist who rarely drops the persona.
A jewel that I’ve long forgotten is the Pharrell-produced “Presidential” with Elijah Blake. Skateboard P took Junior M.A.F.I.A’.s classic “Get Money” and made a jam that massages ear drums. The beginning is reminiscent of Kendrick’s “Alright,” the signature vocal stutter is a sign that you’re in for a treat. The lack of Pharrell and Ross records is a true hip-hop tragedy. “Presidential” can be found on God Forgives, I Don’t, an album that also features the Cool & Dre-produced, “Ashamed.” Hustling isn’t easy, the struggle comes before any treasure, and "Ashamed” is a candid account of life before success. Cool & Dre have been lacing rappers with soulful loops for years, and sampling Wilson Pickett’s “Shameless” is rather fitting for the lyrics that Rozay spills.
To talk about soul records and Rick Ross without mentioning the Maybach Music series is like discussing Steve Jobs and not mentioning the iPod. Maybach Music will go down as one of the great ongoing series in hip-hop, and it’s been almost ten years since the first release on Trilla. The original “Maybach Music” that features Jay Z is the definition of lush, smoother than a silk pillow and more potent than Blue Magic. The second edition, which samples Dexter Wansel’s “Time Is The Teacher,” is arguably a bigger and better version―T-Pain’s hook along with Lil Wayne and Kanye West, it’s pretty much the ‘09 dream team.
Production-wise, the third “Maybach Music” is a personal favorite. It sounds rich and luxurious, the kind of music you play to count a million dollars in cash. “Luxury Tax” isn’t a part of the Maybach Music collection, but the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League production is splendid enough to be mentioned in the same sentence―beautiful live instruments and the various samples of David Oliver’s “I Wanna Write You a Love Song” makes for a masterful listen. When J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League and Rick Ross come together expectations are high, because each and every time the results have been nothing short of excellence.
When it comes to singles, Ross tends to hit the streets with something that will make the trunk rattle and dope boys rejoice. He decided to change things up a bit in 2010, releasing “Super High” as the lead single for Teflon Don, a Ne-Yo-assisted record that is audio eloquence―it sounds like smoking a J on a private jet surrounded by champagne and Ciroc, beautiful women and top models. DJ Clark Kent outdid himself, and while the single didn’t do well on the charts, if I ever reach the 1% then “Super High” will become a daily listen.
Ashes To Ashes is the mixtape that preceded the release of Teflon Don. It’s rarely mentioned, but there are a few gems that aren’t highlighted enough. “She Crazy” is a jewel with so much gold on one track―a self-reflective Ross telling the story of a woman, Ne-Yo giving a simple, yet soulful hook, and a nostalgic sample of Aaliyah’s “Rock The Boat" that hums in the background―I’m baffled how it’s been buried with time.
On every album through every era, there’s an outstanding Rick Ross song over a sample with a vocal loop. Songs like “Trap Luv,” "I Think She Like Me," “Shot In The Heart” and “When Lightning Strikes” are just a few more to drive home the point that Ross is at his best when standing upon a soulful foundation. It doesn’t even have to include a sample, there are plenty of Rozay records where the music is a piece of audio heaven. I recently discovered a playlist of soulful essentials on Apple Music made by Kim Chanel, 78 songs and nearly six hours of Ross rapping over R&B and soul-infused instrumentals. You’ll notice that some of his best, most acclaimed records can be found on the playlist, and you should go listen to them all.
Trap music may be what Ross is most known for, but his soul records are what I’ll always hold the most dear.
By Yoh, aka Rather Yoh Than Me, aka @Yoh31.
Photo Credit: Epic Records