The appeal of William Leonard Roberts II, known by his more succinct stage name of Rick Ross, has always been rather straightforward.  Since the mid-2000s, rapper and founder of the powerful record label imprint Maybach Music Group, Rick Ross, has been putting out album after album of kingpin braggadocio performed with a style of delivery that seemingly relies more on the gruff tone of his voice than his flow or bars, both of which tended to be as rudimentary as rapping could get.  Indeed, Ross’ rap career was largely based around his drug lord façade and the accompanying Southern-flavoured, glitzy beats, which were often as lavish as the lifestyle that the MC was rapping about.  Whilst Ross surely cannot be denied the persona he has created for himself, he has seldom been taken particularly seriously by rap fans or music critics as a result of just how insular his approach to hip hop is, being so focussed on his image as to come across as somewhat of a novelty act.  What’s more, even his interminable boastings about his entrepreneurial conducts were so lacking in lyrical chops or a coherent storytelling ability that they grew stale very quickly, especially when repeating not just across songs, but across his entire discography.  Given that Ross’ previous album, 2015’s Black Market, displayed his undeniable shortcomings as prominently as ever, there was seemingly no reason to expect the rapper to turn a new leaf on his latest record, Rather You Than Me.  Indeed, it wouldn’t be a Rick Ross record without his usual don veneer and, just as the album cover would suggest, a great deal of this record simply continues the Rick Ross saga of kingpin swagger.  This being said, however, a significant portion of the record sees Ross delve into a level of introspection and meditation that he seemed incapable of in the past, with a handful of lyrical topics on Rather You Than Me dealing with some personal issues for the rapper that extend beyond his drug baron lifestyle, such as recent complications with his health or his apprehensions about making his mother proud.  Such personal topics, at least momentarily, deconstruct the bulletproof master kingpin presented on Rick Ross’ previous albums and show the MC in a more vulnerable and, ultimately, human state.  These more earthbound and level-headed narratives have appeared on his music briefly in the past, most notably on his 2012 album God Forgives, I Don’t, but Ross had previously handled such subjects rather clumsily, struggling to evoke any feelings of sympathy in the listener.  However, on Rather You Than Me, Ross genuinely tugs at the listener’s heartstrings on some tracks, typically atop a sweet, jazzy beat that often fortifies this soulfulness.  Of course, the fact that such moments are resigned to a minority of this project’s runtime, with much of the album furthering Ross’ drug lord delusions, results in a mixed release overall.  Indeed, whilst Rather You Than Me may not be a particularly remarkable album overall, it is certainly a solid album for Rick Ross, with its best moments exhibiting a level of composure and sincerity previously unknown to the rapper.

 

Of these more refined cuts on Rather You Than Me, the majority of them appear very early on in the tracklisting, with the opening song, Apple of My Eye, boasting some genuinely heartfelt bars, many of which are amongst Ross’ most intriguing and memorable on the record, as well as a beautifully smooth instrumental that complements the MC’s smokey delivery nicely.  In the very first line, Ross acknowledges his longstanding desire to be “somebody that the neighbourhood respected”, but also proclaims that this worked in conjunction with growing up to make his mother proud.  More interestingly, however, is perhaps the most cited couplet from the entirety of Rather You Than Me, in which Ross claims to be pleased that Donald Trump won the presidential election, in that he views this as an opportunity for people to come together as a means of surviving the strife that will surely come during his time in office.  Indeed, this bar has seemingly generated such a huge reaction not solely because of how bold it is for Ross to put something like this on a record, but also because it alludes to a level of reflection and critical thinking that the rapper has seldom, if ever, displayed on his previous material.  Deeper into this cut, Ross delivers bars that deal with some of his insecurities concerning his future and his physical appearance, as well as a reference to his history with seizures and hints at a fallout between himself and his former manager, Alexander Bethune, which, as of right now, is unexplained.  With such introspective topics being at play in Ross’ lyrics, the gorgeous instrumentation — boasting a soulful saxophone, dainty piano flourishes and pretty choral vocals — is all the more compelling.  Similar lyrical themes appear on succeeding songs, most notably Santorini Greece, which deals with some of Ross’ health problems and struggles as a youth, set against another smooth, jazzy beat.  Scientology, which appears significantly deeper into the tracklisting, comes to mind also, being another track on this album to brandish some indulgent instrumental choices, this time in the form of atmospheric, swirling synths and distant string samples that complement Ross’ usual husky delivery very effectively, which reaches tangible levels of intense passion at the end of the cut, as he proclaims, “See Confederate flags, but I got a flag of mine”.  Perhaps the most remarkable display of Ross’ improved lyrical chops on this record, however, is exhibited on Idols Become Rivals, a diss track levelled at co-founder of Cash Money Records, Birdman, for his supposed mistreatment of various artists on his own label and Young Money Records, particularly Lil Wayne.  Even the title of this track is lifted from a Drake song, who has worked under both these labels, and Ross’ personal relationships with some of the artists that Birdman has been accused of screwing over seemingly provide the rapper with a lot of ammunition, all of which is fired at the label head in three hefty verses.  What’s most striking about Ross’ takedown of his addressee is the level-headed attitude with which he approaches the controversy, making the point of stating how much he once admired Birdman and how much it pains him to see the rapper commit such misdeeds.  Indeed, on at least some of these tracks, whether he’s dealing with personal issues or tackling a hot-button topic, Ross conveys a much more reasonable, down-to-earth and, perhaps most importantly, vulnerable side to his character.  Whereas most of his career has been focussed on building himself up, with these delusions of drug dealing grandeur, to an indestructible kingpin status, the aforementioned tracks do almost the exact opposite, but they are executed with an admirable level of reflection and introspection that yields successful results.

 

Of course, being a Rick Ross record, there is no shortage of trap-flavoured bangers, the most significant of which appear in quick succession in the first half of the tracklisting, these being Trap Trap TrapDead Presidents and She on My Dick.  Trap Trap Trap is particularly successful, not solely courtesy of the hard beat, but the features from Young Thug and Wale are both incredibly jerky and energetic, providing a much-needed rest from Ross’ hoarse, laid-back deliveries.  Dead Presents, too, boasts impressive features from Future and Jeezy, and even Ross’ performance is one of his most hard-hitting on the record.  His bars are also particularly good, with the line, “Walkin’ in the courtroom, sippin’ on a beverage / I know the judge, so I got a lot of leverage” being the first time for quite a while that I’ve genuinely laughed at a Rick Ross lyric.  She on My Dick completes this trio of bangers with just as massive of a thumping beat as its precursors, with all of these cuts standing out as some of the best bare-faced bangers Ross has ever put out.  My one reservation with these tracks, however, would be the fact that they appear so close together in the tracklisting as to arguably reduce their impact slightly, when it would make much more sense to disperse them throughout the album’s runtime.

 

It’s after this trio of songs, however, that things unfortunately begin to reek of Rick Ross’ usual braggart aesthetic, with the rapper delivering track after track of rudimentary, rehashed flows atop these more constrained and ultimately forgettable beats.  Powers That Be, despite featuring East Coast legend Nas, a frequent collaborator of Ross’, is disappointingly basic, with Ross’ bars and flows being almost instantly forgettable as a result of how clearly recycled they are.  The beat, too, is relatively mediocre, and is unnecessarily padded out, with several breaks over which Ross simply says, “Uh, yeah” a few times before the next verse kicks in.  The frequent skits from comedian Chris Rock on Rather You Than Me also have to be mentioned, simply because of how irritating some of them are and how much they mess with the pacing of much of the record.  His introductory rambling on Powers That Be is particularly laughable, with the comedian professing Rick Ross to be the best MC ever, which, aside from this being unequivocally incorrect, the fact that this skit introduces a track that features Nas, a genuine contender for one of the best rappers of all time, makes this lecture on the legend of Rick Ross especially egregious and completely lacking in self-awareness on Ross’ part.  What’s more, it’s moments like this that almost spoil the previous instances of self-examination and vulnerability that Ross exhibited earlier on in the tracklisting, and at this point in his career, the constant reminders of how great he is that he seems compelled to throw in whenever possible are incredibly tiresome.  It’s unfortunate, therefore, that after such a promising start, much of this record’s backend reads very similarly to this, with Ross reciting the banal kingpin mannerisms that have appeared on countless projects of his in this past, and that warrant little more attention than that which they would be given playing in the background at a house party.

 

Ultimately, whilst Rick Ross may recycle many of his most mundane clichés on Rather You Than Me, the best moments on this record are really so good as to put this album amongst the artist’s best works without a shadow of doubt.  Given that this album is over an hour long and features such an unnecessary amount of filler in its latter half, whittling this project down to its best tracks seems like such a simple solution.  Then again, I imagine that Ross feels almost obliged to supplement the more introspective cuts with the addition of tracks that simply reinforce his drug lord façade, which is a shame given that these songs pale in comparison to the compelling amount of soul-searching and reflection on tracks like Apple of My Eye and Scientology.  All in all, Rather You Than Me is most definitely a step up for Ross, but it seems that only a project that sees him drop his tired platitudes would have the potential to prove itself to be a truly remarkable feat.

 

The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10