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Rick Ross could bark the brakes off a Maybach 57, that much is true. Doubt a man’s hustle, if you must. Question his street-cred, deride the backstory... but that grunt, man. Reeking of old Newports, steaming in the Miami heat, his voice is one 21st-century rap's greatest instruments.

Since 2009, neither YouTube beef nor weed-induced seizures have yet derailed Rick Ross’ juggernaut momentum. Plowing down an endless buffet of high-calorie beats, workout shouts from DJ Khaled, and stuttering “Maybach Music” drops, Ross has dominated the street-side of mainstream rap—not only with own records, but on his peers and proteges’ projects, too. And not just with mailed-in posse remixes, but essential album songs from damn near any rapper who’s mattered most in the past five years: Jay Z, Nas, Kanye, Drake, Lil Wayne, Pusha, Wale, et al. He was the saving grace of Wayne’s Tha Carter IV ("John"), and played jester-majestic on the best song from Jay's Magna Carta, “Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit.”

Like MasterCard, Rick Ross is everywhere you want to be.

Pop critics have cited Ross’ implausible yarns and improbable dodge of 50 Cent’s Smoking Gun as definitive triumph of “the post-truth rapper”—a construct that proposes rap authenticity as, in fact, unreal and, in 2014, unimportant. More method acting than actual shot-calling. When Ross straps into character from one interview to the next, we’re supposedly humoring an act, a la Stephen Colbert. But his bonafides notwithstanding, Ross’ gun talk and coke billing—while hallmark conceits of his Maybach fantasy—are hardly the gist of his appeal, and they hardly account for what sets Ross so essentially apart from Jeezy, T.I., Pusha, Jay, or any other retired I-95 weight mover.

There’s a matter of sound, obviously. Reviews of Ross’ past three studio albums typically laud the Bad Boy gloss and orchestral sparkle of his soundscapes, curated by long-time collaborators J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League. Those tinkling piano rolls buttering those lobster beats, with basslines tunneling ever deeper with every banger.

I was pissing my shorts; having rich nigga thoughts...

Production aside, Rick Ross’ lyrical niche read bare in precisely his least menacing, least luxurious raps.

A Rick Ross verse comes fully stocked with 5-star-hotel porn and an abundance of metaphors for soft white. Plus a chopper in every garage. But from Trilla through God Forgives, beneath the atmospherics and all the Meech appropriation, Ross’ narrative niche resides most comfortably in his least menacing, least luxurious raps. The nag of a smuggler’s superego on “Rich Off Cocaine,” the mirror confessional of “Ashamed,” the night-sweat nostalgia featured on Wale’s “Ambition”—weary recollections of delinquent gas bills, distraught grandmothers, struggle plates, class anxiety, the ethical turmoil of a fraught come-up. And the unshakeable paranoia of it all. As if the Don might wake one morning to find his fantasy foreclosed, his Maybachs repossessed, his lobster bisque curdled beyond salvation.

Whether kingpin or pawn in his past life, Ross’ paranoia is vivid, immersive, real. He’s refined a genre of poverty portraits with a signature menace, equal parts libido and destrudo. Authenticity trolling aside, Rick Ross has proven the power of persona in lighting a narrative to life. He's a rap auteur, a self-made mastermind of peerless billing, clinging for all his worth to one fantastical script:

"I’m not a star, somebody lied; I got a pistol in the car."

At age 37, having pretty much paved his own grown-man’s lane, Ross isn’t so running in contention with Drake and Kendrick, or even his contractual proteges Wale and Meek Mill, both dope in their own right. But his choice of lieutenants—Wale, Meek Mill, and Stalley—is a diverse reflection of Ross’ creative essence, even if the similarities aren’t so obvious at first glance. For instance, plenty of Wale’s earliest, Ronson-era fans balked at the D.C. rapper’s signing to MMG back in 2010, but, really, in the years since, Wale hasn’t much wavered from his balance between bookshelf bounce and rap polemics. “The Kramer” meets “Clappers,” “Golden Salvation” meets “Slight Work,” and the ship holds well enough together.

Contradictions make the man, and upon those contradictions Rick Ross founded his brand and empire.

Given the middling acclaim of 2012's God Forgives, I Don't, Mastermind comes at a stressful juncture of his career. At this stage of his undeniable stardom, whether Ross is, or ever was, a Pyrex genius is a faded concern. The only question that matters now is: Can he spit any realer? William Leonard Roberts II hasn’t broken character since 2009, and his persistence has paid immense creative dividends. But how much longer can he whip and stretch those metaphors? Soon to be six albums deep, will Rick Ross still be grunting deeper than rap? Or do we hand him the lozenge?

Justin Charity is a writer in Brooklyn, NY who shouts out Richmond and D.C. He has a website here and you can also find him @BrotherNumpsa

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