The Sound of Success

By Frere-Jones, Sasha | The New Yorker, February 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Sound of Success


Frere-Jones, Sasha, The New Yorker


A central motif in contemporary hip-hop is rapping about drug dealing by artists who may not actually sell narcotics. Among others, Jay-Z, Clipse, and Young Jeezy have rhymed about a past or present involvement in the trade on the street. It's typically impossible to determine whether they are telling the truth about themselves or simply the truth about their environment, and it's never been clear whether listeners care. The Miami rapper Rick Ross, who is both physically and culturally very large, talks endlessly about extensive work in the cocaine trade. His involvement with drugs remains a mystery, but, in 2008, the Smoking Gun published documents revealing that Ross--who named himself after the Los Angeles drug dealer Freeway Ricky Ross--was once a Florida corrections officer with a perfect attendance record. He has become more popular, critically and commercially, since the revelation, and has modified his stories of drug selling only slightly. So rap fans must be either very poor listeners or fairly sophisticated ones--much more likely the latter.

What matters is not the rap sheet but the rhyme, and the spin the m.c. can give to the trade. Nas generally paints a grim picture of it; Clipse offer a cynical endorsement of dealing; Jeezy sounds both thrilled and scared by the amount of power that drug dealers have. Ross has become a respected rapper by depicting the life style of a boss, or a don, two words that he loves. He never cares to unpack the morals of the drug trade--what he revels in is the security and relief of being fabulously wealthy. This is what his voice sells, the way Sinatra once sold an implacable but supple kind of confidence.

Ross's success in mimicking drug lords has brought him the ability to live like one of them. Profiles have documented his large homes, his fleet of cars, his shopping sprees at watch stores, his solicitous entourage and flexible schedule. Ross may represent the final abandonment of hip-hop's mandate to "keep it real," a concept that goes by different names now but has not gone away. Perhaps listeners know that this is a version of "Miami Vice," a show that Ross claims to have been inspired by. The appeal is less some kind of documentary thrill than Ross's ability to transmit the confidence that comes from blithely running up roaming fees while driving a Rolls-Royce through Samoa.

When Ross strays from the formula, the results can be inconsistent. Take "Triple Beam Dreams," from "Rich Forever," the solid and focussed free mixtape that Ross released in January. The triple beam is a kind of scale often used to weigh cocaine, and the song is mostly about drug dealing. Produced by the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, and with a guest appearance by Nas, the track begins with a distorted, flanging synthesizer chord (as if the title sequence read "Opening scene: Beneath bridge"). Ross says rather than raps, "It's time to take it to the other side, the side you gotta watch A&E cable television for, homie, but we live this shit." It's telling that he invokes watching television before relating an allegedly personal story.

Nas is nimble and concrete in his memories: "My junior high school class, wish I stayed there / Illegal entrepreneur, I got my grades there." By contrast, Ross sounds uncomfortable; his standard drawl, which is both booming and restrained, is rushed, and his lyrics are a little, well, filmic: "Before you sell dope, there's shit you gotta learn, nigga / Home invasions, duct tape."

To hear Ross's strengths on full display, try "Fuck 'Em," another track full of menacing synthesizers and minimal, deadweight beats. (Ross rarely bothers to speed up his beats or invest in productions that vary from the brushed-steel and superhero sounds that exemplify his work. …

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