Rappers with a pronounced regional stamp often end up trapped beneath the weight of that label, their growth impinged by its limits and rules. Think of someone like Ice Cube, whose spot-on embodiment of L.A. gangsta-rap tropes made him momentarily fearsome but ultimately ridiculous, decommissioned into a scowling kid’s movie foil. Meanwhile, a more versatile artist like Snoop Dogg, who started with the same profile, was able to squeeze out into progressively transforming incarnations, leaving him still viable nearly 20 years later.
Rick Ross appears to be setting himself up for the less desirable of those two outcomes, stockpiling Magic City stereotypes in an effort to cast himself as the de facto boss of Miami. Even worse than the tired Tony Montana/Miami Vice dynamic have been his nods to the broader Southern pantheon, settling into the effect-laden, molasses-drip flow that has mired the region’s output. And while Ross has made some effort to limber up in the four years since his debut, his style only continues to ossify on Teflon Don, which, despite fitful spots of brilliance, feels distinctly swampy.
Ross’s greatest tool is still his presence, which vouches for the strength of his persona when his lyrics can’t. The intimidating character he presents, face masked by sunglasses and a thick beard, always seems to be holding back, choosing kingly indolence over any vigorous attempt to impress. Yet by now, on his fourth album, that reserve reads more as hesitance than anything else, and the overall impression is of a king sinking into his throne.
Ross makes cursory efforts to back up his façade with strong material, as on the titanic opener “I’m Not a Star,” but too often that strength seems dictated by the size of his beats. Unlike the Notorious B.I.G., whose paring of size and skill made him a juggernaut, Ross vacillates between raw power and flat laziness. This, in addition to his reliance on juvenile coke-money speedboat motifs, leaves him in constant danger of turning into a cartoon.
Teflon Don has its high points, among them one of the most high-profile guest lists in recent memory, giving prime names like Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Drake a chance to hold court with Ross. Yet the ironic aspect of this cream-of-the-crop gathering is that each guest is, in turn, holding back, either to match the host’s style or avoid outdoing him. Jay-Z and West’s appearances are minimal and anemic, while Cee-Lo’s is wildly at odds with Ross’s verses on “Tears of Joy”; the two of them might as well be on different songs. Even stranger is the guest spot from Drake, which could easily be mistaken for Ross guesting on a Drake song, all gauzy atmosphere and apprehensive self-reflection. Ross still does well with meaty backings and muscular soul samples (“B.M.F.” and “M.C. Hammer” are both tremendous) and he’s still largely unmatched at manhandling beats that might overshadow others.
Yet despite all this potential, Ross’s work too often comes off as a conspicuous mishandling of both assets and signifiers: too much drug posturing, too much repetition, too little real effort. Half-assed nods at deeper substance, like the opening black-power sample and Emmett Till reference on “Tears of Joy” seem to exemplify this, finding Ross, strong enough on his own if he wants to be, awkwardly steadying himself on the pillar of racial identity.