He Ain’t Even Know It: On Rick Ross, Rap, and Responsibility
By Henry Adaso
[This story appears along with 43 pages of essays, criticism and music discussion in the debut issue of UNCOOL. Download it here.]
This was going to be a defense of Rick Ross. I was going to start with an anecdote—something that happened last fall. I was going to note the aesthetic streaks on the sky, or something poetic like that. It was, indeed, a day warm enough to whip out the trusty Old Smokey and slap some salmon on the grill. I was going to start there and veer off into what actually happened that day and how it led me to a revelation.
An old flame had called to shoot the feces about something. She asked what kind of trouble I was getting into that day. I confessed that I was about to grill some fish, and that I was doing so to the lush, avaricious tunes of Rick Ross. Barbecue and Rick Ross go together like frat parties and beer explosions.
“That’s one thing I don’t miss about you: Rick Ross,” said the voice on the other end. Ouch. Just then, it dawned on me that I had never actually met a fellow member of the Rick Ross Stan Club. I know they exist because the RIAA tells me so: Port of Miami: certified gold; Deeper Than Rap: certified gold; Teflon Don: certified gold/almost-platinum; God Forgives, I Don’t: certified gold. And lawd knows Rich Forever would’ve sold like hotcakes had he not given it away for zilch.
Rick Ross has sold millions of records. So why are his fans hesitant to publicly admit their fondness for his sumptuous sounds? A theory: Rick Ross doesn’t fit the bill of what most rap heads consider “real.” As far as purists are concerned, he’s fake. Can we categorically bracket Rick Ross as “fake,” given the manufacturing process that funds rap’s current social order?
In July 2008, The Smoking Gun uncovered some documents and photographs that would forever change the way rap fans perceive Rick Ross. They exposed details of his 18-month stint as a correctional officer in South Florida. Rick Ross bumbled the controversy horribly. He denied the photos. As the evidence kept mounting, he reluctantly copped to it. Then, he got irritated when the issue came up in interviews. On wax, however, Ross handled it like a savvy businessman.
Rick Ross became the joke. He exaggerated his kingpin persona beyond the point of absurdity, channeling characters that were blatantly fictional. No mea culpas necessary. Everyone understood that Rick Ross was not trying to be taken seriously. The tide had turned.
The connotation of the word “real” has evolved over the years. Contemporary rap is bursting at the seams with storytellers who “buy” their way into the “real” conversation by spewing borrowed/imagined tales. Street kings don’t always make great rappers; the best rappers haven’t always come from the streets. From an artistic standpoint, Rick Ross is not that different from the *air quotes* real—in post-2000s hip-hop, he may actually be the archetypal real rapper.
There are, however, two things working against him. One, he’s not what many consider a rapper’s rapper. You’re not going to mistake him for a Nas or an Eminem. That’s not to say he doesn’t try. He has steadily improved from album to album. If you’ve never heard his pre-Def Jam compilation, Rise to Power, don’t bother. Suave House probably canned it to avoid rotting store shelves. Despite solid cameos from the Clipse, Scarface, and Devin the Dude, it’s just so blah. Ross was still polishing those vivid street vignettes. The widescreen beats had yet to enter the frame.
Over time, he learned the art of pacing rhymes to drum patterns and started picking better beats. Having a stable of talented emcees to silkscreen his lyrics from time to time didn’t hurt, either. The Rick Ross you hear today is a product of years of trial and error. It would be disingenuous to deny him his transformation, work ethic, and craftsmanship.
But another knock on Ross—and this is the very thing that prompted me to change the trajectory of this essay in the first place—is that he has a female problem. He’s always had misogynistic raps, but no more than your average emcee. It was his turn on Rocko’s “U.O.E.N.O.” that finally caught fire. “Put molly all in her champagne/ She ain’t even know it/ I took her home and I enjoyed that/ She ain’t even know it,” Ross rapped.
His first stab at an apology was even more appalling: “It was a misunderstanding with a lyric — a misinterpretation where the term rape wasn’t used. I would never use the term rape in my records.” One thing Ross never explained was how we could’ve possibly understood that line in the proper context. It has to go down as the most irresponsible apology in hip-hop history. Promoting rape in rap, even under the guise of context or artistic expression, is irresponsible and completely unacceptable. Duh.
Hip-hop and realities have always been tied, even though there’s no scientific evidence linking them. In Ross’ case, though, the message seemed way too real to overlook. You don’t need scientific data to visualize young boys digesting that line with no sense of discernment. I have friends who have been drugged by sleazy dudes. One friend in particular swore off alcohol entirely after seeing a female friend black out at a party.
But why single out Rick Ross? Rappers have been dropping repulsive lines since Adam. The obvious explanation is that Rick Ross has a dominant presence in hip-hop, which makes him an easy target for scrutiny—the bigger your stature (pardon me) the bigger the microscope.
Contrast Ross with Ab-Soul, a member of Kendrick Lamar’s widely cherished Black Hippy clique, who dropped a similar line a month before Ross’ “U.O.E.N.O.” kerfuffle. Here’s Soul’s under-reported line on “You’re Gone,” alongside JMSN: “Since you’ve been good I’ve slipped a present in that drink you drinking.” Um, thanks, Ab-Soul? No one called him out on that line.
No, wait… I did find two posts on Ab-Soul’s date rape rhyme. One was titled “Date Rape Never Sounded So Catchy” and the blogger wrote, “I’m not ‘offended’ or necessarily think this went too far, this is music for adults and sweet baby jesus knows I listen to worse.” Another, a message board entry, exclaimed: “Ab-Soul ft. JMSN - You’re Gone. Coolest date rape song ever!”
Are the rules different for different rappers? This may seem like an excuse for unacceptable behavior, but there is something peculiar about the way we’ve gone after Rick Ross. It seems to me like Ross is paying for cumulative sins: misogynistic lyrics, blah raps, the whole CO thing.
Is bad behavior acceptable from rappers we like vs. rappers we don’t like? How do you draw artistic lines in hip-hop? How do you enforce them? When is fiction acceptable? Is this type of critique unique to black rappers? Is this critique genre specific? Can rap truly produce social realities?
There are no clear answers to these questions, but the conversations they spawn are vital. While I would never want hip-hop to be completely safe, there are certain sacred lines that must be protected. I don’t know what those lines are yet, but we’d better find out soon before this art form we love becomes obsolete.
In the meantime, I’m taking suggestions on BBQ music.
Henry Adaso is a Houston-based music journalist and social media pollinator. He’s written for the Houston Press, VIBE, XXL, and LA Weekly. He’s the founder of the award-winning blog The Rap Up and lead vocalist of the Grammy-awaiting mime band Pervertable Disciples.
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