Rapper Rick Ross, “Rich Forever,” Turns the American Dream Inside Out

Rapper Rick Ross, “Rich Forever,” Turns the American Dream Inside Out
Rick Ross, the Boss
(Courtesy Getty Images)

Any rapper worth his or her salty language has trademark catchphrases or vocal tics that they drop into their music. (Yes, there’s a soundboard for that.) Notorious B.I.G. had “uh!,” which sounded like him letting off a bit of the energy built up as he revved his rhymes. Rick Ross, meanwhile, every so often emits a raspy “HUH,” a stoned-sounding syllable that evokes equal parts wonder and confusion. It says, How did I get here? with a hint of Who knows … I’m going to buy another mummy on eBay.

The story of where in fact Ross did come from is a good one. The rapper, it was discovered after he’d already become famous for songs about dealing cocaine, worked as a corrections officer in the mid ‘90s. (Imagine, for comparison’s sake, if Ron Paul were forced to admit that he once worked as a cabana boy for Fidel Castro.) The funny thing was, Ross wasn’t run out of rapville. He stuck to his sonorous rhymes and well-sourced beats, and three and a half years later rates among hip hop’s leading figures, a fact driven home by his latest mix tape, the excellent “Rich Forever,” which features a bunch of rappers showing their support — and angling for a little extra shine — in a string of guest verses.

Jonah Weiner over at Slate has a simple explanation for what got Rick Ross here: great music. But Weiner also suggests that Ross’ dalliance with the prison-industrial complex — shit work, that is — makes him all the more attractive to rap fans:

There’s a pleasing consonance to the way Rick Ross’ persona-craft jells with the classic rap-narrative of up-by-the-bootstraps striving. Rick Ross likes to call himself “self-made,” but while he means this in the sense of Alger-style ascent, it also works in the sense of Gatsby-style self-invention. This relates, more broadly, to the way many listeners daydream their own self-inventions when they listen to hip-hop — as ripe a source of vicarious fantasy as pop music offers.

So maybe “Rich Forever” isn’t the most accurate title — try “Once Poor, Rich Now and Going Forward.” But that leaves plenty of fantasy left over: the idea that it won’t just fall away, the way prosperity has been falling away for all but the richest people in this country. Rick Ross may have gone Gatsby, but his persona rejects a key element of Gatsby’s story: the punishment meted out for sneaking across social and economic boundaries. Ross got rich, got caught, and got off. Fake it ‘til you make it — in a time when it’s increasingly hard to get ahead, that may be our best version of the American dream. But what a soundtrack it has got.