Regarded by the cognoscenti as a one-trick pony for much of his career, Ross has finally begun receiving critical acclaim. One New York Times critic ranked Teflon Don as the best album of 2010. Pitchfork.com, the notoriously picky music site, gave it an excellent 8.0/10 and wrote, “Sometimes a guy who was underrated, underappreciated and even considered a joke…generates so much momentum they eventually become undeniable.” On God Forgives, I Don’t, Ross is planning to duplicate the feat. It will be another short, “highly concentrated” album, he says, reminiscent of his last effort. “When I make music, I go back to my late nights of me by myself, listening to Curtis Mayfield or R. Kelly’s 12 Play. There’s certain depths that music can take you to. There’s certain feels that you need to have. When you get to the last song on the album, I want you to have that feeling of being whole. I want to give these muthafuckas classic joints. That means more to me than anything else.”
For all of Ross’s omnipresence on the streets, clubs and urban radio over the last year, it hasn’t translated into monumental sales or commercial radio play. Teflon Don has sold a little over 650,000 copies, a solid but less-than-blockbusting number. “Aston Martin Music” and “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast)” topped out at 50th and 60th, respectively, on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The wave of cocaine-centric rappers who emerged in the mid-2000s—a class that included Ross, Jeezy, Gucci Mane and Clipse—subsided, and a gentler, more whimsical group, led by Drake, Nicki Minaj, Wiz Khalifa, Big Sean and Kid Cudi, flooded in. From a commercial standpoint, have gangsta rappers become dinosaurs? “Most definitely times have changed,” Ross says. “But that increases my value for what I do right now. Because the streets will never change. No matter what the climate in the music industry, muthafuckas still in the struggle, for real, that’s tapped into that. If everybody in the mainstream ain’t catch on, they’ll catch the next one.”
Members of Ross’s crew—his manager, his DJ, his videographers, his security—call him “The Bawse,” or simply “Bawse.” It is a title taken literally. After the Chicago concert, some of these young men lounge in the front of his tour bus, flipping between a preseason NFL game and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Word is sent from the back that The Bawse has a hankering for Popeyes. Again. There is some grumbling, but everyone respects the hierarchy. “Let’s not be selfish; it’s for The Bawse,” says DJ Sam Sneak, a skinny dude with Foamposites, a Fendi belt and two vicious scars raking down his left cheek. “Make it happen.”
Soon the bus is freighted with enough deep-fried poultry to feed a small battalion.
Ross’s sphere of influence has grown to include the Maybach Music Group stable of artists—a collective that, like Young Money or G.O.O.D. Music, has little loyalty to any specific philosophy, sound or geographical region. Wale is from D.C.’s street-wear and go-go scene. Meek Mill is a classic blood-and-guts Philly spitter. Pill is an Atlanta rapper who merges social commentary with street narratives. Stalley is an everyman from Ohio. “We have different styles and come from different parts of the U.S., but we tell the same story,” Stalley says. “We were self-made artists who did what we had to do to get our music heard.” He believes Ross is headed for historical heights. “He’s on his way to being Kanye, Jay-Z status,” he says. “To be involved with that is a beautiful thing.”
Ross describes “spirit” and “energy” as the character attributes he values most in members of his camp. “To me, it don’t matter where you from,” he says. “I come from a time and place when Miami wasn’t the most poppin’. Everybody wasn’t as eager to open they door, give you a hand. For me to be in this position, I want to make sure I do the opposite that a lot of these niggas did.”
According to Forbes’s list of hip-hop’s top earners, Ross made $6 million over the past year. This pales in comparison to Jay-Z ($37 million) or Diddy ($35 million), but it clearly allows for a comfortable lifestyle. Ross says he smokes an ounce of weed daily. He is on his fifth Rolls-Royce and recently bought a yacht. The dressing room on his bus is strewn with luxury items from Louis Vuitton and Gucci. A cache of jewelry—two Jesus pieces, a diamond-covered Audemars Piguet watch, a pinky ring, colored beads—is laid out on the bedspread next to him.
“I’m stacking my money, but there is a side of me that love to fuck up money,” Ross says of his lavish spending. “I could spend $100,000 in one day, just ballin’. If I’m fuckin’ with a chick, I want this chick to know all them niggas is losers compared to me, baby. You gonna eat good with me. I’m gonna put you up on these $10,000 Birkin bags.”
This is not enough. “I want to do that,” Ross says, pointing up at the TV screen. It’s a scene from Blow, a film about a cocaine kingpin, where Johnny Depp is rolling on the floor in heaps of dollar bills. “Wait ’til we buy a piece of the Miami Dolphins,” Ross says. “Sitting in the box with the majority owners, smoking cigars. They’ll say, ‘He’s smart.’ ” He snorts. “You just slow.” Beneath the TV are DVD cases for Pretty Woman and Exit Through the Gift Shop, a movie about a street-art documentarian who fools the public into thinking he himself is the authentic article. There are a dwindling number of critics still grumbling that Ross has pulled off a similar caper, but everyone else just wants that “Hunngh!”
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