Tuesday, November 25, 2014

album review: 'hood billionaire' by rick ross

It's rare that artists release two records in the same year. It's even more rare that both of the albums are good, because if they aren't both incredibly solid, or even if they're both just merely good, maybe half an album apiece of good songs, you get naysayers - like myself - who say, 'Well, why didn't you just release one excellent album of material instead of two okay ones?'

And that's if the albums are good. Instead, we have Rick Ross, who can be reasonably described as to have peaked in 2010 with Teflon Don and has struggled to maintain relevance, presence, and put out a half-decent album ever since. And ever since I reviewed Mastermind back in February, I've continued to struggle with what this guy's appeal is, with the closest thing being that he picks solid enough beats with a veneer of class to rap over, a wallow in decadence and Mafiaso imagery that's paper-thin and an obvious fantasy. But go beyond that and what do you find? He's not a technically skilled rapper, he doesn't tell interesting stories with grime or texture, he doesn't have the sense of humour of a T.I. or Ludacris or the creativity of a Big K.R.I.T. or Jay-Z, and outside of a deep voice, he just doesn't come across as that convincing in that gangsta role compared to artists like Jeezy or Freddie Gibbs or Pusha T. 

And let's be completely honest, outside of Mastermind going to #1 on the Billboard 200, this hasn't really been a great year for Rick Ross, at least in terms of the charts. His biggest song in 2014 will likely be the verse he dropped on that only kind of decent Chris Brown/Usher collaboration 'New Flame', and outside of that, what more need do we have for another Rick Ross album? He might say that's how 'bosses' do it, but if anything it screams of desperation. But I figured I might as well give Rick Ross one last chance - did we get anything new here?

Folks, it's a Rick Ross album - what the hell do you think? I have to be honest, Hood Billionaire by Rick Ross was a chore to get through, because Mastermind at least had some more ambition behind it conceptually where Rick Ross tried to inject some religion and philosophy into his material to add context to why he does what he does. On Hood Billionaire, we don't even get that, just track after track of brand label porn, cocaine, and wasted opportunities. And it's not even that the album is outright offensive garbage either, just on the boring side of mediocre.

So okay, what is different about this album, what could possibly make it special? Well, outside of samples from real drug dealers behind bars promising to work for Ross, not a lot. There are fragments of a story - the introduction has Rick Ross and one of his posse digging up four bags of drugs worth eight million dollars a piece, 'Phone Tap' is about a childhood friend betraying him to the cops, 'Keep Doin' That (Rich Bitch)' has he and Rick Ross talking about screwing wealthy women - but at the end of the day most of this album is Rick Ross going on and on about selling cocaine. And you know, it's telling that while you get rappers like Killer Mike viciously criticizing the Reagan years for the horrible damage that crack cocaine did to black communities in the 80s, instead you get songs like 'Coke Like The 80s' from Rick Ross which actively glorifies that era. It shows such a disconnect between Rick Ross' attempts at gangsta rap and the reality of it all that it stretches his persona to the absolute breaking point. On 'Heavyweight' he brags about buying a house across the street from the trap - and yet he doesn't realize that given his wealth it makes him a massive target, even despite his supposed criminal network! Or take 'Burn', where he ends his chorus with a direct threat against George Zimmerman, and I'll reiterate what I said last time, there's a marked difference between Trayvon and Rick Ross, the latter who spends most of this album shouting about dealing cocaine and killing people with automatic weapons. Or take 'Family Ties', where Rick Ross tries to get introspective about his loneliness at the top and how black history and culture is being neglected in favour of brand names - you know, Rick Ross, you could play a major part in changing all that! If you're so powerful and influential as a rapper and yet you keep selling the same shit - hell, most of that same song features a chorus of literally, 'Look at me, look at me'! Or take 'Brimstone', where Rick Ross tries to talk about faith and then gets a long, meandering sampled outro trying to justify all of his activity as a product of his environment and those who don't like his activity just don't like success. No, Rick Ross, I don't like your material because all of your pseudo-Randian glorification of success, you still are glorifying a lifestyle that perpetuates shallow materialism, selling drugs, and killing all those who get in your way.

And what's even more frustrating is the feeling of waste that comes with this album. Forget the obvious symbols - more money than anyone knows what to do with and spending it on gaudy jewelry and cars and houses and weapons - but the way Rick Ross treats his guest stars. Jay-Z delivered one of the few redeeming verses on Mastermind's 'The Devil Is A Lie', but on his collaboration on 'Movin' Bass', Rick Ross only puts him on the chorus - are you kidding? It happens again with Big K.R.I.T. on 'Brimstone' - you have one of the most promising MCs out of the south who could use that real mainstream breakthrough push and you only throw him on the hook? And yet instead you chose to give a full guest verse to R.Kelly, who despite having a bit of real flavour and charisma on his verse is not a rapper? And while Snoop Dogg does sound a little more invested on 'Quintessential', his brand of pimp rap isn't anything all that special. As for the rest of the guest stars, I found myself unimpressed by Whole Slab, Project Pat, and Boosie Badazz, and while Yo Gotti is probably the best of the bunch, I'm still underwhelmed. And even more surprising is that for as much as Ross calls out for his label Maybach Music Group, there's nothing from Stalley, Meek Mill, or Wale - granted, no French Montana, but for as much as Rick Ross is pushing his label, you'd think he'd collaborate with them more.

Okay, so what about the beats? Well, what about them - if you're familiar with Rick Ross, you already know what you're getting here. And yet I can't help but feel he's starting to repeat himself, with the title track trying to replicate the dark swell and horns that worked for Ross in the past, and 'Nickel Rock' sounds like a synth tone over a trap beat that sounds about four years out of date. That's not saying there aren't some beats that aren't bad - I liked the ominous piano melody on 'Coke Like The 80s', the drowned loneliness of 'Phone Tap', the swirling rush of 'Movin' Bass' and horns backing up K. Michelle on 'If They Knew' courtesy of Timbaland, and the old-school vibe of 'Family Ties'. Hell, Big K.R.I.T.'s production on 'Brimstone' was decent, even though I did think the guitar tone felt a little runny and slurred. But overall, so many of these beats feel like standard trap bangers from Rick Ross, with very little in terms of interesting melody or instrumentation that made them feel unique or interesting.

And you know, I could say the same about Rick Ross' rapping, because it's not like the problems have gone away. He still rhymes words with themselves way too often, he recycles flows and brand label references tirelessly, he forces rhymes if not ignoring them altogether, and his flow is still nothing all that special and coming from SHADY XV to this was a hard comedown. If anything, his choruses are getting worse, often boiled down a single phrase or a few words he'll just repeat over and over until your brain hemorrhages. And maybe it's an issue of tempo or pace, because so little of this has real energy beyond Rick Ross getting louder and the punch is so broad that it does nothing for me. And now some of you are probably saying, 'Mark, you used to like crunk music, and if anything it's less lyrical than this' - and you know, that's true, but Lil Jon was at least populist and you could tell he was having fun. With Rick Ross so much of this is artless bragging and played so seriously and with so much of it filled with different euphemisms and slang for the same things - in this case cocaine - it just doesn't feel all that fun.

So yeah, Hood Billionaire is not getting a recommendation, and unless I hear that Rick Ross is planning a major shift of his formula, I think I'm done covering Rick Ross records. I've never bought into Rick Ross' overblown phony persona, with every attempt at drama falling completely flat because Ross is never willing to let himself show the slightest real vulnerability. So it's another 4/10 from me and no recommendation, unless you're a Rick Ross fan and for some reason are content with him giving you even more of the same with even less ideas. At this point, it's less luxury rap than luxury masturbation, and right now, I'm sick of hearing it.

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