Is Rick Ross a changed man? For years he's been the personification of how keeping it real need not be a prerequisite for those wanting a chair at rap's head table. Rozay made his private jet ascent to superstardom on sky-scraping, yacht-cruising coke rap, telling Tony Montana stories on an Alejandro Sosa scale. Not even a revealed history in law enforcement could derail the rise and rise – his conjured narratives were easy to swallow when the packaging came so dazzlingly overblown.
But why write rap literature when the truth is just as fantastic? Following a couple of fun but derivative albums in 'Mastermind' and 'Hood Billionaire', the 39-year-old looks inwards more than ever before on 'Black Market'. Of course he's still rapping about money – he's a wealthy guy, after all. But more so than ever it feels like Ross is counting his actual bank balance and not those fictional bills hauled in by a dirty gun and a clean brick.
The trappings of being a hip-hop mogul, it would seem, can be just as suffocating. The Maybach Music Group founder should be leaning back in his corner office right now, puffing a plump cigar and revelling in his success. But with the company floundering from the PR gaffes of Meek Mill's ill-fated beef with Drake and feud with label mate Wale, Ross is forced off the bench to inhabit the physical embodiment of a digital Greg Jennings: he puts the team on his back.
'Black Market' sees the Miami rapper flip from Teflon Don to senior counsellor, warning rappers of the hazards of bad publishing contracts and the acidic effects of wealth. "You reap what you sow, and they speaking repossessions / To the culture itself, these are powerful lessons," Ross advises on 'Foreclosures', his best rapped single in years, included here as a bonus track. 'Free Enterprises' too finds him undergoing a deep bout of self-reflection – lessons from a battle-hardened businessman who has seen both sides of the rap star visage.
Make no mistake though; Rozay is still putting himself first. "It gets so lonely at the top," he repeats over and over on 'Ghostwriter', a track that sees him demand credit for being one of the industry's go-to lyricists of the last decade. Elsewhere, he sounds tweaked out and paranoid on 'Crocodile Python', questioning the loyalty of those closest to him. Best of all is the chorus-less, late-night minimalism of 'Silk Road', which finds him drawing lines between business and life over a bottomless bag of tobacco. "Never question my vision I seen atrocities / But I also see profit on selling properties," he growls, connecting both sides of his persona like never before.
Yet it's the mind of a rap mogul that also holds 'Black Market' back. Ross runs the entire commercial playbook here, delivering an expensive sounding album in the worst way – crisp but too-often anaemic beats, shoe-horned in singles, a punishingly-long running time (the Deluxe Edition runs to over 75 minutes long), and an all-star supporting cast who fail to spark with the main attraction. Mary J. Blige and Chris Brown toss in stock hooks that fail to catch the ear, while 'Smile Mama, Smile' – Ross's attempt at his own 'Dear Mama' – is derailed by a beat that trips over its own feet and a grating chorus from Cee-Lo Green.
Elsewhere, the bat shit 'Can't Say No' finds Ross resurrecting the nineties Mariah Carey pop ballad of the same name. It's a wild mismatch, entirely listenable if only for its eccentricities, while the horn-heavy bluster of 'One Of Us' sounds dated and lacklustre, disrupting hope of uniting Ross with leader from the golden age Nas in any kind of worthwhile way.
Rozay's career has always been defined by excess, but on 'Black Market' he just can't unshackle the weight when the subject matter demanded more restraint. There's a great Rick Ross album in here somewhere. If only the boss had abstained from some of his extravagant habits and used his editing sheers more cuttingly.
Words: Dean Van Nguyen