THE POWER OF ONE MAN
RICK ROSS IS THE CENTER OF THE MMG UNIVERSE. RAPPER BY RAPPER, SINGER BY SINGER, THE CEO IS ROUNDING OUT A ROSTER THAT WILL DEFINE HIS LEGACY IN HIP-HOP. AND IF ANY OF HIS SQUAD SURPASSES HIM? WELL, THAT’S THE BIG IDEA
Words: John Kennedy l Photos: Armen Djerrahian
IN ROOM 2323 OF Times Square’s Inter-Continental Hotel, Wale is venting. His arms are flailing and dreads are shaking as he stands over his king-size bed wearing near-white socks and 10.Deep camo pants that are hanging on for dear life. It’s supposed to be an evening off for the sports-obsessed MC to unwind and watch basketball’s top prospects find their spaceship at the NBA Draft, yet it’s hip-hop’s rookie class that has him on the defense.
“Our genre prides itself so much on finding new shit that we don’t appreciate nothing no more,” Wale proclaims. “They’re so busy telling niggas that they’re not great or not future legends, that they anoint niggas that haven’t done nothing! I’m not taking nothing away from Chief Keef, but they just jumped so fast! Y’all was just on A$AP hard! I sold 165,000 in the first week in the face of niggas that blatantly didn’t want to see me win. But y’all concerned about who’s next…”
This rant will continue for three minutes. But the implied keynote of the speech—which peaks with a nasally imitation of a hypothetical Pitchfork.com writer—is that, despite hip-hop’s infatuation with new faces, Wale and his Maybach Music Group family have now. To the naked eye, Rick Ross assembled his diverse unit to grapple with loaded rap rosters like G.O.O.D. Music’s and Young Money’s for the No. 1 spot. It’s his own musical Dream Team that lives up to Ross’ bigger-is-better mantra. There are over-the-top antics, like a May press conference with open bar Cîroc and disoriented guest speakers announcing project release dates, business ventures and an artist signing. Everything is a Spliff TV-directed motion picture.
Wale was way more subdued yesterday, when the bulk of MMG occupied a Manhattan photo studio for this cover shoot. Independent schedules prevent frequent fraternity-like chill sessions, yet the camaraderie between the Maybach men is so evident it’s almost tangible. “I see you getting pretty, Wallace,” Ross quips at a slouching Wale, who’s being tended to in a makeup chair. The D.C.-bred rapper has no idea how Ross’ preferred pet name (Wallace) arose, but it has stuck; even Jay-Z uses it. Always one for the last word, Wale swivels and counters, “Yeah, you next!”
No matter how many times you’ve witnessed Rick Ross in person, you can’t help but gawk at his size. That is, until you see his towering bodyguard, Ghost, who makes Rozay look like a bearded kid brother tagging along. Take a walk out to the lobby and you’ll find Stalley idling on a couch, wearing his native Cleveland Indians fitted, awaiting styling. The oft-reserved rhymer is a bit anxious (“I’ve never worn all white,” he confesses), but excited about popping his magazine-cover cherry. Over there, Maybach O—MMG’s new soul bastion, aka B2K survivor Omarion—pop-locks his way around the set. A bit chunkier, but just as chiseled, O, for the purpose of passing time, challenges a member of Ross’ security team (not Ghost) to a push-up contest (he loses). Dreadlocked rapper Gunplay is en route on a plane from Miami with an arsenal of kooky expressions stowed for the camera. And finally, right here is Meek Mill, front and center, focusing a menacing stare into the lens. The Philly rap standout will be the next progeny that Ross unleashes on the mainstream. Today, though, Meek’s still dealing with the hangover of past street deeds—he must hustle through his looks to make his 2:30 p.m. parole officer visit in Philadelphia.
Unlike Yeezy’s and Weezy’s sets, MMG’s demographic directive is funneled. They occupy different lanes—from illegal regal (Ross) to blue-collar rap (Stalley)—but ultimately are all attuned to the streets. This leaves players with a Wild West mentality, contending not only with team members but also their own captain.
After signing with MMG in February 2011, Wale joined Ross in the gold club by moving more than 500,000 copies of his sophomore LP, Ambition. When Meek Mill’s Dreamchasers 2 mixtape dropped in May, it more than doubled the DatPiff downloads of Ross’ monumental freebie Rich Forever. And in June, the crew’s second and latest compilation Self Made 2 upped its predecessor’s 59,000 first week with 98,000 initial sales. Sure every Rick Ross project is legitimately considered an iCal-worthy event; God Forgives, I Don’t, arguably the year’s most desired rap album, is no different. But what’s most intriguing is that Meek, with his upcoming release, Dreams and Nightmares, is in a position to eclipse the man that gave him his shot. Apparently that’s the intention.
“We’re like some type of rock ’n’ roll super group,” says Wale. “Ross wants us to be bigger than him; he’s setting it up for us to be bigger. I wanna win so bad for Ross, because I see how hard he goes. This nigga don’t sleep ’cause he wants niggas to win so bad.”
MEEK MILL STRETCHES OUT in a white cloth metal chair on the balcony of the Beverly Hilton hotel in Los Angeles. A frosty gold Jesus piece lies against his white Ralph Lauren V-neck. Like the late-afternoon sun, Meek is finally cooling down after a day of press and sound checks for a BET Awards MMG performance. A disemboweled blunt lays in an ashtray on a table, while a few of the 25-year-old’s entourage puff and pass in the cut. It’s been a hectic week of SM2 promo—including a teeming album signing and concert at New York sneaker speakeasy Alife. The rising star is beginning to feel conflicted about his ballooning image.
“Little kids, they cry when they see me. I don’t want no little kid crying for me,” says Meek, lifting his black polyester pants to scratch his left ankle. “I don’t think I’m the one to cry for; I did a lot of wrong things. I ain’t perfect.”
Whether Robert Rihmeek Williams realizes or not, his coming of age could spark a shift in the hip-hop tide. While many rappers were either copping glow sticks or singing their emo hearts out last year, Meek kicked in the door with a few anthems that were as energetic as they were aggressive (“Tupac Back,” “Ima Boss” and “House Party”). He’s a return to unadulterated radio-friendly street rap without blatant mainstream pandering. “He’s got star power,” says Stalley. “He makes great records.” Gunplay adds: “He’s like a rap machine—he doesn’t stop.”
“I think I can be the biggest rapper in the game,” Meek says matter-of-factly. “Ross is the boss of the team, but he’s not the limit to how far you can go. I got plans on being bigger than Jay-Z—and [Ross] wants that. Ross ain’t the type of artist that just wants artists under him. He loves to see me shine, he tells me that all the time. I don’t feel like I’m being used with Rozay. I feel like I’m being helped, and we’re working together as a team.”
Ever since Meek flipped the city on its head with the catchy mixtape single “In My Bag” in 2007, he’s claimed the Philadelphia crown that Beanie Sigel wore for most of the oughts. He keeps a fresh memory on more modest times, often revisiting YouTube clips of himself as a teenager rapping on sidewalks with cornrows so outgrown you can barely see any rows at all. “I see the hunger and try to remember where I was at that day and how much money I had in my pocket,” Meek recalls of his days splitting time between hustling, rapping and working part-time shifts at Denny’s restaurant. “Them old videos, I might’ve been 16, [had] $4 worth of gas and a dutch. That just reminds me of the hunger.”
Creating music has been the least of Meek’s troubles with blowing up; it’s the burning spotlight that comes with it. Like the night he attended Teyana Taylor’s G.O.O.D. Music signing bash at New York nightclub W.i.P and found himself present during a much publicized skirmish between Chris Brown and Drake. Press reports immediately implicated him in the bottle-throwing frenzy, allegedly rooted in a love square between the three male artists and Rihanna. All false, according to Meek. “The media be having you tangled up… Me and [Chris Brown] have nothing to beef about. I’m big on not even doing the rap beef shit, ’cause in my ’hood, I know guys that got killed at rap battles. Killed over putting somebody’s name in a rap, so I’m not really big on that. You talk to that person as a man and leave it at that.”
As for those Rihanna rumors: “I got a girl at home, so it ain’t nothing I can entertain or say I’m involved in when I’m not. Yeah, Rihanna is my type, [but] pretty chicks are my type.”
Meek has a way of muddling his answers with sweeping statements. He much prefers riding dirt bikes, recording music or spending time with his 1-year-old son to answering invasive questions about singers and rappers not in his MMG fam. Yet, today he’s handling it like a champ, even occasionally smiling with teeth. He’s in better spirits than yesterday, when he was in downtown L.A. trying to squeeze his size 10-and-a-half feet into size 9 low-tops (wardrobe screw-up) for a five-hour Puma shoot. For the new face of the athletic brand, it’s just another cog in the ever-pumping fame machine.