Rick Ross cannot expect anyone to take the title of his third album, Deeper Than Rap, with even a grain of credulity. Last July, the South Florida rapper, whose shtick is indebted to a supposed backstory as a cocaine kingpin, was outed by the Smoking Gun as an ex-corrections officer with a paucity of underworld associations. Then, earlier this year, Ross starred in a YouTube squabble with 50 Cent that was so tepid, two-dimensional, and poorly acted it begged to be moderated by Vince McMahon. So, given the fact that Ross has no compelling personal history nor present-day thug bona fides, his attempt to argue that there’s something to him outside of music comes across as sadly delusional, as if the buck-naked emperor could bully us into believing he was wearing clothes.
And yet, if rapping is all Ross has going for him (though he would probably plead, or threaten, otherwise), he’s not in an unenviable position. His first two albums, 2006’s Port of Miami and last year’s Trilla, are some of the decade’s most lavishly executed, boasting a who’s who of producers and featured rappers. It turns out that having the full support of Jay-Z and Def Jam matters a lot more than street cred or even the ability to rap well. Deeper provides more of the same flawless sonics, with production contributions from J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, the Runners, and DJ Toomp, and guest spots from Kanye West, Nas, and Lil Wayne. Amazingly, Ross himself has become less of an embarrassment on the mic: There is less of a sense that all the regal accoutrement is being wasted on a pretender.
Besides the 50-dissing “Mafia Music,” a slow-rolling Southern jam that never becomes as imposing as it wants itself to be, the song on Deeper with the most pre-release buzz was “Maybach Music 2,” which boasts a trio of 2008 AutoTune heroes in T-Pain, West, and Wayne. Perhaps representing a welcome signal that the fad is losing its appeal, neither rapper employs a vocoder and T-Pain’s use of the enhancement is subtler than usual. What’s disappointing is that West and Wayne’s verses, in all their unembellished glory, fail to make much of an impression. West recycles that “dyke/limelight/night” rhyme scheme that he used on “Stronger,” and the most far-out reference the normally stratospheric Wayne can come up with is something about Will Smith and Uncle Phil. Ross holds his own next to these so-called kings of rap, but that’s nothing to be glad about.
Odd for an album by someone appearing to double down on toughness, Deeper has a strong R&B tilt. Nearly every song has radio-ready hook, and though strong verses abound, the singers too often threaten to outshine the rappers: The-Dream charms once again on the part-bubblegum, part-bass-rattler “All I Really Want”; John Legend schmoozes over a pink Miami sunset on “Magnificent”; and monochromatic crooners Robin Thicke, Avery Storm, and Ne-Yo also show up, crowding the album’s middle section like overeager ass-grabbers on lady’s night. This approach may garner Ross a bunch of hit singles and ringtone downloads, but it edges him closer to being Flo Rida’s fat uncle than Jay-Z’s second in command.
Ross halfway redeems himself toward the end of Deeper with three harder-edged tracks that reiterate his hip-hop apprenticeship as a Southern mixtape rapper. “Face” is a swampy storm of blowjob braggadocio, while “Valley of Death” and “In Cold Blood” relate visceral hood realities over stacks of cruelly upbeat keyboard punches. A whole album of these kinds of songs would make 50 Cent cower, but there’s little chance that a whole album of these kinds of songs could get made in rap’s current, freaked-out commercial environment. Phony or not, Ross has planted himself near the center of hip-hop’s orbit, and Deeper proves that it’s going to take more than YouTube beefs and blogger scandal-mongering to move him out of the way.