If nothing else, the first quarter of 2012 is going to provide a handy referendum on just how much Rick Ross’ stock is worth these days. The past three years have seen the Maybach Music imprint refine itself into an assembly line-like process, as Ross has proven the method of releasing a mixtape of leftovers right before the album to be a real fan pleaser. Wale did it, Meek Mill is working on doing it, Pill (my favorite of the three before his ill-fated stint here) couldn’t figure it out, and it remains to be seen what becomes of the outsider Stalley. It’s a hard formula to fault if the focus is there, since mixtapes traditionally allow an artist to employ their more whimsical ideas and invite guests into their canon which a label might otherwise veto. At times, Rich Forever gives that impression, taking the sort of risks that allowed the Albert Anastasia EP to put the world on notice shortly before Teflon Don forever altered the course of mainstream rap, but unfortunately at many other turns, Rich Forever is more in the vein of Ashes to Ashes. It plays to expectations in a way that similarly hampered T.I.‘s Fuck da City Up, and thanks to its elephantine tracklisting (as an interesting aside, this is the first Ross release to eclipse 60 minutes in nearly four years), the lack of surprises can really take a toll as Rich Forever creeps into its second half.
But let’s talk about what Rich Forever does right before we get to being a bummer. The first three tracks here are increasingly exciting before the speed bump called “Yella Diamonds”, with Ross giving us gleefully odd details about his life (“The Cheese drippin’ / I like my nachos hot!” or “Got the forty by my dick / I keep on pissin’ on the hammer!”) that don’t do much for Ross’ consistently meandering narratives but definitely earn the awkward chuckles they’re grasping for. And what follows “Yella Diamonds” is just delirious escapism, as Ross, Wale and this past winter’s hottest feature rapper 2 Chainz collude to let us know the anthem for 2012 is “fuck ‘em” over a faux-dubstep beat fans of Watch the Throne are going to get a real kick out of. After enduring 20 minutes of bragging and self-fellatio, Ross teams up with John Legend and Nas, two guys who’ve been able to ground his thoughts in the past, and while neither song lives up to their previous collaborations, the pair act as a proper cooling point for a mixtape that’s getting ready to go off the rails into uncontrollable (and unsustainable) faux-trap music very, very quickly.
You see, the second half of Rich Forever is an extravagant, glorious mess of a mixtape. “King of Diamonds” would be a pretty typically boring trap number except that beat starts and stops on itself in such an awkward way that it feels like Mike Will is playing an elaborate, extremely frustrating joke on your ears. Likewise, Lex Luger makes an appearance so late in the tape—and on the trail of plenty imitation beats—that one would be easily forgiven for assuming it wasn’t him. In the bigger picture, that speaks to the ridiculous levels of success the kid’s reached in just under two years, but for Rich Forever, it just means that nearly half of the work here sounds so familiar to each other that when the originator steps in the door, he’s met with blank stares. Similarly, Ross borrows ideas in small ways the further into the tape we get, most notably his brags on separate occasions that Pat Riley and Denzel Washington are his neighbors, a move that seems desperate for the notoriety Juicy J gleaned off a similar claim. There are also two drawling hooks from New Yorker French Montana, a guy that city’s residents would tell you is on the brink of stardom despite very little evidence that he’s much more than a strip club fixture. Perhaps the worst offender is “Ring Ring”, a Future vehicle so obviously bought by Ross and shoehorned into the end of the tape that it’s enjoyability is severely hampered by it’s lack of commonality with anything else thematically or sonically.
Still, because the engineers at Maybach Music are so damn good at what they do, it’s hard to complain too much about even the dullest of tracks here. “Mine Games” is totally useless, but Kelly Rowland’s vocal and the crisp mixing is going to attract plenty of ears, much as the completely frustrating “Party Heart” will, even if it sounds like an eight-year-old birthday anthem as interpreted by drug dealers (and Stalley). The album closes, perhaps smartly, with its most newsworthy clip, as Drake lifts a pretty typical track from the dregs by verbally assaulting Kobe Bryant’s soon-to-be ex-wife with an exclamation of “Bitch, you wasn’t with me shootin’ in the gym!” that Ross emphatically echoes and brings to mind Jay-Z’s “What you eat don’t make me shit” in it’s subtle abrasiveness. But the rest of the verse has been singled out as a response to Common’s supposed diss work on The Dreamer / The Believer‘s “Sweet”, which if true, makes this one of the lamest hip-hop battles of all time. Mr. GAP shouldn’t be requiring younger rappers to remember who he is when they see him in the streets, and Drake certainly shouldn’t be longing for the days of rugged hip-hop just a couple of months removed from Take Care‘s release, let alone threatening gun violence. The whole thing rings nonsensical to me, and I’m not sure why either artist is engaged in it (As I’m writing this, Common’s released a response…ugh).
Anyway, this is Ross’ moment, and thanks to the engineers, your tolerance of this tape will probably come down to your tolerance of raps promising your death at the hands of hired killers, Ross’ implications you’ll die if you can’t make a rapid return on the bricks of coke he’s willing to front you, his constant, proud declarations of of paying $200 for some head, or other amounts for other sexual acts. Rich Forever is Ross at his most emotionally basic, and therefore, anyone choosing to take it’s journey should be willing to admit it’s mainly for the aesthetic quality of his bearded husk grunting over some of the crispiest production you’re likely to hear in 2012, even if the sum of those parts is somewhat unremarkable most of the time. There’s no reason to think God Forgives, I Don’t can’t follow up on the growth Ross showed on Deeper Than Rap and Teflon Don, but much like Ashes to Ashes, Rich Forever could put some on edge until the main course arrives. His reference to the tape as an “appetizer” in the closing interview is a sign that even Ross realizes the music on here isn’t very fulfilling—it just helps bide the time.