Everything about Rick Ross is big. This has been the story since his first record—big voice, big man, big appetites. It’s no coincidence, then, that his artistic apex was also the moment he finally made a record as IMAX-sized as his persona, 2010’s Teflon Don. An atomic bomb of a single like “B.M.F.” had the feel of inevitability: AC/DC was never going to be a bar band, and Rick Ross was never going to be a mixtape rapper. But the thing about size as a defining artistic trait is that, while it’s impressive, it’s also easy to turn against. (Just ask Michael Bay.) Every official record Ross has released since Teflon Don has been met with a series of shrugs, even as he continues doing most of the things he did on that record: bellowing about seafood and molly amid impossibly opulent productions.
Hood Billionaire is perhaps the most obstinate comeback attempt in recent memory. Ross is declaring nothing is wrong, and that he will not change a lick, even as he releases his second full hour of music in 2014, loaded with non-starting singles. Like March’s Mastermind, Hood Billionaire is an overlong 16 tracks of Ross luxuriating in his excesses, including the most expensive productions this side of Watch The Throne. For a while, it works. The title track reunites Ross with “B.M.F.” producer Lex Luger, and, even if the result feels like a meek memory of that track, Ross sounds thoroughly at ease screaming “ME!” behind raps about buying your wife a new washer-dryer. (“I seen it in your son’s face, I’m who he admires,” he says, po-faced.) The paranoid, romantic “Phone Tap” finds the MC at his Elmore Leonard-best, weaving a neon-lit fable over rock guitars just chintzy enough to work. In “Elvis Presley Blvd.” he breathes fire all over a Toomp beat that would’ve torched rap radio four years ago.
There are few arguments in criticism more tiring than the shrugged, “It’s good for what it is,” but in a sense that is exactly how Ross is positioning himself. For all his talk of caviar, he has become the rap equivalent of lasagna. This is not a bad thing: After lasagna, you leave the table full of the things you wanted when you sat down, assuming those things were cheese, meat, and starch. Unfortunately, the second half of Hood Billionaire fails to even provide those comforts. Ross tries on electro, goes underwater with Snoop, swaps sex partners with R. Kelly, and eventually ends up kicking mournful blues-raps with Big K.R.I.T. (The guitars there are, finally, too chintzy to work.) Among the thirty-odd tracks Ross has released in 2014, there are a dozen or so that could make for—if not an equal to Teflon Don or the mixtape Rich Forever—at least the solid, workmanlike follow-up the MC yearns to make. But that’s the fundamental tension here: He’s rapping like a billionaire and making records like he owes someone money.