‘Give Them Their Roses Now’ is a series where we give credit to the unappreciated, coving their influence, impact and overall success in the industry both critically and commercially. There’s no need to wait until somebody is gone to pay homage when we could give them their roses now.
Just a few days after Memorial Day back in 1996, one man had plenty of reason to celebrate. A nearly year-long odyssey was over, as he was finally set to become a full blown correctional officer after completing his 540 hours of training. After applying for the job right out of college back in July, and receiving the good news he’d been approved as a trainee in December, William Leonard Roberts II was finally a correctional officer.
There was no way he could have known then that his accomplishment would become a national controversy just a decade later.
Though he would one day become the face of the M-I-Yayo, Roberts was actually born in Clarksdale, Mississippi. His family later relocated to the Carol City neighborhood of Miami, Florida, a neighborhood that had long deteriorated after humble beginnings as a portion of town renowned for its farmland. Eventually, Carol City added so many housing projects that the crime rate begun to swell and drugs begun to flood the area.
Carol City Senior High School was surrounded by those same housing projects, and even imported students from nearby Opa-locka, the notorious Dade County city that once boasted the most violent crimes per capita of any city in the nation. When it opened in the 1960s, the school was one of the first public schools in the state to feature air conditioning, but by the 1990s it too was ravaged by crime and drugs.
It was there where Roberts, then known as Big Will, donned the No. 61 jersey as an offensive lineman for the school’s football team and earned All-Dade first team offense honors back in 1993. He was such a force on the offensive line that he was awarded a scholarship to historically black college Albany State University in Georgia.
But Roberts’ football career was short-lived, and when he applied for a job as a correctional officer in July 1995, he claimed he only earned 22 credits at Albany State as a criminal justice major. If receiving the job was a joyous occasion in May of 1996, it didn’t last long as Roberts resigned from his position just a year later.
Little is known about the time between his resignation and when he popped up on Erick Sermon’s third album Erick Onasis in June of 2000. Then, Roberts was known as Teflon Da Don as he appeared on a track called “Ain’t Shit To Discuss.” He’d been mentored by Sermon, even staying at his house as he garnered a reputation around Miami as a ghostwriter. All of the earliest remnants of Rick Ross are right there on his debut. One bar he’s “making 60 a bird,” and in another he’s “breaking down dimes of rock.”
After a brief stint on legendary Houston record label Suave House, Ross made his way over to Slip-N-Slide records. In 2002, he appeared on “Told Y’all,” officially as Rick Ross, and the track would land on both Trina’s sophomore album Diamond Princess and on the All About The Benjamins soundtrack. A beardless Ross would even appear in the video, dubbing himself “The Boss,” for the first time before disappearing again.
When Ross reappeared in 2006, he was fully formed with his trademark beard and shades combo, and a song dedicated to the one thing he seemed to know best. “Hustlin” was a booming new spin on Miami hip-hop that would carry an entire era of rap nationwide. Gone was the raunchy, 808-driven sound of the past, replaced by gaudy tales of large-scale cocaine trafficking operations so massive that Ross bragged that Manuel Noriega owed him not one, two or three, but 100 favors. It wasn’t a tongue-in-cheek boast either; Ross made it sound like he meant it.
The song became a regional smash and launched a major label bidding war eventually won by JAY-Z and Def Jam records. “Hustlin” eventually went platinum and helped push Ross’ debut album Port of Miami to No. 1 on Billboard’s albums chart and its own platinum plaque. The album’s second single, “Push It,” only doubled down on the persona and the album’s theme, sampling the famous song from Scarface and even featured a music video that closely followed the plot of the infamous film.
In one fell swoop, Ross changed Miami’s identity within rap. The city had long been the main hub for cocaine trafficking in the United States, utilized by famous drug lords like Pablo Escobar; now that world had an avatar in rap with Ross. Just like that, Ross was co-signed by the biggest rapper in the game, owned a few hits and a No. 1 album, and a star was born.
Ross took his time with a follow-up, solidifying himself as one of the South’s biggest stars with a slew of guest appearances on massive posse cuts curated by an old friend of his DJ Khaled. There, he stood beside giants like Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy, Akon, Fat Joe and more, and not only held his own but stole the show. “Hustlin” was such a major anthem that JAY-Z hopped on that and gave his own unique stamp of approval, and Ross held his own there as well.
His second album, 2008’s Trilla, debuted at No. 1 and went platinum as well and spawned the biggest hit of his career in “The Boss.” Ross was now a household name, and seemingly nothing could stop his astronomical rise to superstardom. The controversy that arose a few months later only strengthened that notion.
In July of 2008, a photograph leaked online of Ross at a ceremony as a correctional officer and the rap world was stunned. Ross initially denied it was him, saying the photo must have been edited. Later, The Smoking Gun leaked documents verifying that Ross was indeed a correctional officer, and when he continued to deny those claims, they leaked even more paperwork a week later. In August, Ross allegedly attacked DJ Vlad at the Ozone Awards over his coverage of the controversy, leading Vlad to sue him shortly thereafter. Ross continued to deny the correctional officer rumors before finally relenting in October, telling Don Diva, “Yes, it’s me.” He went on to claim, “I never tried to hide my past. I put my name inside my CDs.”
Many wondered if the damage done would be career-ending, and one rapper with a penchant for beef and drama pounced. A bitter feud ignited between Ross and 50 Cent in the beginning of 2009 after a perceived slight at the BET Awards. Ross launched the first attack with “Mafia Music,” setting off a series of disses from both over the next few months. 50, of course, upped the ante by involving Ross’ son and baby’s mother in the beef, even releasing a sextape featuring her. Still, Ross somehow overcame all of the adversity and everything culminated in the release of his magnum opus Deeper Than Rap.
Released on April 21, 2009, DTR was his third straight No. 1 album, and the best work of his career to date. The album was a lush celebration of opulence, and sonically set the tracks for the next decade of his career. Producers like J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, The Runners, Drumma Boy, DJ Toomp and more provided Ross with scores of boisterous productions, laced with vibrant instrumentation throughout. It was the perfect palette for his baritone voice, and if the correctional officer revelation was supposed to shake him out of his pre-established persona as a mob boss and a drug kingpin, it did the complete opposite.
Ross leaned into the character he’d become in his raps, weaving even more vivid tales of mass distribution and mafia fantasies. The baggage didn’t stop him, if anything it seemed to make him even stronger as he focused, honed in on what made him such a promising talent and he steamrolled any controversy. He addressed his past briefly on one of the album’s standouts, “Valley of Death,” but never touched on it beyond a loose bar. It was almost like it never happened, and nobody batted an eye.
Perhaps more important than critical acclaim may be the album’s most lasting impact. In less than a year, Ross shattered the idea of realness in rap. In prison culture, the correctional officer is as low as it gets, the scum of the yard. That was supposed to be below the person Rick Ross portrayed himself as on his songs, an ultimate betrayal of his authenticity.
It didn’t matter, his fans and his peers enjoyed his music and even an all-out attack from someone as well-versed in beef as 50 Cent couldn’t derail Ross. The controversy coming just a year after Lil Wayne and Birdman were outed for kissing each other “mafia style”—much to the delight of the internet—is no coincidence. Like Ross, Wayne powered through that and only seemed to get bigger in the shadow of controversy. The rules of rap were changing, and Ross was one of the biggest beneficiaries. Being “real” mattered less and less, and rappers being entertainers and not gangsters was more acceptable than ever before. Fans were showing up for the songs, everything behind the curtain was irrelevant. All they wanted was the show, they didn’t care about the strings and how they work.
With the release of Deeper Than Rap, Ross also founded his record label Maybach Music, and he spent the rest of 2009 tending to that, releasing Triple C’s’ debut album Custom Cars & Cycles. It was humble beginnings for a label that would go on to be a true hip-hop power, but after getting that business out the way, Ross went right back to his own surging career and put together his first mixtape, _The Albert Anastasia EP. The tape featured three tracks that would make it onto his new album Teflon Don, including the smash hit “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast).”
With the release of the thundering track, Ross would make a star out of its producer Lex Luger, and presented another more brooding alternative to his more triumphant sound. For many, Teflon Don did the unthinkable and topped Deeper Than Rap and, despite being Ross’ first album to not top the charts, it sold more than its predecessor as well.
His 2010 didn’t end with Teflon Don, though. Ross returned on Christmas Eve to release another mixtape, Ashes to Ashes, which focused almost solely on the booming trap sound he’d flourished with on Teflon Don. The mixtape is also notable in that it was the first sign of affiliation with budding internet stars Meek Mill and Wale, two artists he soon announced he’d signed to Maybach Music.
In 2011, Ross focused on molding his label into a true powerhouse on the backs of Meek Mill and Wale. After releasing the label’s first compilation, Self Made Vol. 1, Meek released a critically hailed mixtape in Dreamchasers and Wale released his first album with the label, Ambition. In October, Ross suffered several seizures, which he attributed to a lack of sleep and eventually rapped about on the remix to Meek’s “I’m A Boss.”
With the label up and running, Ross came back with Rich Forever, a mixtape that received near universal acclaim and housed another minor hit in “Stay Schemin” with Drake and French Montana. After all of the success of the past few years, Ross was named the Hottest MC In the Game by MTV in early 2012 and there looked to be no end in sight for his reign.
But it was around that time that Ross seemed to settle into a stasis, rarely diverging from his two trademark sounds. New Ross records were either booming trap, or soulful elegance and no in-between or innovation. God Forgives, I Don’t was a fine album, and returned Ross to the top of the charts, but his follow-up mixtape Black Bar Mitzvah left much to be desired. In December of that year, he was forced to cancel several tour dates, and though Ross blamed it on shoddy promotion, some believe it was due to threats from the Gangster Disciples street gang. For the first time in his decade-long career, the chinks in Ross’ armor were finally starting to show.
Shortly after the cancellation of his tour, Ross was apparently targeted in a shooting in Miami. He and his girlfriend were unharmed, but he crashed his car into an apartment building as he tried to escape the attack. In April of 2013, Ross was in the news again as his lyrics on the Rocko song “U.O.E.N.O.” were interpreted as promoting date rape and the outrage led to Reebok dropping him as a sponsor. Ross eventually issued an apology.
That year he released two albums, and Mastermind and Hood Billionaire were more of the same as fans grew tired. Hood Billionaire in particular was panned by fans and critics alike as a going-through-the-motions affair. It showed in the bottom line as well, as it represented the worst first-week sales of Ross’ career, and a 50% decrease over his previous album.
Things got worse for him in 2015, as he was arrested for allegedly kidnapping and pistol-whipping a groundskeeper at his Georgia home in a dispute over money. He was released on $2 million bail and placed on house arrest. While confined to his home, Ross recorded Black Market, which debuted at No. 6 on Billboard’s albums chart and tallied the lowest first-week sales of his career.
But just when it seemed like his run was over, Ross did what he always does, and bounced back. In early 2016, he left Def Jam and signed a new deal with Epic. He and Skrillex struck platinum with “Purple Lamborghini” on the Suicide Squad soundtrack. Then he did it again with “Do You Mind,” with DJ Khaled, Future, Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown and more, giving him his first Top 40 hits in years. A series of single releases eventually led to the release of his ninth album Rather You Than Me in early 2017 and Ross sounded rejuvenated.
Now injecting more of his personal life into his records, Ross was poignant and his sound was refreshed. His resilience paid off, and once again he’d risen above all of the adversity he faced to conquer rap. His special brand of elegant raps and luxurious instrumentals seemed crisper than ever, and Ross was back to being Rick Ross The Boss. His resurgence was complete, and he was even throwing his weight around dissing Birdman and pulling no punches.
A year later, Ross is said to be planning Port of Miami 2, a sequel to the album that started it all. With nearly 20 years in the game, it’s time to recognize Ross as a game changer, a resilient fighter who redefined what matters in rap. Ross showed talent can overcome any amount of BS thrown an artist’s way, as long as they remain steadfast and continue to churn out quality material no matter what. Every time he was counted out, he came back stronger than ever. Rick Ross is a legend, not only in Miami or in the South, but a rap legend regardless of territorial boundaries and it’s time to give him his roses.
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