Born William Leonard Roberts II in Mississippi, Ross was raised in Carol City, Florida, an area afflicted by grim poverty. Ross and his sister grew up living with their mother, who worked multiple jobs, the most prestigious being a nurse. Ross wandered into trouble as a kid, getting into the habit of breaking into houses, and paid a harsh price when people robbed his family’s home and torched it in retaliation. It was an awful truth to conceal. He, his mother and his sister were forced to move into a single motel room. When asked how long they stayed in those suffocating quarters, he exhales loudly. “It was a good little minute,” he says, staring into space. “Fuck. That shit was the worst.”
Hip-hop offered an escape from such desperate surroundings. As a kid, Ross wrote lyrics and listened to rap, ranging from A Tribe Called Quest to Tela to Raekwon, on his knockoff Sony Sport Walkman. In music videos were glimpses of places that occasionally resembled what he witnessed from his own window. “When I saw Eric B. and Rakim walking through the grimy-ass streets of New York, it was like, Damn, that’s the kind of shit I live in,” he says. “I used to love Ice Cube when I saw them niggas driving jeep Isuzus through the ghetto with curly perms. I felt they struggle. Those were the niggas I looked up to. For me to idolize you, you had to first start with nothing. You had to live in the conditions we were living in—that way it was fair grounds.” There were also promises of a better life. “Muthafuckas where I came from were always mean, mad, upset, crazy, hair nappy, dreads and shit,” he says. “Me listening to The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, seeing muthafuckas in good moods, telling stories—I was blowed away. I remember Cool C and the Hilltop Hustlers. I remember them niggas wearing Bally’s and silk suits, [thinking,] Damn, that’s how I wanted to dress right there.”
Most rap listeners were introduced to Ross when his anthemic 2006 single “Hustlin’ ” broke nationally, but the title of the track applies as much to his rap career as it does to distributing cocaine with “the real Noriega.” In an era when a teenager with skinny jeans can post up a video on Tumblr and rack up a million YouTube views in a week, Ross is a member of an older caste that plowed barren dirt for years without seeing much in return. He boasts of being rich without rap, but his résumé reflects someone deeply dedicated to fi nding a toehold in the hip-hop game. In 2000, he signed with Tony Draper’s Suave House label, a deal he now calls “the most fucked-up record deal in the history of the music business”; his debut album, Rise to Power, was put on hold. Later, Ross linked up with Jazze Pha and recorded in peripheral studio spaces while artists like T.I. and 8Ball & MJG worked in the main rooms. He signed with Slip-N-Slide in 2002 and ghostwrote lyrics for Trina. It was a frustrating time. “It took me longer than a lot of muthafuckas,” says Ross. “I was running around the industry, writing songs here and there for different muthafuckas who heard I was lyrical, but coming from a space where they ain’t really know what to do with me in Miami.” Once, when Ross learned reps from Atlantic Records were in town, he was confident his time had come. “Yo, they signed Pretty Ricky,” he says, shaking his head. “What the fuck? Okay, I wish y’all little niggas much success, but I’m fi nna show these muthafuckas. I’ma punish the game. That was my inspiration.”
When Rick Ross finally got his chance, he didn’t squander it. Led by the singles “Hustlin’ ” and “Push It,” his 2006 debut album, Port of Miami, sold almost one million copies and established him as a leading fi gure in the burgeoning coke-rap genre. His second album, 2008’s Trilla, sold another 750,000-plus units and yielded a single with T-Pain, “The Boss,” that still stands as his biggest mainstream hit. Amid a scandal touched off by photos that proved he had worked as a correctional offi cer, and a flurry of taunts from 50 Cent, the following year’s Deeper Than Rap fared less well. But it was his most artistically adept album up to that point, earning some strong reviews, and was, in retrospect, an indication of what was to come.
The elevation of Ross’s stature during the last year can be attributed to the most simple of reasons: He has been making thrilling music. Some recent hits from Tefl on Don—like “I’m Not a Star” or “MC Hammer”—are insistent bundles of ricocheting snares, nasty synths and declarative hooks. These records are punctuated with grunts and hoots, ad-libs that have become key components of the Rozay aesthetic. In July, Atlanta’s Yung Joc even dropped “Ugh,” a song built around Ross’s sonic calling card. “I been to performances, and they want those more than the lyrics,” Ross says. “They want that ‘Hunngh!’” But other records convey a lushly layered, almost orchestral musicality. There is depth—emotional and sonic—to Tefl on Don that Ross had only hinted at on his earlier albums. He has improved at songwriting and constructing cohesive albums, while branding Maybach Music’s sound as simultaneously aggressive and soulful.