How will history remember William Leonard Roberts II, b.k.a. the rapper Rick Ross? He is easily the greatest rapper Miami has birthed, yet has never put together an MVP-caliber rap year. He has only a sole platinum LP to his name, yet has consistently released premium projects for the greater part of the last decade. Named himself for one of the most notorious drug traffickers ever—powdering his lyrics with tall tales about his own criminal empire—yet infamously served a very legal stint as a correctional officer before his big break. The superb new album Rather You Than Me does little to resolve the paradox that is Rick Ross or cement his status among the greats. But Ross’ ninth studio album certainly opens the floor for discussion—it’s his strongest body of work since 2012’s God Forgives, I Don’t.
An architect of the sound that defines late 2000’s trap music—plodding drums, reverbing gongs, body-shaking 808s—Rick Ross, and by extension, his MMG crew, has often drawn from the same sonic and stylistic well. Wale’s “Actin’ Up” and Ross’ “Hold Me Back,” both from 2012, are virtually the same song, for instance. Same for 2011’s “B.M.F.” and “MC Hammer.” But the feather in Rozay’s cap, what’s distinguished him from peers like Gucci Mane and Jeezy, is an appreciation for instrumentation that’s as rich as his lyrical content. Rather You Than Me is built on these nostalgic sounds. The throat-clearing opener “Apple Of My Eye” sets the tone, as Ross chimes in on everything from America’s tiny-palmed president to his protégé’s love life (“I told Meek, ‘I wouldn’t trust Nicki,’” he remarks) over toasty brass. Bink!—an overlooked name in Jay Z’s The Blueprint liner notes—composes an opulent string section for “Scientology” and chops up Thelicia’s 1970 song “Illustration” for the jazzy audio confessional “Game Ain’t Based On Sympathy.” The Stylistics’ gorgeous classic “People Make The World Go Round” gets new life as a sample for “I Think She Like Me,” one of the album’s many standout moments. There are still some trunk rattlers though, most notably a three-song stretch in its belly that features “Dead Presidents” and the ominous “She On My D**k,” both distinct callbacks to MMG’s trademark sound and repetition.
Lyrically, Rick Ross knows the power of writing his own realities into existence. His rhymes often play like embellished edits to his Wikipedia page. But at least he’s self-aware. “I said I was The Boss, nobody made a sound,” he boasts. On the album, Rozay categorizes himself amongst Russell Simmons and Sean Combs and Shawn Carter, some of music’s most accomplished executives. He has sporadic album host—comedian Chris Rock, who pops up twice here—introduce him on “Powers That Be” with a short monolog: “There’s not a better MC than Rick motherf**kin’ Ross.” This is despite the fact that the same track features arguably the best MC of all time, Nas, who shows he’s leagues beyond with his own dizzying verse. No matter. Renzel’s incredulous swaggering is all part of a wholesome package that’s balanced by sincere recollections and somber realism.
Comparisons to The Notorious B.I.G. that go beyond waist size are mostly ill-advised, yet Ross’ ability to imbue humor and self-deprecating nonchalance alongside darker content recalls his Brooklyn predecessor. His tone shifts effortlessly on “Santorini Greece,” where the kid from Carol City comments on systemic racism just a few bars before delivering this chuckler: “My money long, you know I’m out your reach / Only fat n***a joggin’ on the beach / Versace underwear but see the ass crack / Oblivious to how rapid my cash stack.” His unusual humblebrags often catch you off guard. “Just had seizure at the Super Bowl / Woke up in the third quarter lookin’ for the smoke,” he rhymes on “Apple Of My Eye.” It’s a subtle but entertaining quirk that Rozay plays up often on Rather You Than Me.
Things get serious, though, on “Idols Become Rivals,” a scathing rip of former friend and Cash Money Records co-founder Bryan “Birdman” Williams that seems like a part of a deliberate play to recruit Lil Wayne to MMG. Ross is both blunt (“Catholic record labels, n***as gettin’ raped, boy / Birdman’s a priest, moans in his synagogue”) and dryly petty (“Came to the realization that your watch was fake”), rhyming over the same Camilo Sesto “Agua De Dos Rios” sample that Jay Z and Beanie Sigel used to address their absentee fathers on 2000’s “Where Have You Been” (message!).
What’s most refreshing about Rather You Than Me is that it feels formula-free. There’s no weed song. Very little trend-hopping—in fact, Young Thug skirts the status quo of increasingly incoherent rhymes on “Trap Trap Trap” by enunciating his every word (he does the same on two songs on Drake’s More Life). The smooth “Maybach Music V,” the latest chapter in a storied series, is the closest Rather You Than Me comes to a love song, powered by Dej Loaf’s unique vocal tone and Katt Rockell nodding to other down-ass-chick classics like Biggie’s “Me & My B***h” and Meth and Mary’s “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By.” Perhaps Ross has learned from past album outliers—like Teflon Don’s random “Number 1” or Mastermind’s out-of-place The Weeknd assist “In Vein”—and stuck to his sweet spot of thumping trap and good ol’ soul.
After the forgettable Hood Billionaire and Black Market LPs, Rick Ross needed a banger. He delivers with Rather You Than Me, a stellar project that can sit beside his best works. The album is no legacy maker on its own, but a sharp indication that Ross is still not quite finished writing his way into history.