The Straddler review
Nothing's Been Authenticated:
The Double Hustle of Rick Ross
2006 was a banner year for coke rap. Young Jeezy was still riding on the success of 2005’s Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, a loosely themed concept album that pitches Jeezy as a motivational speaker for crack dealers. In March, Ghostface Killah released Fishscale (named for a notoriously pure grade of cocaine), which features “Kilo,” a song with a chorus that turns a recording of school kids learning the metric system into a rubric for measuring powder. Then, in the middle of a particularly brutal summer, Rick Ross strolled onto the scene with his debut single, “Hustlin’.”
The video for “Hustlin’” begins with routine shots of Ocean Drive, Miami. Guys on motorcycles wave at the camera and bikini-clad Latin girls stroll down the boardwalk while Cuban music plays. It all takes place in vibrant color: bright greens, stunning reds and ocean blues. Then, the record skips. The picture jumps to someone sitting shotgun in a BMW 745, counting money. The camera zooms out to reveal our protagonist, Rick Ross, leaning on the driver’s side, smoking a cigar and watching the girls go by. He sports sunglasses and a red, collared shirt over a tank-top undershirt and a simple gold chain. He’s six foot with some impressive girth. He has a shaved head, but a full beard. We watch him get into the car and drive into the city.
When Ross and his partner cross a set of railroad tracks, the video switches from Technicolor to sepia tones, and the music kicks off in earnest. “Hustlin’” is a hypnotic track. Its production nods towards the work of the late Houston producer DJ Screw, who popularized a technique of slowing down rap tracks to between 60 and 70 beats per minute, while chopping up the breaks with scratching, skipping beats, and occasionally stopping time altogether. In Houston in the late 90s, those languid remixes played over car stereos during slow drives around the neighborhood. They were also a perfect musical accompaniment to partying with “purple drank,” a beverage consisting mostly of cough syrup loaded with codeine. Then, in 2005, following the success of Houston rap artists like Mike Jones and Paul Wall, the techniques of “Chopping and Screwing” became unexpectedly commercial—meaning, in 2006, the rap audience was prepped for a song like “Hustlin’,” which was almost painfully slow, built upon the ceaseless repetition of the phrase “Everyday I’m hustlin’.”
“Hustlin’” rode hard on its screwed hook. It had to because, as a rapper, Rick Ross was unimpressive to say the least. He grunted in monosyllabic phrases, and struggled to make even the most basic rhymes. On record, he played the role of a big time drug dealer. Born William Leonard Roberts II, he borrowed the persona of a legendary drug trafficker who had used the Bloods and Crips to circulate crack in downtown Los Angeles: “Freeway” Ricky Ross. Roberts lifted the name, as well as the look of Ross. The original Ross was svelte and muscular, not beefy like Roberts. But Roberts shaved his head bald and grew his beard out to match Freeway’s.
At Def Jam, the parent label Ross shared with Ghostface Killah and Young Jeezy, label head Jay-Z seemed to be looking to turn the burgeoning subgenre of coke rap into a cottage industry. It made sense that Jay-Z would initiate such a move—Reasonable Doubt, his classic debut album, details his former career as a street dealer. But, whereas Ghostface Killah and Young Jeezy (and Jay-Z, for that matter) had each spent years building their audiences from the ground up, Rick Ross was a cynical construction, expressly designed to capitalize on the coke rap and Southern rap production trends. With Ross, they took the least likely candidate—a man who possessed neither charisma nor musical acumen nor anything resembling physical attractiveness; who had trouble with all but the simplest lyrics; who rhymed “Atlantic” with “Atlantic;” who could only really be called a rapper in the broadest possible sense—and turned him into an overblown archetype, Frankensteined together from the persona of “Freeway” Ricky Ross, Scarface references (borrowed from Reasonable Doubt), and maudlin images of inner city Miami.
On the other hand, Ross possessed an uncanny talent for distilling broad concepts into distinct and compact signifiers. His own persona may have been cobbled together by picking and choosing aspects of his peers’ subtler affectations, but that also meant that he presented a simple, unified image to the commercial marketplace. This gift for distilling complex ideas into simple ones carried over to Ross’s lyrics–it was, in fact, perfect for his monosyllabic bark. For example, one of the first lines on “Hustlin’”—“Who you suckas think you trippin’ with?/ Yes, I’m the boss.” (which, unsurprisingly, he rhymes with “Rick Ross”)—quickly became one of the most satirized features of Ross. The word “boss” was used in internet memes to describe someone decidedly un-boss-like, and Saturday Night Live star Andy Samberg did a full-length song parody with his group The Lonely Island, called “Like a Boss.” (Lyrics: “Direct workflow (like a boss)/ My own bathroom (like a boss)/ Micromanage (like a boss)/ Promote synergy (like a boss)”) Imitation may or may not be the sincerest form of flattery, but in this case it definitely indicates that the words on “Hustlin’” were sticking.
Even the title and central theme of “Hustlin’” was a well-chosen signifier. “The Hustle” typically indicates a way of making money that is not one-hundred percent legal—hard work where some of the effort entails breaking the law. Three-card Monte is an old school hustle. Selling crack cocaine is a newer one. Once his BMW crosses the railroad tracks and everything turns sepia toned at the beginning of the “Hustlin’” video, we start to follow Rick Ross as he makes his rounds. He drives past a woman selling water on the side of the road, a fruit stand, a prostitute, kids selling M&Ms out of a box, a pop-up car wash—all illustrations of the song’s central conceit, people hustling any which way to make a buck. But when Ross starts to collect money from one of the men at the car wash, the implication is that all of these people are on his payroll as street dealers. Their hustles are merely covering the larger hustle, orchestrated by Ross himself.
Cocaine sales and “The Hustle” itself are predominant metaphors within hip-hop for similar reasons. Both are useful in terms of the vocabulary and subject-matter they provide artists, but each of them is an also an apt metaphor for the making and selling of the music itself—convincing others to buy your product by any means necessary. That idea has rippled through hip-hop. Part of the reason that it has been the most commercially viable force in music for most of the last 20 years is because “The Hustle” is an intrinsic part of the culture. The reverse is also true. Most of the commercially successful rappers of the last 25 years have integrated The Hustle into their identities. So, Rick Ross rapping about “hustling” cuts right to the heart of hip-hop culture—it is a word chosen for its significance.
When the new Rick Ross first showed up during the summer of 2006, his catchphrases had been consumer-tested and his persona appeared fully formed. He played a million-dollar hustler, bragging about his deals, flaunting his connections, and celebrating his own misbegotten affluence. Asking his audience to believe in all of these facets of his personality—well, that was a hustle too—but the public bit down hard.
“Hustlin’” was inescapable during the summer of 2006. A friend once told me that, late one night that summer, he drove an hour into New Jersey from Manhattan while “Hustlin’” played on a loop on the radio the entire way. The debut album by Ross, Port of Miami, went straight to number one on Billboard on the strength of its lead single; it sold 187,000 copies in its first week. Other successful singles and guest verses followed. Trilla, the follow-up album that arrived in early-2008, adhered to the patterns that Port of Miami established—the rote depictions of dealing crack, the musical trend-hopping, the complete lack of nuance. Like its predecessor, Trilla also went to number one on the charts, eventually selling more than 500,000 copies.
Then things got interesting.
In July, 2008, a photo surfaced that depicted William Leonard Roberts working as a corrections officer for the state of Florida. In it, a young Rick Ross, clean shaven and sporting a full head of hair, stares into the camera while shaking hands with the head of South Florida Reception Center, a facility for male inmates. Roberts is decked out in a full uniform, his grey pants and clean white shirt crisply pressed, top button buttoned, tie tightened all the way up. He is, in fact, the complete antithesis of “Rick Ross,” the character Roberts plays on record.
Initially, Ross denied the photo’s authenticity. “My life is 100% real,” he told AllHipHop.com, “These online hackers putting a picture of my face when I was a teenager in high school on other peoples' body.” He was, perhaps, overcompensating: The people who bought albums and singles by Ross probably didn’t actually believe he was a big time drug-dealer—they barely even believed he was a rapper. “If this s**t was real,” he went on, “don't you think they would have more specifics, like dates and everything?”
Days later, website The Smoking Gun produced specifics. It matched the social security number of Rick Ross to the number on William Roberts’ Florida Department of Corrections (DoC) personnel file. It recognized William’s mother and sister—listed as Tommie Ann Roberts and Tawanda Roberts on his DoC personal history form—as women thanked prominently in the Trilla liner notes, and officers of the rappers’ not-for-profit Rick Ross Charities. It found fingerprint records; a signed loyalty oath; a certificate noting Roberts’ completion of 540 hours of training; payroll information marking his salary at $25,794.34 in June 1997; an application in which Roberts agreed to perform officer duties, including “shoot an inmate attempting to escape;” and, finally, a “Certificate of Appreciation” commending Roberts for perfect attendance in his 18 months as an officer. It was, according to the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica, “The most spectacular and public implosion of a rapper’s self-styled tough guy image… since the Dallas Morning News picked apart the looser sections of Vanilla Ice’s biography.”
In the earliest days of hip-hop, persona was a bi-product of function. When the innovations of the original hip-hop DJs—particularly the ability to extend the “break,” the part of a song where the rhythm section plays unaccompanied— emerged in the early 70s, they arose for fairly practical reasons. The Harlem DJs who invented hip-hop had noticed that the breaks inspired the most elaborate and energetic dancing from the crowds, and they intended to elongate those dance periods as much as possible. MCing, or rapping, grew out of a similar pragmatism. The DJ’s job required an intense amount of focus and concentration, so the MC was there to work the crowd. The role of the MC began as an American version of the Jamaican tradition of “toasting”—shouting out things over the microphone to encourage audience participation, like “Wave your hands in the air. Wave them like you just don’t care.” Those early Harlem MCs quickly learned that an easy way to hold the crowd’s attention was to toast in rhyme.
The MC’s function was to rock the party. Therefore, the most commonly used persona of the time was The Man Who Rocks the Party. His most useful tool was most often, unsurprisingly, braggadocio—the logic being that if I act like someone who is capable of rocking the party, who has previously rocked all kinds of parties, and who is now here to rock this party in the manner in which I have rocked all the other parties, then the crowd, believing that I am the party-rocker, will get on board with my party-rocking plan because they trust me. You fake it until you make it, in other words.
A good number of early MCs were competitive—they strove to develop their own unique style on the microphone, to innovate rhyme patterns, to have the freshest boasts, or to find new ways to work the crowd. But plenty of MCs were content to simply borrow their friends’ techniques and rhymes. Persona was integral to hip-hop in a way it never was in rock, pop, or R&B; but it was also adoptable, like putting on a character. The persona of The Man Who Rocks the Party then became an interchangeable thing. It was a theatrical archetype, reminiscent of the Commedia dell’arte character Il Capitano, who puffs out his chest and brags about his military conquests.
Fittingly, hip-hop’s first massive hit features an MC inhabiting someone else’s persona. Henry Jackson was working as a pizza man at Crispy Crust Pizza when Sylvia Robinson asked him to record for her label, Sugar Hill Records. Jackson could spit rhymes, but he couldn’t really write them. So, he went to a friend—a well-known MC named DJ Casanova Fly, who frequently performed with his crew, The Cold Crush Brothers, at the club where Jackson sometimes worked as a bouncer—and asked him if he could borrow some lyrics. Casanova Fly acquiesced, and Jackson, calling himself Big Bank Hank, used the rhymes from one of his notebooks to record his part for The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which went on to sell millions of copies and marked the beginning of hip-hop as a commercial force. Jackson kept Casanova Fly’s lyrics so intact that you can hear him spelling out Fly’s name on the record as if it’s his own: “I’m the C-A-S-A-the-N-O-V-A and the rest is F-L-Y.”
DJ Casanova Fly, who later became known as Grandmaster Caz, never received a cent of the money Sugar Hill Records made from “Rapper’s Delight.” As a culture, hip-hop’s reaction to Big Bank Hank’s appropriation of Casanova’s lyrics—what most people would consider plagiarism—has been two-sided. On the one hand, as the rap industry has grown and rappers have become better businessmen, there has been a fair amount of outrage at the mistreatment of the culture’s founders and early adapters. “Industry shady, it need to be taken over,” Jay-Z says on his 2001 single, “Izzo (H.O.V.A),” “Label owners hate me, I’m raising the status quo up/ I’m overcharging n***as for what they did to the Cold Crush/ Pay us like you owe us for all the years that you hoed us.” On the other hand, hip-hop culture has absorbed the idea of using other people’s lyrics. Young rappers often pay tribute to their forebears by using classic lyrics in their own rhymes.
In the mid-80s, an MC named Rakim began to revolutionize rap technique. Up until then, rappers tended to stick to basic rhyming patterns and easily pronounced words. They made up for their rudimentary poetics with high-energy performances. Alongside his recording partner Eric B., Rakim went in another direction. He sported a laid back delivery, almost like jazz. He took a writerly approach to lyrics, incorporating devices like internal rhyme and assonance. He also messed around with rhythm in interesting ways, choosing to let his rhymes flow rather than punch the words at the ends of bars.
Rakim’s technical innovations complimented a wave of change in rap’s content taking place at the same time. In 1985, an 18-year-old rapper from Philadelphia named Schoolly D recorded “P.S.K. What Does It Mean??” The acronym came from Schoolly D’s gang, Park Side Killas, but in the song it stands for People Scream "Kuttin," after Schoolly D’s DJ. “P.S.K.” culminates with Schoolly D. violently confronting a rival: “Got to the place, and what did I see?/ A sucka ass n***a tryin’ to sound like me/ I put my pistol up against his head/ I said, ‘Sucker-ass n***a, I should shoot you dead’.”
The violence on “P.S.K.” was unprecedented in hip-hop, but it was clearly a metaphor—an extension of the braggadocio that MCs used to work a crowd, but with the context flipped into a narrative. Schoolly D’s style was quickly adopted by other rappers. In Los Angeles, hearing “P.S.K.” inspired 28-year-old Tracy “Ice T” Morrow to write “6 ‘n the Mornin’,” a straight-faced story about running from the police. Meanwhile, in New York, The Beastie Boys parodied Schoolly D’s street tales all across their debut album, Licensed to Ill. Beastie Boys songs like “Paul Revere” contain hilariously over-the-top rhymes like, “The sheriff’s after me for what I did to his daughter/ I did it like this/ I did it like that/ I did it with a wiffle ball bat.”
Soon, rappers began to marry the lyrical innovations that Rakim had introduced with the type of content that Schoolly D, Ice T, and the Beastie Boys used. Rap was evolving from a dialogue with the audience into a storytelling form, and that storytelling form often involved violence. Rappers wrote fluidly about guns, drugs, and gangs—and when Los Angeles group N.W.A. (N***az With Attitudes) released their album Straight Outta Compton (which opened with a verse in which a young rapper named Ice Cube declares, “When I’m called off/ I’ve got a sawed-off/ Squeeze the trigger and bodies are hauled off”), it became a huge hit, eventually selling two million copies, and codifying the newly-christened genre of “gangsta rap” as a viable business, one which has essentially dominated the rap market ever since.
Persona worked differently within this new rap era. With a narrative, MCs had to serve the story, rather than the party. Because of how the role of the MC had evolved, however, the personas that gangsta rappers adopted still fit within the archetype that the early MCs had created. They still used braggadocio to connect with the audience, but now the braggadocio also worked within the confines of their storytelling. Even as gangsta rap grew and new archetypes emerged—like the drug dealer, the remorseful gangster, or the psychopath—those new archetypes remained inexorably linked to the idea of The Man Who Rocks the Party. They were still all Il Capitano.
Licensed to Ill became a number one record in the United States, ultimately going platinum nine times over. The Beastie Boys’ video for “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” went into heavy rotation on MTV. Because the song parodies adolescent party songs like Mötley Crüe’s cover of “Smoking in the Boys’ Room,” the video depicts the group’s three MCs crashing a square party, spiking the punch with Spanish Fly, making out with one of the girls, inviting all their friends over, and, finally, starting a pie fight. Everything about “Fight For Your Right,” from the double parenthetical in the title to the video’s references to Dawn of the Dead (in which a biker gang fights zombies using pie) points towards self-awareness. Yet audiences wholly rejected the idea of the Beastie Boys as satirists. Instead, they took the three MCs at face value, believing the characters they played in the “Fight For Your Right” video were accurate representations of themselves.
No one believed that the violence the Beastie Boys rapped about on Licensed to Ill was real. But they did believe that the Beastie Boys’ attitudes were real. This was a pivot point in hip-hop culture. Early MCs had required a suspension of disbelief from their audiences. The power to rock the party came partly from skill, partly from persona, and partly from the confidence instilled by an audience ready and willing to be rocked. For the first six years or so of recorded hip-hop, the confidence from live performance carried over onto record—either by MCs who had developed in front of an audience or by their imitators. Now, here was a group of rappers playing with the very idea of persona, commenting on it. But what the audience demanded of the Beastie Boys was what they had come to expect from hip-hop: The Man Who Rocks the Party, the archetypal MC, Il Capitano. That’s not exactly what the Beastie Boys were providing, but that is what the audience perceived.
For the first time in hip-hop, there was a gap between an artist’s intention and the audience’s perception. What made the Beastie Boys so easy to take at face value was that Licensed to Ill was steeped in hip-hop culture. They weren’t outsiders looking in and criticizing hip-hop—like, say, The Rappin’ Duke pretending to be John Wayne, parodying MCs’ braggadocio. Rather, they were working within the tradition of hip-hop music, and they were backed by the credibility of their label, Def Jam, and their producer, Rick Rubin, who had shepherded the careers of Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J. The Beastie Boys remained of hip-hop while commenting on it. They attempted to be subversive, but the subversion didn’t take.
What N.W.A. were doing, on the other hand, was also subversive, and it was working. The group used their depictions of street violence to achieve progressively political ends. Audiences realized that the violence Straight Outta Compton depicted was fiction; but they also believed in its emotional underpinning. Thus, when N.W.A.’s MCs called attention to something like the treatment of black youth by cops (as in “F**k the Police”), it could have an actual political effect.
But N.W.A. also took certain actions to help ensure that audiences believed the intentions behind the group’s songs. MCs Ice Cube and Eazy-E had grown up in Compton, Los Angeles—a notorious gang neighborhood—but they had grown up middle class, avoiding becoming embroiled in violence first-hand. Nevertheless, as N.W.A. got popular, Ice Cube and Eazy-E began to adapt the gangsta mentality from their music into their everyday lives. They bought shotguns and sawed off the ends, to match the words Ice Cube rapped on “Straight Outta Compton.” Their MC personas were still theatrical inventions, but now the theater was spilling over into life.
As N.W.A. and gangster rap became viable commodities, the artists who followed frequently mistook Ice Cube’s and Eazy-E’s personas, rather than their artistry, for the reasons behind their success. Authenticity subsequently became a major issue in hip-hop. Artists began to take extreme measures to make audiences believe in their intentions. If an artist talked gangsta on record, he regularly felt the need to back it up in real life—which sometimes meant performing violent acts or actually joining a gang. By the mid-90s, labels seemed to be seeking out artists with violent pasts. A gun charge, gang affiliation, or history dealing drugs were often the prerequisite for a record deal.
Yet gangsta rap has always been least effective when artists have forgotten that violence is a metaphor. When the reverse is true, and rappers recognize the poetic possibilities within the form, gangsta rap can be powerful, even beautiful, in its depictions of violence. In a late-2006 summary of the year in coke rap—a genre that is itself a descendent of gangsta rap—the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones wrote about the genre’s lyricism:
In these songs, bricks, squares, pies, stones, and yams are coke, and the cooking, mixing, and weighing required to prepare the drug for clients becomes the inspiration for often inscrutable wordplay. As the Clipse rap on a track called “Wamp Wamp,” “Mildewish, I heat it, it turns gluish. It cools to a tight wad; the Pyrex is Jewish. I get paper, it seems I get foolish. Take it to Jacob and play, ‘Which hue’s the bluest?’ ” Hip-hop has always been driven by an imperative to employ the most vibrant words possible; cocaine rap takes this command to an inventive extreme.
Here, the coke rap genre provides a forum for an intricate series of metaphors within metaphors. Like the Clipse’s Malice, whom Frere-Jones quotes, the great MCs usually call attention to themselves with exuberant uses of language.
But authenticity is still an important issue to most rappers. Persona extends beyond the time the MC is on the microphone, and beyond the narrative of any particular song. These days, a rapper’s back-story is usually a part of his relationship with his audience. When 50 Cent emerged, for example, the fact that he had been shot nine times was a huge part of his marketing campaign. Artists’ off-record actions also tend to come under scrutiny by the rap audience. For the most part, for the last couple of decades, it has been a hard and fast rule that a rapper’s public persona must match his on-record persona, or else he risks commercial failure. There’s often an interesting tug between an artist’s actual life and how much poetic license he’s willing to take with his persona in his raps—but most of the time, rappers try to minimize the distance between the two.
So when photos of William Leonard Roberts the corrections officer surfaced in summer 2008, it should have caused a major problem for Rick Ross. It didn’t. After The Smoking Gun irrefutably outed him as an 18-month employee of the Florida Department of Corrections, thereby calling his entire persona into question, Rick Ross did something that, in terms of hip-hop authenticity, was completely unprecedented: He took it on the nose.
Part way through the first verse of “Hustlin’,” Rick Ross makes a little joke. “I know Pablo,” he says (meaning Pablo Escobar), “Noriega.” He pauses, then clarifies, “The real Noriega/ He owe me a hundred favors.”
For a non-rap fan, that simple couplet takes a bit of doing to decode. Ross is implying that he’s on personal terms with Manuel Noriega, the former military leader of Panama who was tried and convicted of drug trafficking, money laundering, and racketeering, and served 15 years in U.S. prison (where he resided when “Hustlin’” came out)—that, in fact, Noriega is in his debt. Perhaps Ross is play-acting as “Freeway” Ricky Ross, who might have come into contact with Noriega while trafficking drugs into Los Angeles in the mid-80s. Perhaps he’s trying to legitimize his use of Freeway’s iconography by adding biographical detail to his lyrics (there’s not much other detail in “Hustlin’,” so why not?) But why does he take the time to make sure we realize he’s talking about “The real Noriega”?
Well, rap fans would hear “Noriega,” and they might think of Manuel Noriega, but they would probably also think of the rapper, Victor Santiago, Jr., a.k.a. “Noreaga,” who had a string of popular singles and albums in the late 90s and early 00s, and who Ross himself might reasonably know. On the surface, Rick Ross wants us to realize he’s talking about Noriega the drug lord, not Noreaga the MC. But it’s no coincidence that Ross alludes to another rapper who copped his identity from a notorious drug dealer. For a brief moment, Ross is tipping his hat to the theatricality of his persona.
After the revelation of Ross’s past as a corrections officer, these are the types of moments that come to define his career. On 2009’s Deeper Than Rap and 2010’s Teflon Don, the two albums Rick Ross has released since the internet dismantled his drug dealer back-story, the rapper has undergone an almost unbelievable transformation. For one thing, he can rap. “Mafia Music,” the very first track on Deeper Than Rap, shows off his newly unveiled skills with a series of thorny, intricate rhymes. He doesn’t sound that much different from the Rick Ross of Port of Miami—he still uses mostly single-syllable words, still attacks his lines with blunt force, and his breath control is still questionable—but the actual level of his technique has drastically improved. He’s on beat, for example. He sounds energized, and his rhymes are clever and literate. On Teflon Don, he even unleashes a signature sound—a sort of firm, wheezy grunt, which could be both mocking and paying tribute to the old Ross—to delirious effect. It’s almost as if the loss of authenticity has freed him to push the Rick Ross character to its utmost extreme.
Instead of continuing to portray a boilerplate rapping crack dealer, Ross redefines his persona as the alpha crack dealer. He is now the most successful, the smartest, the richest drug lord in rap, and even the sonic template of his albums reflects the change. Port of Miami and Trilla sounded like the act of grinding out a living—loping, repetitive beats coupled with blunt, straightforward lyrics. The new albums sound like money. Top-shelf producers like Kanye West and J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League provide beats that utilize strings, wind instruments, and plenty of open space. Within this new context, there’s something incongruous about Ross rapping over such luxurious music—it accentuates his unrefined delivery. Musically, he’s a bull in a china shop. But the tension between the hammering raps and the lavish orchestration helps tell the story Ross intends—that he has reached the highest of highs by climbing up from the lowest of lows.
On Deeper Than Rap and Teflon Don, Ross never overtly references his past as a corrections officer—he includes no denials or justifications of the photos. Instead, he doubles down on his drug dealer persona. Lyrically, he focuses more on his affluence and success in the drug trade than on his actual hustle. His lyrics now carry intricacies, whereas before they merely tumbled out into songs without subtlety or nuance. Without fully letting go of his monosyllabic flow, Ross has gained the ability to paint a specific picture with a few well-placed details. “Parents never had a good job,” he raps on Teflon Don’s “Maybach Music 3,” “Now it’s black American Express cards.” In two short lines he vividly illustrates a handful of important aspects of his life.
Ross’s newfound lust for literary detail spills over into his use of the American crime mythos, which enriches his characterization by placing him in real-world historical context. Dropping the names of Pablo Escobar and Manuel Noriega on “Hustlin’” was bush league compared to the references that Ross hauls out on 2010’s ubiquitous single “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast).” Probably the best song in his catalogue, “B.M.F.” finds Ross trading on many of the same aspects that made “Hustlin’” a successful track. The beat by Lex Luger—a 19 year-old Virginia native who wrings hard-hitting, inventive sounds from a Roland TR-808 drum machine—has a hypnotic quality similar to the song that launched Ross’s career, but it’s faster, with more knock to it. “B.M.F.” is not an easy song to listen to. It’s built around a synthetic-horn fanfare that consistently seems to be stopping and restarting as the song progresses. Its ceaseless repetition has echoes of relentless, underground dance music. Though it competed in the pop market, it is by no means a pop song.
For his part, Ross gruffly delivers quick lines, and then just lets them hang in the air. Eight times throughout the song, Ross declares, “I think I’m Big Meech/ Larry Hoover.” The first reference, Big Meech, is to Demetrius Flenory, one of the founders of the Black Mafia Family—which, not coincidentally, shares an acronym with Blowin’ Money Fast. Demetrius and his brother founded the Black Mafia Family in Detroit, and eventually created hubs for trafficking cocaine in Los Angeles and Atlanta. In the early 2000s, they founded a record label, BMF Entertainment, as a front for the money they brought in from coke. (That label discovered, among others, Young Jeezy.)
Larry Hoover, the second reference, was the leader of the Gangster Disciples who ran the drug trade on Chicago’s South Side in the 70s. Sentenced to 150 to 200 years in prison for the murder of a fellow drug dealer, Hoover continued to run the lucrative Gangster Disciples from behind bars. From jail, Hoover began to encourage the members of his crew to educate themselves and practice non-violence. He changed the GD of “Gangster Disciples” to “Growth and Development,” and founded a handful of non-profits under that name. Subsequently, as a reward for his contributions to society, the community lobbied to have Hoover released from prison—that is, until the federal government discovered that Hoover’s good works were merely a ploy to be released early, and his non-profits existed simply to launder drug money.
When Rick Ross compares himself to Big Meech and Larry Hoover on “B.M.F.,” the semantics are important. He has gone from saying that he “knows” infamous drug traders, to saying that he “thinks” he is one. The “I think I’m” in “I think I’m Big Meech/ Larry Hoover” implies that Rick Ross in fact knows that he’s not a big time coke dealer, but that he has convinced himself that he is. Again, Ross is winking at his own play-acting.
Additionally, both Big Meech and Larry Hoover are currently serving jail time. “Ross’s targets aren’t random,” argues the Village Voice’s Zach Baron, “They have everything to do with what’s available.” But Meech and Hoover were also chosen for their theatricality. They created businesses and non-profits, respectively, as smoke screens for the money they made off of drugs. Ross works in reverse. The details of his “drug trade” are also intended to be used as misdirection—except that they’re covering up the mechanics of Ross the entertainer.
This makes another one of the comparisons by Ross especially interesting. Structured almost exactly the same as “B.M.F.,” and preceding it on Teflon Don, is a song called “MC Hammer,” after the rap moniker used by Stanley Kirk Burrell. MC Hammer still holds the record for having the biggest selling rap album of all time, Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em, which rose to the top of the Billboard charts on the back of the Rick James-sampling single “U Can’t Touch This.” At his commercial peak in 1990, MC Hammer was known for capitalizing on a sanitized, family-friendly version of hip-hop—one that leaned heavily on large, recognizable chunks of other peoples’ music. He was especially known for his fashion choices (especially the baggy shirwal pants he wore in the “U Can’t Touch This” video) and his dancing ability.
With the rise of gangsta rap, though, the hip-hop market changed. MC Hammer never had much credibility with his peers, but when his popularity started to wane, he made a career-killing move. In order to compete with the gangsta rappers that were gaining commercial traction in the early 90s, MC Hammer dropped the “MC” from his name and attempted to toughen up his image. It didn’t work. Audiences saw the move for what it was: grade-A pandering. As his album sales dropped, Hammer failed to cut his living expenses accordingly—he owned a mansion, toured with a huge stage-show, and employed a ridiculously enormous entourage—and in April 1996, the artist responsible for the biggest rap album of all time filed for bankruptcy.
“I got thirty cars,” Rick Ross grunts on “MC Hammer,” “A whole lot of dancers/ I take ‘em everywhere/ I’m MC Hammer.” Ostensibly, it’s a song that treads some of the same territory as “B.M.F.”: Rick Ross is blowing money, fast. MC Hammer had a willful disregard for his own finances; Rick Ross turns him into a symbol for his own excessive spending. But, again, there’s a very specific reason that Rick Ross chooses to compare himself to Hammer—someone who’s known less for being a rapper than an entertainer, a song and dance man, a phony. Once again, Ross is nodding towards the artificiality of his role-playing, and this time, he’s making a direct comparison: “I am MC Hammer.”
With “B.M.F.” and “MC Hammer,” Rick Ross has songs that work on two levels. They work first on a surface level: if you believe that Rick Ross is a drug dealer—even if you believe that he’s actually “Freeway” Ricky Ross—the songs work as no-frills coke rap, just as they have to in order to be commercial. In interviews and public appearances, Ross adheres to this version of his persona. But the songs also work on a meta-theatrical level: Ross is both performing, and commenting on his own performance. If you know about the correction officer photos, and know that Rick Ross knows that you know about them, then whole new layers of meaning appear in the music.
In the 30-plus years since “Rapper’s Delight,” there have been plenty of MCs who have attempted to convince the audience that their on-record persona is also who they are in real life. And there have been plenty of MCs who take on characters for albums at a time—like Kool Keith, Shock G as Humpty Hump, or the cast of Prince Paul’s movie-on-CD A Prince Among Thieves. But no one in hip-hop has attempted to do both at once, convincing one portion of the audience he’s playing it straight while winking at the people who know better. Even the Beastie Boys, whose use of irony on Licensed to Ill was unprecedented in hip-hop, didn’t intend for their frat-boy poses to be taken seriously. They also couldn’t keep up the irony for more than one album. But Rick Ross has not only succeeded artistically in bifurcating his persona; he’s succeeded commercially: Teflon Don sold 176,300 copies in its first week—almost exactly as much as Port of Miami.
Rick Ross has done something that the Beastie Boys could not: By charging in two directions at once—towards authenticity and artifice—he has smuggled duality into the rap marketplace. Ross is running a double hustle. He’s hustling those who believe in his overt persona by convincing them that he’s a drug dealer. He’s also hustling those who recognize his phoniness, and it’s this second hustle that’s more intricate. What does he gain by calling attention to the hustle itself? He gains admiration for his hustling, and that, in turn, validates his hustling. By pretending to be a hustler, he actually becomes one.
There’s a venerable Kurt Vonnegut maxim from Mother Night that goes, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Ross has turned this on its ear. He pretends, therefore he is—and there are clues on Deeper Than Rap and Teflon Don that indicate he’s self-aware even on this level.
Deeper Than Rap’s “Yacht Club” is standard-issue Ross, in which he flaunts his wealth in order to (let’s say) seduce women, but it’s framed with an introduction that has Ross declaring, “It’s secret society, baby!” That brief comment grows in significance when put into context with Teflon Don’s “Free Mason,” which finds Ross rapping, “We the lost symbols, speak in cryptic codes/ Ancient wisdom, valuable like gifts of gold/ I embark on life, my path is all math/ I understand codes these hackers can’t crack.” In perhaps his greatest hustle yet, Ross is trying to convince his listeners that he’s a member of the Illuminati.
Founded in Bavaria in 1776 as The Order of the Perfectibilists, the Illuminati were a private group of intellectuals who sought to abolish monarchies, the clergy and private ownership; they wanted to form a Utopian state where all men were equal and free. In 1777, the founder of the Illuminati, Adam Weishaupt, joined the Freemasons, another secret society of intellectuals. Within ten years, both the Illuminati and the Freemasons had been kicked out of Bavaria, presumably because they were thought to be threats to the government and the church. They were rumored to have gone underground, and, though there is no document that proves their existence, there are people who believe that the Illuminati are, to this day, actually a shadow government that secretly controls many of the world’s affairs, and that the Freemasons exist to do their bidding.
The Illuminati are particularly important in hip-hop, largely because of one of the late Tupac Shakur’s final albums. Recorded under the name Makaveli, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory found Tupac grappling with conspiracy theories regarding the clandestine Illuminati—theories he’d heard from his prison-mates at Clinton Correctional Facility in New York, where he served time for sexual assault in 1995. The album sold 3.5 million copies, and, even though Tupac intended to dispel the rumors he’d heard in prison, it introduced the language of the Illuminati into hip-hop. Since then, there have been factions of the hip-hop world that have accused artists of being associated with the Illuminati. People like Public Enemy’s Professor Griff and Mobb Deep’s Prodigy have accused rap superstars Kanye West and Jay-Z of affiliation with the secret cabal.
When Rick Ross refers to codes and symbols in “Free Mason,” he refers to the systems of secret language that Freemasons use to identify one another—handshakes, passwords, and symbols derived from ancient Egyptian mythology. In early 2010, Jay-Z toyed with his accusers by releasing a video for “On to the Next One” packed with these alleged symbols: pyramids, skulls, ravens, hammers dripping with blood. Jay-Z also makes an appearance on “Free Mason,” rapping at the climax of his verse, “I said I was amazin’/ Not that I’m a Mason,” implying, of course, the exact opposite. For Ross, claims of an association with the Freemasons and the Illuminati enrich the criminal mythology of his character—he possesses such wealth that he is actually one of the elite who run the planet.
It’s also another wink. In A Brief History of Secret Societies, historian David V. Barrett writes, “It has been said that whether or not the Illuminati actually have exercised such influence through the years, the belief that they have means that in reality they have.” The same could be said of Rick Ross himself. Associating himself with the Illuminati ipso facto actually makes him a member of the Illuminati. Similarly, the belief by hundreds of thousands of people that Ross is a drug kingpin is as powerful, if not more powerful, than if he had done the crimes to earn his position as a drug kingpin. Here is a character willing itself into being. Using the same tools as the Illuminati—the coded language and symbols—the actions of Ross directly mirror the actions of Roberts. Just as William Roberts is engaging in an act of creation by playing the role of Rick Ross, so is the character of Rick Ross engaging in an act of creation by initiating himself into the Illuminati. Or, as he says on “B.M.F.,” “I’m self-made/ You just affiliated/ I built it ground-up/ You bought it renovated/ Talkin’ plenty capers/ Nothing’s been authenticated.”
The evolution of Rick Ross from two-dimensional character to kaleidoscopic persona experiment may be unprecedented in hip-hop, but it has an interesting forerunner in literature in the work of William Shakespeare. Harold Bloom claims that Shakespeare invented the modern idea of humanity by giving characters the ability to overhear themselves—that this innovation essentially invented modern psychology. One of his favorite examples of a character with the ability to overhear himself is Falstaff. In Genius, Bloom writes, “Falstaff is an actor in himself, as well as an actor’s role.” Rick Ross shares Falstaff’s primary trait: self-satisfaction. He is a Falstaff of hip-hop if ever there was one. To that end, he is also an actor in himself, and an actor’s role. He is Rick Ross, a creation, and he is William Leonard Roberts, playing a part—and, on record, he has given Roberts the ability to overhear Ross.
“To hear yourself, at least for an instant, without self-recognition,” Bloom says in Genius, “Is to open your spirit to the tempests of change.” The evolution of Rick Ross is evident along these lines. On Teflon Don’s “Tears of Joy,” he compares himself directly to late The Notorious B.I.G., rapping, “Biggie Smalls in the flesh, living life after my death.” In one sense, that “death” refers to the death of his persona motivated by the leak of the corrections officer photos. The “life” refers to his subsequent creative rebirth. The artificiality of the Rick Ross persona needed to be exposed before Rick Ross could truly, fully come into being.
In retrospect, this all seems destined, from the time Hank Jackson tried on Casanova Fly’s persona on record, sold a million copies of the result, and created one of the biggest arms of the entertainment industry with the success of “Rapper’s Delight.” For thirty years, the Il Capitano archetype in hip-hop has remained relatively unchanged and wholly interchangeable—throughout its history, hip-hop has needed braggadocio to sell. That has resulted in the emergence of hip-hop as a hugely effective commercial force in America. Via hip-hop, The Hustle has evolved into many things: a hustle for survival; a hustle for the possibilities of wealth and success; a hustle for political change. Now, Rick Ross has not only begun to artistically examine the mechanics of the hustler archetype, he has gotten the rap marketplace interested in that examination.
By himself, Rick Ross is an interesting case study. But his self-awareness and the bifurcation of his persona into character and actor could also have interesting ramifications in hip-hop music as a whole. When Shakespeare’s characters began to hear themselves, they began to exhibit a detailed psychology more reflective of the human experience than anything that preceded it. Role-playing is such a rich metaphor for the human experience, because we do it all the time in our daily lives. We adapt our behavior to fit whomever we’re with. We act differently towards our bosses than we do towards our lovers. What Shakespeare did, and what Rick Ross is doing, calls attention to our own behavior: Who are we when we’re observed?
Hustlers, after all, often call attention to themselves in order to divert attention from The Hustle. Can that work in reverse? Can calling attention to the hustle allow us access to the psychology of the man running it? If so, then the kaleidoscopic persona of Rick Ross might be a small first step toward a new version of Il Capitano—one that, like Shakespeare’s characters, reflects the human experience in a way that illuminates it. At that point, the hustler becomes far more interesting than the hustle.
Marty Brown is an actor and writer living in Brooklyn.
 Caramanica, Jon. “Beyond Authenticity: A Rapper Restages.” New York Times. April 22, 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/23/arts/music/23ross.html
 Charnas, Dan. The Big Payback. New American Library, 2010.
 Frere-Jones, Sasha. “Coke Is It.” The New Yorker. December 25, 2006. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/12/25/061225crmu_music
 Baron, Zach. “Who Does Rick Ross Think He Is, Exactly?” The Village Voice – Sound of the City. July 21, 2010. http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/2010/07/who_does_rick_r.php
 Conway, Rondell. “Position of Power.” XXL, March 2011.
 Bloom, Harold. Genius. Warner Books, 2002.