“We need to get in there before they get to us."

Red, Rick Ross's Security Chief, a man with the shoulders of a linebacker, speaks as if the rapper's tour bus were being swarmed by flesh-starved zombies. It’s 3 a.m. on a Saturday night, and the enormous vehicle has pulled up behind Club Adrianna’s, a nightclub outside of Chicago.

This kind of place can be perilous for visiting rappers, a fact underscored by the 2006 shooting of T.I.’s friend Philant Johnson after a similar appearance in Cincinnati. As Ross and his entourage are shepherded through a back entrance by hulking club security personnel, people in the crowd shout “Rozay!” and mimic the rapper’s signature deep-bellied grunt.

By the time the convoy cleanses several rooms of locals and shoves through a mobbed mezzanine, the DJ has shifted into a set of Ross’s hits. Finally deposited in a private area, Ross is presented with bottles of Champagne and sparklers. The crowd crushes inward, looking for photo opportunities and handshakes. A sequoia-sized member of Ross’s crew stands sentinel, scanning the sea of faces for anyone whose expression is a little too excited or icy. Wearing a black nylon jacket and his ever-present sunglasses, Ross is at home in the swirl of chaos. At this moment, he is exactly what he has always wanted to be: a rap star who performs in front of thousands but still gets love in the hood.

Later on, back on the bus, after a frenzied extraction, the 35-year-old rapper launches into an animated, 30-minute paean to his own authenticity. “There was five different gangs in that room,” he says, grabbing a handrail as the bus curls through the Illinois darkness. “Crips. Folks. You don’t see these other tough-guy rappers there. Check their tour schedule. They don’t go to Detroit, to Chicago. That’s the difference.” The spiel includes talk of his murderous Miami mentor, meeting with Larry Hoover’s son and the foulness of snitches. He even threatens Kreayshawn, the fledgling Bay Area rapper who called Ross “fake” in a recent freestyle verse. “I can’t wait to slap the shit out of whoever carries her bags,” he says with a sneer. “And I hope it’s her nigga. Dirty bitch. You better know who the fuck you talking about. I’ll pay 50K to mess up your whole week.”

If the last year has proven anything, it’s that Rick Ross should not be concerned about his credibility. Despite a number of issues that could have doomed an inferior artist—the discovery that he worked as a correctional officer in Florida’s Dade County, an embarrassing ex-girlfriend who pranced around New York City with his rival 50 Cent, a lingering perception that his persona as a cocaine baron was overblown—he has risen to greater stardom than ever before. His last album, 2010’s Teflon Don, was critically lauded and spawned monster hits like “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast)” and “Aston Martin Music.” Ashes to Ashes, a follow-up mixtape, yielded more of the same with “John Doe” and “9 Piece.” He made high-profile cameos on tracks with Drake, Kanye West and Lil Wayne. He assembled a divergent group of artists for his Maybach Music Group label and, in May, elevated their stature with the compilation album MMG Presents: Self Made, Vol. 1. Squabbles with other rappers (Kreayshawn notwithstanding) and questions about his past are old news. With his fifth album, God Forgives, I Don’t, scheduled to come out this fall, Ross has his pudgy toes on the precipice of greatness.

“I’m enjoying my last few moments at No. 2,” Ross says, sitting on the bed in the back of his tour bus. “It’s like I’m watching the No. 1 man on stage, my legs crossed, I’m smoking big, hollering at the bitches in the crowd. And this album gonna do it. I got the formula.” His sunglasses are off, and his eyes are heavily lidded but alive. “Everybody on my dick,” he says, “like they supposed to be.”

The First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, a concert venue about 30 minutes outside of Chicago, has towering support pillars and an ugly roof, which provide all the ambiance of a freeway overpass. After an afternoon of rain and hail, skies clear up in time for performances from Ross, Lil Wayne, Keri Hilson and Far East Movement. The sprawling crowd is a snapshot of the rap audience in 2011: kids with braids throwing up gang signs, frat bros in Hollister shirts, groupies in shrink-wrapped dresses and teenyboppers wearing hoodies emblazoned with “Love Pink.” And there is Ross, leading this weird congregation in chants of “I think I’m Big Meech.” He bounces along the catwalk, hunched down, his chin tucked into his chest. It looks a bit like a turtle trying to get off of a hot plate. “Took me 10 years to stand right here,” he announces to acknowledging applause. As Ross polishes off a set that includes hits like “Hustlin’?” and “I’m on One,” steam rises from his bald, sweat-sheened head. Walking backstage, he yanks off his shirt.

For a man of significant huskiness, Ross is not bashful. Whether performing, during photo shoots or in the privacy of his trailer, he strips off his tent-sized tees with the casual exhibitionism of a sunbathing Frenchwoman. The folds of his upper body are a maze of tattoos—he says he has more than 100. Abraham Lincoln and George Washington are inked on his chest. The Statue of Liberty and Richard Pryor on his abdomen. On his right thigh is a portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the New York City painter, who died in 1988 of a heroin overdose. Basquiat, who did the cover art for Rammellzee and K-Rob’s “Beat Bop” in 1983, has become a popular name-drop among rap’s aspiring art appreciators; Jay-Z, Nas and Swizz Beatz have all made their admiration known. Ross doesn’t say much about Basquiat’s actual work, but he is enamored of his storied rise from homeless obscurity to the top of the art world. “I connected to that totally,” Ross says. “Just chasing his dream. It wasn’t about how much knowledge he had or who he knew. It was just his talent. And that’s what it was with me.”