Rick Ross: Rap as Summer-Movie Escapism
Rick Ross isn't just a bad rapper. He's terrible. I mean, he's awful. He rhymes "Jiggaman" with "millionaire," and it's virtually impossible to come up with any sort of creative pronunciation that makes that one even kind of work. He also rhymes "fly place" with "fly fireplace." His beat-riding abilities have largely degenerated since the time when he was a third-string Slip-N-Slide post-bounce guy; there's only one song on Port of Miami ("I'm Bad") where he manages to keep up with the track's drums. He actually uses multitracking vocals to play hypeman for himself ("They call me the [BOSS] / I be calling the [SHOTS] / It's Ricky Ross, that boy be balling [A LOT]"); it's like he can't even manage to get a whole line out of his mouth without punching in. The fact that a guy like this, someone whose pure rhyming abilities are basically just a big black hole, managed to get a huge deal and a big push from Def Jam is essentially inexcusable. But he's made a pretty good album. It's fucked up, and it kills me to say it, but it's true.
Post-Documentary, it's almost become a cliche to say that you don't have to be a great rapper to make a great album as long as your record label is willing to dump truckloads of money into your production. But to put everything in perspective, I just got back from listening to the new Young Dro album, and he's another young rapper with dubious skills and superstar backing. The album was OK, and the beats were all the sort of humid, organic tracks that T.I. routinely murders these days, but there's a big difference between that album and Port of Miami. Dro's album doesn't sound like it was built around him; it just sounds like T.I. let him have half the beats he bought for King, and so Dro just comes off sounding like T.I.'s barely-rapping cousin or something. With Port of Miami, all that money was spent with a specific purpose in mind: it's all there to help Ross inhabit the persona he's built for himself. There's nothing particularly groundbreaking about that persona; his kingpin schtick is pretty much just the logical conclusion of all the trap-talk that's become so popular in the last couple of years. Guys like T.I. and Jeezy have become immensely successful talking about doing street-corner drug-deals and anchoring their stories in the mundane squalor of a dealer's day-to-day life, so Ross takes out all the dirt and grit and just presents himself as the top of the pyramid, the drug-dealer who never actually has to endure personal interactions with dope fiends. Interestingly enough, Jay-Z, Ross's big backer, started his solo career by working a much more fleshed-out and complex version of the same archetype. Ross doesn't give us any of the intricacies; he just tells us about all the money and connections that the life has brought him. It's shallow stuff. But here's something no one has really mentioned about the album: all the samples seem to come from movies or TV. Two tracks sample the Moroder songs from the Scarface soundtrack; another uses the theme from S.W.A.T. Cool & Dre's beat for "Boss" is built from something that sounds a lot like an uncredited sample of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" (from Top Gun, duh), and the martial synthetic strings on Akon's track for "Cross That Line" remind me of the score from The Terminator. There are so many cinematic signifiers so deeply entrenched in the album's production that it just really drives home the point that Ross is very self-consciously playing a patently ridiculous character. He doesn't do a whole lot to hide the reality that he's just making completely escapist entertainment utterly devoid of socially redeeming qualities. And, you know, escapist entertainment has its place.
One thing about escapist entertainment is that it has to be just dazzlingly sleek, and the beats on this album really are magnificent. Cool & Dre, the Runners, DJ Toomp, and even Jazze Pha have come up with some seriously epic burners, all swooping synths and enormous drums. Ross may not have a whole lot to offer as a rapper, but his voice is great: a megaton boom, all precision-bomb plosives and drawn-out, hissed s-sounds. Ross is a big guy, maybe six-foot-five, and his stature gives his voice an extra heft. All of us tall people have long chest-cavities and big, deep voices (check the podcast; I sound like Ted Theodore Logan on Quaaludes), and Ross knows to let his words take on an authoritative resonance; Slim Thug does the same thing even better. And so Ross takes the ridiculous and half-drawn character he's invented for himself and inhabits it completely. The result is a kind of musical equivalent of a cheesed-out special-effects movie, the sort of thing that you might not want to pay ten bucks to see in the theater but that you'll enjoy thoroughly when it comes on TBS at 2 p.m. on a Sunday. It slows down a whole lot in its second half, but then, so do most blockbuster movies; you can even draw parallels between a movie's obligatory and ill-advised romantic subplot and the obligatory and ill-advised sex-jams on Port of Miami. It's not Raiders of the Lost Ark, but maybe it's The Rundown or The Transporter. When you're in the right mood, that's all it needs to be.