Label: Maybach Music Group, Slip-n-Slide Records, distributions from Def Jam Recordings
Producers: The Inkredibles, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, Tricky Stewart, The Runners, The Monarch, Bigg D, Drumma Boy, DJ Troomp
Features: Kanye West, Lil Wayne, T-Pain, John Legend, Magazeen, Nas, Kevin Cossom, The-Dream, Avery Storm, Robin Thicke, Foxy Brown, Gunplay, Ne-Yo, Trina
Rick Ross' beef with 50 Cent was the turning point in the Teflon Don's career, and as he approaches his fifth number one album just weeks after Curtis tucked his tail and went indie, it's important to remember exactly how Ross prevailed. His third album Deeper Than Rap was ground zero for that feud with "Mafia Music" containing the bars about 50's baby's mom that set it all in motion, but it also explains why Ross won the war even if he lost the initial battle.
By early 2009, 50's career was on an irreversible downslope, but he was still commanding a disproportionate amount of respect from rap fans. (This was only about a year after people seriously debated whether 50 was more popular than Kanye West.) Ross, on the other hand, was taken seriously only because of his success: his hits to that point were good but disposable, and his albums were wildly uneven at best. 50, conveniently, had picked a perfect target: a relevant and ascendant rapper who no serious hip-hop fan would have argued was better than him.
But with Deeper Than Rap that all changed. "Mafia Music," really, fired two shots. The first, obviously, was at 50, but the second was at the rest of his peers and anyone (read: everyone) who thought he was more a movie character than rapper. Over a booming beat by The Inkredibles, Ross rapped for four straight minutes, tracing his come-up from part-time roofer to being in suites eating crab meats, displaying a depth and level of artistry he had never shown before. It was the track on which Ross' dual identities became one: William Leonard Roberts played the Miami kingpin Rick Ross in public, but now he really was one, too, flipping his middle finger and chilling on $20 million.
It's easy, maybe, to forget how pointed that line at 50 really was. Imagine the ego and self-assurance it would take as an ex-corrections officer passing himself off as a drug lord to tell a man who had been shot nine times that he was a "jealous, stupid motherfucker." Ross, clearly, felt untouchable, both in terms of his career and his life. It was, and still remains, an incredible leap of faith, but you hear it all throughout Deeper Than Rap. It's not his best album, but it's the one where the Ross character, powered by the deep confidence of the man behind the mask, really fully blooms.
"Mafia Music" is followed by "Maybach Music II," a track with Kanye West and Lil Wayne that truly sets this luxury yacht of an album on its way. Helmed by J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, the song might be the most opulent in Ross' entire catalog, bringing the live bass and deep organs of Southern rap straight to the opera house. The album that follows feels similarly expansive and expensive, providing Ross, the man, with a perfectly untouchable sound for his character. If "synesthesia" is the condition that makes artists like Pharrell and Frank Ocean see colors when they hear music, then Deeper Than Rap created one that makes you feel fabrics: Egyptian cotton, silk, linen, and fur.
That we remember the sound of the record more than some individual songs is why Deeper Than Rap is not in the top slot, but the writing skill that would propel subsequent albums was first developed here. The MC that lords over this album is not the same one who rhymed "Atlantic" with "Atlantic." Compare that infamous nautical rhyme with one from this record's "Yacht Club": "Kill all the middle men like I'm the militant Gilligan/Speaking Creole with gentlemen as I cruise the Caribbean."
Still, the album ends as it begins, fixated on Ross' rival. On "Valley of Death" he again comes explicitly at 50, while also humanizing himself by admitting to his CO past as a means of feeding his family. The closer "In Cold Blood" is an elaborate and nasty murder fantasy ("Kids get grazed by my piss poor ways") in which Ross once again names names: "Got one over 50, 50 you better watch it." Coming off that line, the second verse could be read as a direct death threat: "Do him in cold blood/Look him in his eyes, may do him with no gloves." Later: "At my earliest convenience I'mma kill y'all."
Ross flips the last line of the song's hook each time to take a different dig at 50, but the last time he issues another warning. It's the final thing we hear on the record: "You know I'm toting the rocket, so don't make a nigga pop it." The legacy of Ross' ultimate victory is that he never even had to follow through. —Jordan Sargent