Rap music’s relationship with “realness” has been disambiguated for as long as it’s been a cultural force, with gatekeepers rightfully dreading its demise for decades. It started with the concern that commercialism would dumb down the music, making it a product instead of a representation of a culture. Later, the concern was that artists were making up their on-wax personas - and eight years ago, the biggest embodiment of that issue was Rick Ross.
In 2009, Ross—who had begun to build a career with hits like “Hustlin” and “The Boss”—was beefing with 50 Cent who jumped on a Smoking Gun report that alleged that Ross was a correctional officer. Everyone knows rap and law enforcement don’t get along, especially when Ross was showcasing himself as a drug kingpin on wax. 50 piled on with jokes, songs, and even cartoons that clowned him as a cop. It seemed like Ross was doomed; he was clearly on the losing end of the credibility argument and 50 had already become a legendary beef artist after previous squabbles with Ja Rule, Fat Joe and Jadakiss.
Early on, while denying 50’s accusations, Ross simply showed and proved with better music than his rival. With his albums Deeper Than Rap, Teflon Don and God Forgives, I Don’t, Rozay consistently stepped up the technical prowess of his mafioso rhymes and established a lush, orchestral sound that matched the Maybachs, jewelry, and linens he flaunted on camera. With big collaborations like the Jay Z-assisted “The Devil Is A Lie” and Kanye West’s “Devil In A New Dress,” he showed that he could go bar-for-bar with the greats. He also built up Maybach Music Group label with the signings of acts like Meek Mill and Wale, making his label one of the prime crews in rap. During interviews, Ross would always stay in his drug lord character like a Heath Ledger-level method actor, dodging questions about his past while focusing on his new music. And over time, fans didn’t care. We didn’t hear his 9-to-5 in our cars, clubs, and headphones: we heard one of the best talents in rap.
Later, Ross would admit to his correctional officer past. He told Rolling Stone in 2012 that he took the job to “wash his hands” after his best friend was sentenced to 10 years in prison for trafficking drugs and he rapped about it on his 2014 album Mastermind: “That wasn’t me, it was a job.”
While talking to Sway of MTV to promote the album, he even went one step further. “[R]ight now, to feed my family -- I’d do it again,” Ross said. “To feed my kids, I’d go get it. We gon’ get it.”
Ross is still acknowledged as one of the rap’s best, but he’s been on a bit of a skid - his last two albums, Hood Billionaire and Black Market, were poorly received by critics and underperformed on the charts, with fewer hit songs to their credit. But his new record Rather You Than Me, which dropped this past weekend, is converting naysayers and has some calling it his best in years.
The album’s centerpiece is “Idols Become Rivals,” a scathing diss record about Cash Money Records cofounder and (apparently, former) friend/collaborator Bryan “Birdman” Williams. Ross’ friend Lil Wayne has been embroiled in a court battle with Williams, suing the rapper/exec who essentially adopted him as a child for $51 million. He accused Williams of stealing from him, further tarnishing his reputation after other Cash Money artists like Juvenile, Mannie Fresh, Young Turk, and enlisted producers like Bangladesh (who produced Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” and “6 Foot 7 Foot”) have accused him of stealing money from them.
While Ross has been touted as a rapper in the post-authenticity era, this is arguably the realest he has ever been on wax. He begins the song by speaking about how he used to look up to Birdman, before being let down after allegedly learning that the luxury vehicles Birdman flaunts were rented. But the second verse really raises the stakes, as he makes the cruelest analogy possible for Birdman robbing his artists.
“Catholic record labels, niggas gettin’ raped, boy / Birdman’s a priest, moans in his synagogue / Publishing is a sin, repent, forgive me Lord,” he laments. He further accuses Birdman of stealing artists’ publishing to buy producer Scott Storch’s foreclosed mansion; refusing to care for incarcerated former Cash Money artists B.G. and Young Turk; and even screwing over DJ Khaled while he was signed to the label.
“I pray you find the kindness in your heart for Wayne” Ross pleads. “His entire life, he gave you what there was to gain.” The song is even weightier with producer Black Metaphor’s beat using the same familiar, somber sample used for Jay Z’s 2000 gem “Where Have You Been,” which sees Hov yearning for a life with his deserted father. “Idols Become Rivals” is arguably the most egoless diss track in rap history. Ross takes out his former mentor with the somber sentiment of how Poot and Bodie killed Wallace on HBO’s The Wire or how Michael Corleone killed his brother Fredo in Godfather II. On social media, even Ross naysayers have been stunned and impressed with his thorough, comprehensive bashing of Birdman. It doesn’t hurt that Rather You Than Me has Ross getting more personal than ever, sharing family struggles and views on racism while continuing his reign as one of rap's best beat selectors and rhyming alongside stars like Nas, Future, and Young Thug.
The diss was a surprise, but it falls in line with Ross’ career. He has done multiple songs with Wayne over the years and he’s close friends with Khaled, appearing on several Khaled songs while Khaled executive produces Ross’ albums. And Ross has seemed to run his Maybach Music Group imprint with a system based on loyalty and artistry. He stuck by signee Meek Mill’s side while he was in prison, and again when the public backed away from him after his feud with Drake. He signed Wale while many thought his career was in limbo after his debut album Attention Deficit was undershipped. He gave contracts to acts like Stalley, an underground act who wasn’t guaranteed to blow up on the charts. He helped give new life to Omarion when he was seemingly on his way out. He’s released three Self Made compilations to showcase the label, and appears on his artists’ songs. Some of these may seem like bare minimum requirements for a label boss, but many rappers can be hands-off from their signees while simply recouping from their hard work on the back end. Ross seems invested in the success of artists who he thinks have paid their dues or have talent worth showcasing to the world.
While so many rappers have spent years trying to keep up with an idea of keeping it real, Rick Ross was ahead of the curve on a crucial idea. Authenticity doesn’t have to be an arbitrary idea based on criminality, or even on living out what you talk about in your rhymes. But, instead, it’s about determining what’s important to you and sticking to it, in good times and bad. He’s done that while weathering an early war, sticking up for what he feels is right, and focusing on craft instead of war. And he has a possibly career-defining album, and one of the year’s biggest moments in hip-hop, as the payoff.