“Call from Kenneth Williams, an inmate at a federal prison,” an automated voice states on the “Intro” of Rick Ross’ Hood Billionaire. After accepting the call, Ross connects with Kenneth “Boobie” Williams, an imprisoned Miami gangster who supposedly guided Ross as a youth. Hood Billionaire isn’t a concept album, but Ross uses these soundbites to (loosely) tie the album together.
But Williams’ dialogs seem unnatural. There are shifts in his voice that indicate sometimes he’s talking with Ross; other times he’s just recording himself. Some quotes reference Ross’ catchphrases and key messages, raising questions of how scripted or off-the-cuff these comments truly are. Ross has enlisted Williams to refute criticisms against him, namely that he isn’t an OG. At the beginning of “Movin’ Bass”, Williams explains why Ross’ credibility shouldn’t be challenged because he’s never been to prison: “When they try to question, ‘Oh, Ross ain’t do this, Ross ain’t do this,’ it goes to show you Ross is a boss because real bosses don’t go to jail.” Williams also refers to himself and Ross as “self-made men,” in accordance with the last three Maybach Music compilation albums. The whole exercise comes across as a heavyhanded ploy to legitimize Ross as a boss with serious street cred.
Ross opened Mastermind – released just eight months ago – with an audio clip from Napoleon Hill, author of The Law of Success: “You may borrow and use the education, the experience, the influence and perhaps the capital of other people in carrying out your own plans in life.” There are rags-to-riches themes in the rest of the speech, but that part rings especially true for Ross, born William Roberts, since he essentially co-opted the persona of “Freeway” Rick Ross, an actual cocaine kingpin. Of course, Rick Ross the Miami rapper was identified in pictures as a correctional officer. Other details of his youth are hazier, and it’s unclear just how many of his lyrics are really autobiographical. Would this be the moment Ross addressed the differences between the realities of his life and Rick Ross as a larger-than-life caricature? Mastermind answered that with a no, and Hood Billionaire doubles down on this fantasy of a life of crime to unremarkable results.
Hood Billionaire is defined by a lack of subtlety. “Coke Like the 80’s”, “Hood Billionaire”, and “Neighborhood Drug Dealer” are what you’d expect: Ross extols the wealth and power he gains from being a major player in the drug trade. His vision of grandeur does show some promise with a boxing analogy in “Heavyweight”. If you’ve ever longed to hear Ross shout “ding ding” over the sound of a boxing bell, you’re in for a treat. Elsewhere on the track, however, Ross makes a questionable lyrical choice: “Heavyweight/ Don King/ Robin Givens/ Big dreams.” Maybe we should give Ross the benefit of the doubt, but on a track about punching people in the face, it seems dubious to name-drop Givens, especially since she responded to the Ray Rice controversy by explaining to TIME why she stayed in an abusive relationship with Mike Tyson. (Ross previously incited controversy on Rocko’s “U.O.E.N.O.” for a lyric perceived as condoning date rape.) But these tracks are uninteresting. The incessant braggadocio throughout the course of an overlong tracklist of 16 songs makes for repetitive listening. Ross’ booming, baritone bark still works — it’s his signature sound. The “M-M-Maybach Music” followed by clinking glasses? Fine. But all the interjections of “hood billionaire” grow tiresome about two songs into the album.
The lyrics for the most part don’t do Hood Billionaire’s sounds justice. The beats are nothing unexpected, but some of them still sound great. The dramatic, slow-burning piano of “Coke Like the 80’s” contrasts the rapid rat-a-tat of the drum machine. Similarly, the ominous, mournful female vocal sample on “Neighborhood Drug Dealer” sets up the possibility for a more thoughtful take on the dark side of the drug trade. Instead, we get more of the same lyrically.
What made God Forgives, I Don’t, Ross’ fifth album, nearly great was that it dealt with ostentatious wealth, but those experiences were tempered by a profound sense of mortality: Ross had just suffered seizures that forced hospitalization. Similarly, Hood Billionaire‘s best tracks — “Phone Tap”, “Family Ties”, and “Brimstone” — humanize Ross rather than portray him as a super-rich demigod. It doesn’t help that the latter two tracks are buried as the album’s closing songs. On “Phone Tap”, Ross constructs a narrative of paranoia stemming from betrayal at the hands of a childhood friend who testified against him in court. “When your days numbered/ Cherish every second,” he raps over the minimalist beat. He gets around to the harsh realities of his younger years on “Family Ties” and how he continues to hustle to avoid returning to them. “Brimstone”, featuring Big K.R.I.T., deals with the fear of hell, as Ross wistfully sings, “I pray God will know my name.”
Ross’ commercial interests, from Maybach Music to Wingstop, are so fundamental to his identity (and lyrics and social media presence) it’s tough to see him removing himself from the business mindset of pushing out as much content as possible. Ross has had trouble impressing over the entirety of an album; some call it unrealized potential. His spot on Kanye West’s “Devil in a New Dress” ranks as a highlight on a legendary album. His collaborations with Nas, “Accident Murderers” and “Triple Beam Dreams”, feature Ross in top form. He could benefit from taking a step back and focusing on quality over quantity. For now, Hood Billionaire is a half-baked testament to how difficult it is to make great records in rapid succession.
Essential Tracks: “Phone Tap”, “Family Ties”, and “Brimstone”