Rick Ross has finally solved the biggest hold-up of his career and it only took him 11 years and nine projects to figure it out.
Despite his remarkable ability to craft a trap banger and his impressive ear for soul-sampled beats, Ross has always been haunted by authenticity—or lack thereof. Without wasting time rehashing the whole narrative, Ross' previous employment in law enforcement hamstrung his efforts to convince fans of his "realness" in his role as a kingpin rapper. The Ross character, created by the man born William Roberts, could never seem to elude the shadow cast by his old day job. That was until he released Rather You Than Me and finally decided to showcase what looks and sound like himself.
In a weird way, I can understand his plight.
For the past 10 years, I’ve written under the pen name John Gotty, a nickname that’s a mash-up of my actual first and middle names. I originally picked up the moniker in the streets and transferred it to the internet in the early 2000s when message boards and AOL chats were popping. Using the handle sounded cool back then and, years later when I started The Smoking Section, it afforded me a level of anonymity and separation from my job at the time as a teacher.
Similarily, Rozay adopted the name of an infamous criminal, but for different reasons. The Carol City native took “Freeway” Rick Ross’ name and bits of his story as a drug kingpin and fashioned all of it into a rap career. In the process, he left behind his past life as a civilian and law enforcement officer, totally immersing himself into the fictional character he created. Of course, he’s not the first rapper to falsify his background. The issue for Ross was that he lost sight of reality and, when his past as corrections officer at the South Florida Reception Center in Dade County was discovered, he denied it for the longest time as if all of the photographic evidence, employment records and other forms of proof were a case of mistaken identity. The only person who was mistaken was him.
The difference between Gotty and Ross was that he used his adopted name to create a new life for himself. I used mine as a way to show more of my real life, opening up about not just my relationship with music and hip-hop culture but also using the freedom to discuss relationships, growing up hip-hop in Tennessee and some street tales. Ross wanted to hide his past because being a cop in rap was equivalent to mixing oil and water. My decision to publish anonymously was to protect the normalcy I’d created as a square—a married father of two who woke up each day to work with impressionable high school students. I was Mr. King in the workplace and Ty at home.
As time went on, I suppose both Ross and I decided to share more of who we were. For me, part of that reveal meant embracing social media and showing my face more, something I never cared for to be quite honest. It almost meant coming to the realization that sharing one key part of my story—my battle with alcoholism and the road to sobriety—could help serve others. Writing and words had always been my comfort zone and one of the strongest ways for me to communicate with others. It was time to step out of the shadows in order to start taking advantage of my blessings and sharing them with as many people who were willing to listen.
For Ross, the rapper, stripping down his identity didn’t ruin his career. Rap critics and fans gave him a pass because his music never suffered. They also never really believed half the shit he rapped and, with authenticity coming at a premium in hip-hop culture, he always came off as a fraud who just knew how to make really good records. However, his inability to convince fans to overlook his past and join him in the land of make-believe did leave an asterisk next to his name, holding him back from receiving full credit for his work and being mentioned alongside the greats.
Fast forward a few years and things started to change for Ross. There was the still-unsolved shooting incident from 2013 on his birthday, which took place in the city he loves so dearly. There were those two seizures in 2016 which made the news and, along with MMG infighting, caused many to wonder if he was losing his grip.
In what may go down as the wisest move of his career, on Rather You Than Me, Ross decided to use all of the things that made him look mortal to his advantage by showing some semblance of William Roberts, the man who existed just behind the designer frames yet hadn’t really been seen or heard by listeners. Traces of this man can be heard immediately on the album opener, “Apple of My Eye,” where the portly emcee touches on his seizures, albeit briefly. He rhymes, “Just had seizure at the Super Bowl / Woke up in the third quarter lookin’ for the smoke.” Not exactly the most honest admission, but the guy’s starting from zero when it comes to truth-telling.
The peeling back gets more impressive on the album’s most talked-about song, “Idols Become Rivals”—a scathing track in which Ross spoke up for his rap friends Lil Wayne and DJ Khaled against the conniving ways of Cash Money Records exec Birdman.
While taking the rap Robin Hood approach, Ross even managed to throw a little support behind all the producers who Cash Money has reportedly shafted over the years. It wasn't just him coming to the aid of his friends; Rozay also admonished Birdman for—get this—faking and fronting with the riches all these years:
"And then I met you out on LiveNation dates / Came to the realization that your watch was fake / Damn... you nearly broke my heart / I really thought you niggas really owned them cars"
Quite the head-spinner when the guy who's always been accused of faking it points the finger at another artist for falsifying his persona. Come to think of it, maybe Birdman's the reason Ross clung to the facade since the former is the "idol" the latter looked up to while plotting out his career.
The confessionals don't end on "Idols Become Rivals," continuing to pop up throughout the album. One of the more overlooked moments on the project lies within the lines of the Bink!-produced "Scientology," where Rozay opens the song by diving right into a thank you message for an unspecified family member engaged in a fight with cancer, a battle many listeners have also found themselves waging against in some form or another. It's here that Ross peels back the curtain to show what's really been going on once he's away from the flashing lights and microphones.
“Lucky to go insane, they say they spotted some cancer / Mucus built on your brain, but you tell me to keep on prayin' / Really this is a blessin', many been long and gone / Family your true possessions, admit I made some mistakes / Can't blame it on adolescence, so infected with greed / Havin' somethin' to see / I was runnin' in circles and it was right next to me / This must have been God's wishes / 'Cause all my friends went to prison”
The words are sobering, both for the emcee and the listener. It's not hard to imagine Rozay expressing his pain while standing beside the ailing family member, feeling helpless in a situation unfamiliar to a "boss," but one any regular Joe can relate to. Once the mask is removed, Ross is left showing raw emotion as he reflects on how his drive towards success and riches caused him to lose sight of the most important people around him and their meaning. This act of self-admission drives home the idea that the 41-year-old realizes no number of Rolex watches and plaques can deflect the pain, words and thoughts that never would've found their way onto earlier releases.
There are days when I don’t know what’s next for me and I’m not too caught up in worrying about it, honestly. One thing my quest for sobriety taught me was to live one-day-at-a-time, a philosophy that’s more than just words. Since I’m 40 now, the thoughts of my legacy do come to mind, and I hope my funeral is filled with people whose lives I impacted in some way, not just enemies coming to make sure I’m really dead. Part of me thinks that Ross, being of similar age, had a similar epiphany about his own mortality as well as what his artistic legacy will be.
By breaking character and embracing the everyday side of himself, the Maybach Music head honcho appears to have figured out the final piece of the puzzle in order to have rap fans fully embrace him. It may have taken him a million miles in his Maybach to get to this point, but now that he's arrived, let's just hope this fusion of Rozay-Roberts is here to stay.
Art Credit: Instagram