"Looking at him [in 1979], one would not have imagined the slender, slightly pop-eyed teenager to be a successor to anything but a hard row to hoe. A sometime thief, sometime student, he was clinging to a tattered dream of becoming a professional tennis player."
So wrote Gary Webb in his 1999 book, Dark Alliance, offering a description of "Freeway" Ricky Ross, the LA crack kingpin and CIA/ contra/ crack conspiracy fall guy—and the dude from whom William Leonard Roberts II, better known as the rapper Rick Ross, swiped his name. Neither slender nor pop-eyed, Ross is bearded and bloated and raps in an abyssal growl, mostly about how he's a superhero cocaine dealer. His debut single, "Hustlin'," from 2006's Port of Miami, housed absurd boasts like "I know Pablo, Noriega—the real Noriega" over a booming loop of organ, synth, and wordless, spaghetti western vocals.
The Miami rapper appeared at the height of the last decade's wave of weirdly clever, gleefully nihilistic crack rap—Clipse, Dipset, Young Jeezy—and reduced it to absurdity. Some rappers dismantled their boasts with an ugly aside or tinge of regret, but Ross had no time for novelistic detail or insight. It was all epic, coke-rap fibs. One day, a picture of the rapper in a correctional officer's uniform appeared on the Internet. Though Ross initially claimed the photo was doctored, he eventually confessed: He'd been a C.O. for about 18 months, from December 1995 to mid-1997. Strangely, the street cred-destroying revelation didn't signficantly affect the success of 2008's follow-up, Trilla. No one took him seriously in the first place.
Of course, it helped that Trilla's strongest single was on the radio. "Here I Am" is uncharacteristic relationship rap that details Ross' time paying his girl's way through college—with coke money, yes, but still—and contains this touching couplet: "She used to fight with her moms/ 'til I sat 'em both down, now she tight with her moms." Perhaps it was the potentially career-ending C.O. controversy and a subsequent, silly beef with 50 Cent that got the guy to care, but, by the release of 2009's Deeper Than Rap, Ross was actually pretty good.
Teflon Don, released Tuesday, begins with "I'm Not a Star"—a screeching, skittering beat over which Ross, like so many other rappers who think they've arrived, envisions his death: "If I died today, remember me like John Lennon/ Buried in Louis, I'm talkin' all brown linen/ Make all of my bitches tattoo my logo on they titty/ Put a statue of a nigga in the middle of the city." Somehow, he sells those lines; you get chills listening.
Most of Teflon Don is awesomely quotable shit-talk, but the absurd self-mythology yields references to "the struggle" and a touch of self-examination. It's Ross' mature album, and it mostly works. "Free Mason" turns African history into tough-guy boasts: "Built pyramids period. We masters." Larry Hoover, the incarcerated leader of the Gangster Disciples and perceived political prisoner, gets multiple shout-outs on "Blowin' Money Fast (B.M.F)." "Tears of Joy" begins with a sample of a Bobby Seale speech.
This isn't more sincere than all the drug talk, but Teflon Don shows why mainstream rap, even at its most goofy and indulgent, remains subversive. Ross named himself after a drug dealer more famous for providing ammunition for the quasi-provable connections between the crack epidemic, CIA complicity and American funding of Nicaraguan contras than for hustling. However nave or cloying, Ross fills Teflon Don with connections between the dumb drug-rap talk on which he's built a career and its close political connections.
Rappers considered better than Ross don't make albums this well constructed or concise (11 tracks, under 50 minutes). Ross even attempts introspection a few times, as on album closer "All the Money in the World." Bravely, he reveals he'd "never trade" his wife or kids "for all the money in the world." Ha. Well, at least he's trying.