Only in that the latter might be his patron saint. Rick Ross was born William Leonard Roberts in 1976, which would’ve made him eight years old or so when RR the elder began distributing vast amounts of cocaine. The former trafficker actually sued his namesake for copyright infringement (the case was thrown out of court in 2010). But they sound like kindred spirits: Rick Ross is from the action-movie school of gangsta rap, a man preoccupied with yachts, strippers, Scarface references and exploits involving kilos (not the ones hanging off his 300-pound frame).
So where’s he from IRL?
Ross (pronounced “Rawse”) was born in Mississippi and grew up in Carol City, an impoverished suburb of Miami. He formed a group known as the Carol City Cartel in the mid '90s. Despite early guest spots on various releases from Slip-N-Slide records, then home to Trick Daddy and Trina, he didn’t break out beyond Florida until 2006.
What happened then?
A relentless earworm of a hook is what happened. Ross’ solo track “Hustlin’,” with its looped refrain of “every day I’m hustling,” got the attention of multiple label executives. He was eventually signed by Def Jam president Jay-Z, who did another favor for his new employee by appearing on the single’s official remix. “Hustlin’” became a Billboard Hot 100 hit, Ross’ debut album Port of Miami went gold, and the MC soon had money to burn (literally).
What’s his rapping like?
“Asthmatic” is one possible description. Ross’ wheezing, lumbering flow has received a lot of derision from music critics and hip-hop heads. (It does suit another element of his aesthetic: glossy, expensive-sounding, Miami Vice-worthy production from beatmakers like J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League.) After the release of 2009’s Deeper Than Rap, however, those reviews noticeably improved. The Metacritic score for his most recent album, Teflon Don, is a healthy 79.
What changed their minds?
It’s partly an appreciation of things Ross has always done well. As the writer Sean Fennessey noted: “The Miami rapper is an enunciator of the highest order, his voice a tidal wave baritone.” He’s also displayed an inexplicable talent for Biggie-esque thug-love songs. The Dream-assisted single “All I Really Want” exemplifies it: “She my dime not the one I wanna cuss at / Lookin’ fine real diamonds on a cut glass.” Coming from a guy whose discography includes “Money Make Me Come,” that’s positively romantic. He improved technically, too; the MC doesn’t rhyme “Ross” with “Boss” quite so often now, or “Atlantic” with “Atlantic.” In fact, when Deeper Than Rap came out there were rumours about ghostwritten lyrics.
Speaking of controversies, did he really work as a prison guard once?
He did. In mid-2008, The Smoking Gun published photos that appeared to show a young, pre-giant-beard Ross in a Florida correctional officer’s uniform. The ursine one denied it at first, sending MTV a strongly worded freestyle: “Bitch, I’m the boss and I’m laughing at your blogs.” Everything might have blown over if he hadn’t decided to diss 50 Cent on “Mafia Music” a few months later. Rap’s pantomime villain sneered “I’m going to fuck up your life for fun” and promised that Ross would be “working at a pizza shop” after their battle was over. 50 posted a web clip in which he treated the mother of Ross’ son to a shopping spree, grinning madly; then he posted a sex tape with another of his rival’s exes. That was more memorable than any of the diss tracks they hurled back and forth.
And that didn’t kill his credibility?
Actually, no. Or maybe it did and no one really cared. In March 2009 Ross admitted that he had indeed worked as a prison guard; the Lonely Island released not one but two comedy singles affectionately mocking the Rawse ethos later that year. Yet his album sales, critical notices and general popularity have only risen since then. He did break out with a single claiming that Manuel Noriega owed him “a hundred favors”—his fans know the whole coke-kingpin persona is exaggerated for effect. On the 2010 hit “Blowin’ Money Fast,” Ross gets self-aware: referencing two infamous gangsters, he bellows that “I think I’m Big Meech / Larry Hoover.” Which is to say: he’s just playing roles. Trust a man with a gold chain of his own face to understand postmodernism.