Rick Ross, though you may not be aware of it, is one of the most successful rappers in music right now. That said, he’s an odd case. Unlike with Jay-Z, Kanye West or T.I., you won’t see any of Ross’ albums appearing on a year-end list in this website, Rolling Stone or probably even XXL. And unlike 50 Cent, another hugely popular but critically reviled rapper, Ross has neither a unanimously acclaimed album nor single in his past. Yet, Trilla, his second album, sold 198,000 copies in its first week out, despite the fact that the album’s big lead single peaked on the Billboard Hot 100 at #87, and that his face showed up on as many magazine covers as mine did.
Not only does all this make Ross a confounding presence, but also a pretty important one. If middle-schoolers aren’t buying Ross’ albums with their birthday money—and all indications are that they aren’t—than who exactly is vaulting this dude over chart mainstays like Snoop Dogg and the Now collection? The answer has to be rap fans, meaning Rick Ross—the rapper who will forever remain infamous for rhyming “Atlantic” with “Atlantic”—is galvanizing rap’s core fan base like only its most visible pop stars can. Common and UGK, two rap acts whose last albums also went #1 despite minimal pop crossover, share peer boosterism with Ross, but they’ve been around. Their number ones felt owed to them. Ross on the other hand, hasn’t influenced a whole generation of successful rappers (and even though I like Trilla, and him in general, I hope he never does).
What’s Ross’ appeal. then? With regards to his avid listeners, it’s obvious: his willing omission of details. He presents a life, and an album, unencumbered with the pitfalls of celebrity, the struggle of coming up, or the emptiness that can creep in when one actually owns 18 cars. When people think of being rich enough to own a Maybach, a yacht, and four houses, they think of the utopian life Ross raps about. It’s the strongest form of escapism, one that eschews both the realities of one’s actual life and one’s fantasy life. Trilla is for when listening to, say, Bun B, is all too real, for when one realizes how to get from point A to point B, but wishes to bypass the line in-between altogether. For Ross’ buyers, be it a corner hustler, a valet, or even an investment banker looking to double his six figure salary, Trilla provides the same type of utopian escapism as would a James Bond film.
And when you get caught up in all of that, Trilla is sometimes captivating. First single “Speedin’” reaches epic heights when R. Kelly launches into its chorus (“Fast life / I live / Big cars, big cribs / Speeeeeeeedin’”), encapsulating the album’s themes of freedom and kingdom in both lyric and mood. Follow-up single “The Boss” isn’t meant for playing chicken with cops on I-95, and its droopy-eyed T-Pain hook is decidedly understated, but the J.R. Rotem beat is (surprisingly) sly, its female coos slowly unfurling around the booming Ross like a twisted version of the mythological Furies. And on “We Shinin’”, the solidly consistent producer Bink! provides Ross with a lush, blue-soul beat, giving the rapper a blush of humanity that he’d be hard-pressed to conjure up himself.
For his part, Ross isn’t as awful as he’s been or could be. He still thinks he is way more clever than he actually is (“Caesar salad / Caesar’s Palace” etc.), but he manages well from a technical standpoint and he even gets out his fair share of great to passable hooks. His best asset is his persona, which he doesn’t stray from until the last track, allowing the album to come together more fluidly and coherently than you might expect.
And when it comes down to it, Trilla was supposed to be at least as good as it is. Def Jam needed to break the bank here—with regards to both beats and guests—and it paid off. Both producers and rappers turn in performances befitting of the type of event album Trilla tries to be; (hell, we got a banger out of J.R. Rotem), and it turns a song like “Luxury Tax”, which would have been (and probably was in some incarnation) a deep-cut snoozer on the last DJ Khaled album, into one of the best and most luxuriant rap songs of the year.
It’s all very calculated, and some would say empty, but albums that are good because the rappers do just enough not to ruin a great collection of beats and guests verses is not a foreign concept to us. Why Trilla especially is catching so much shit for it, I’m not sure. I mean, we all heard American Gangster, right?