As mainstream hip-hop grows more baroque and exaggerated, many rappers have found themselves adrift, unsure of how to pair their personalities with a new generation of operatic-minded beatmakers. Not so for Rick Ross, who's benefitted more than anybody from the current climate, cultivating a cartoon-y boss image befitting his hefty size: huge shades, bushy beard, with a body so tattoo-smattered that it looks like silly putty rolled over a newspaper. And with his new album, God Forgives, I Don't, he proves that rap finally has its very own James Bond villain.
Two years ago, I made the mistake of taking Teflon Don seriously, which is an entirely wrong approach for an artist who's more focused on grand spectacle than verisimilitude, whipping up a frothy mixture of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous prestige and Miami Vice criminality. It would be one thing if Ross were just taking rap's usual flashiness and applying it to a broader canvas, but he's also a noted eccentric who's fond of weird references and suspicious neuroticism and hyper-specificity in his lyrics.
This gets summed up by the immense, quasi-gothic "Hold Me Back," which shifts from a coming-of-age story, with Ross resorting to drug-dealing to fill the fridge for his kids, into an obscene and absurd catalogue of wealth, including a $24,000 toilet. He eventually has what seems like a near panic attack in the booth, with the line "These niggas want to hold me back" dissolving into a heaving mantra. The theme of ridiculous affluence paired with paranoid fatalism continues on "911," wherein Ross converses with God and drives his Porsche straight to heaven.
At this point, a new Rick Ross album is an occasion for two things: witnessing both the new ways he'll find to describe his mansion and the rococo embroidering he'll apply to incidents pulled from his actual life. A few years back, he deflected 50 Cent's accusations of his prison-guard past by ignoring them entirely, inflating the drug-kingpin narrative to ever more cartoonish proportions. Here, he deals with last year's well-publicized seizure with a passive shrug: "Get a blow job/Have a seizure on a Lear," he notes impassively on "Maybach Music IV," somehow turning a medical emergency into further evidence of his booming bosshood.
As for scale, God Forgives, I Don't is basically unmatched. The beats are huge, varied enough that they don't become tedious, and the guest talent is deep and broadly selected: The reascendant Nas proves a great foil on "Triple Beam Dreams," Meek Mill proves why he's the standout of the MMG bench on "So Sophisticated," and Andre 3000 continues a run of fantastic guest appearances, blowing the roof off of "Sixteen" before exiting on his own weird little guitar solo, the dinkiest thing on an otherwise jumbo-sized album. (However, "3 Kings," which recruits Dr. Dre and Jay-Z for a strategic East/West/South photo-op, is tepid and canned sounding, with guest verses that sound like advertisements for Beats headphones and Blue Ivy Carter.)
Never the most dexterous MC, Ross nevertheless surprises by continuing to find new ways to describe his largesse, from a litany of rich neighbors (Lebron and Pat Riley), to boasts about funding his manager's car collection, to weird shout-outs seemingly purchased to pad his reputation (L.A. Reid appears to give his personal stamp of approval). At times it feels like a lavish status-affirming party thrown by and for Ross himself, with John Legend carted out to croon on the syrupy, self-laudatory "Rich Forever," using a Maybach Music Group slogan to confirm the everlasting wealth of all parties involved thus far. Like the rest of God Forgives, I Don't, it's silly, completely gauche, and still pretty impressive, another notable touch on this massive exercise in excess.