Forever Hustle
With a new album, legal troubles and some tension in MMG, a thinned down Rick Ross has a lot on his plate.
Words Sowmya Krishnamurthy
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

It’s a mundane stretch on Evander Holyfield Highway—dotted with a gas station and nondescript country signposts—before you see black gates glistening with the letter “R” in gold. A driveway winds into the 104-acre property, past ponds, manicured lawns and geese. At some 50,000 square feet, the former mansion of heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield is the largest single-family home in the state. Dubbed Villa Vittoriosa (or “Victory” in Italian), the Mediterranean vibe is offset with palm trees specially flown in from Los Angeles. It’s October and unseasonably warm. The sky is full of fluffy, picture-perfect clouds. It’s here, in middle-of-nowhere Fayetteville, Ga., where one of rap’s biggest fig- ures rests his head. Welcome to the home of Rick Ross.

2015 has been a strange year for The Bawse. On the precipice of Black Market, his eighth studio album, the rapper and Maybach Music Group honcho is fraught with professional and personal challenges. He spent three weeks in jail for assault and kidnapping charges—he’s under house arrest at the time of this interview—and freedom remains in the balance. The status of his MMG cadre is up for speculation amid public tensions between Meek Mill and Wale and of course, Meek and Drake.

“Beware the Ides of March...” Shakespeare’s infamous words for Julius Caesar have come to symbolize any warning shot when entertaining the mansion’s atrium, decorated with marble floors and a statue of Caesar.

Like the Roman leader, Ross has defeated obstacles in the past—will his empire continue its reign?

It’s easy to get lost in the 109-room estate. An Imperial staircase with plush, red carpeting hugs the entry. A dome with a central oculus opens to the sky. There’s the library with antique books by Charles Dickens, a menagerie of MCM leather animals and an elephant skull, casually strewn about the way one would throw decorative pillows. Every corner is chocked full of trinkets befitting a rapper who just notched $9 million on the Forbes list. Still, Ricky Rozay wants to talk in perhaps the most regular room—his man cave.

“This is my favorite room,” Ross says on this October afternoon. “This is my type of shit.” The 39-year-old rhymeslinger sits in a chair as his barber painstakingly shapes up his beard. Shirtless, he wears a smock over his slimmed- down torso (he’s lost 80-pounds thanks to health changes following two seizures in 2011). Rozay wears black shorts, Air Jordan chancletas and an electronic ankle bracelet that monitors his house arrest. The room opens to a garage with motorcycles, vintage Chevy Impalas and C2 racecars. The Steve Wilkos Show plays on TV overhead. “War ready. That’s how I’m feeling,” Ross says, moving a joint towards his lips and inhales. He’s in high spirits about Black Market and hopes that this could be his “biggest album ever.” He continues, “Everybody that fuck with me. Everybody that love Rozay, they saying, ‘this is the best of the best.’ This is the fuckin’ top shelf.”

Braggadocio has always been integral to Rick Ross. Born William Leonard Roberts II in Mississippi, he was raised in Carol City, Fla. and toiled in the underground until 2006’s “Hustlin’.” Bolstered by Mafioso swagger and the anthemic track, his Port of Miami debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 chart and went on to be certified gold. He became one of the most prolific hit-makers, as a solo force and feature artist, with “The Boss” feat. T-Pain, “Aston Martin Music” feat. Drake and Chrisette Michele, Lil Wayne’s “John” and French Montana’s “Pop That.” Rick Ross was Scarface personified. His larger-than-life image, penchant for Maybachs and coke rap and memorable ad-libs (that guttural “Hunngh!”) made everyone want to fuck with him. Anyone who tried to test—50 Cent came for his throat and critics called out Ross’ street credibility given his background as a correctional officer—could say hello to his little friend.

Chinks are beginning to show in his armor. 2014’s Mastermind and Hood Billionaire received lukewarm reception compared to their predecessors, domestically selling under 400,000 copies and 200,000 copies, respectively. Hip-hop is fickle and you’re only as good as your last hit. It’s crucial that Black Market succeeds, not only for Ross as a rapper but as a businessman. He has his hands in everything from premium liquor to Wingstop chicken joints. Ross knows he needs to push units and ignite fans.“Most definitely, where you land [on the charts] matters,” he says. “You know, that’s the business aspect of it.”

In June, Ross was arrested on assault and kidnapping charges for allegedly pistol-whipping and restraining a groundskeeper at his mansion. Rozay spent three weeks in solitary confinement at Fayette County Jail. Things were far from sweet: 23-hours-a-day in a cell with just a bed and toilet. “You thinking to [yourself], ‘Yo. I’m a 50 million-dollar nigga drinking out of a faucet,” he admits. “They slid that slop to me and said, ‘This was breakfast.’ It looked like it could have been possum or raccoon stew.” Corrections officers never gave him special treatment but other prisoners showed love. “They was either standing up at the window at the glass or just, staring at my door to see if I’d come over there and rap a verse,” Ross says. But he kept his sanity by working out (“Straight up do my push ups and my sit ups”), reading (“I couldn’t even fuckin’ believe that I read an Indiana Jones book”) and zoning out to Arrested Development. A female background singer of the group was incarcerated, too. Ross tells, “I made a request for her to sing ‘Tennessee’ over and over for me.”

Eventually, Ross was released after posting $2 million bond. “The first night I came home, I tracked six records,” he said. Much of Black Market was recorded after jail. It will be interesting to see how much of his usual bravado will be heard, or, if we get a different, more affected side of him. “We letting the situation take its course,” he says, optimistic. “We will prevail in court.” A week after this interview, the house arrest was lifted.

See Photos From Rick Ross' Winter 2015 XXL Magazine Feature

"What other rapper you interviewed living on 200 acres?!” Ross demands. He’s shirtless and has always been very comfortable that way, even when he was at his highest weight. Over the past couple of years, the rapper has drastically changed his physique despite the name old tattoos, portraits of known figures like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Rick Ross has always been confident, speaks with authority and is impervious to most controversy, including the recent Meek Mill vs. Drake beef.

The streetwise underdog versus the mainstream darling: MMG’s Meek Mill was gunning for Drake this year. Meek’s opening salvo was that Drake has ghostwriters penning his rhymes. “Stop comparing Drake to me too.... He don’t write his own raps! That’s why he ain’t tweet my album because we found out!” claimed Meek on July 21, 2015. Drake responded with two songs, “Charged Up” and “Back to Back,” with jabs like, “Is that a world tour or your girl’s tour/I know that you gotta be a thug for her.” Meek had to respond on wax. After several days—and an embarrassing delay on Funkmaster Flex’s show on Hot 97—Meek responded with “Wanna Know.” The track didn’t have the ferocity expected from the scrapper rapper. Drake came back with the haymaker, going on a meme blitz at his OVO Fest. When the tweets settled, the consensus was that Drake won.

Ross kept quiet during the beef, he didn’t publically pick sides though fans assumed he had Meek’s back since it was his artist. It was an exciting moment in hip-hop and the competitive fervor, to many, was reminiscent, in many ways, of Jay Z versus Nas in 2001. Rick Ross disagrees.

“You said Jay Z and Nas?” he asks incredulously. He furrows his brow, which is inked with a tiny tattoo shaped like the state of Florida. He repeats this and looks at me like I’m an alien from another planet. “Jay and Nas? An event in hip-hop?” Rick is either genuinely puzzled or has the best poker face in life.

“We might be from two different eras or something. We lost B.I.G. in that era. We lost 2Pac in that era. So to say, Jay and Nas when you discussing Drake and Meek, I think is disrespectful. That was an entirely different type of energy. That’s what I believe, unless I’m seeing something... I must be just, fuckin’, I don’t know. But by the time I heard of the Meek and the Drake situation, um, you know they told me that Meek hadn’t dropped nothing real and Drake had let two records go. They told me, it was cool and I was like, that’s it. Moved on.”

The flogging at OVO Fest also escapes him. Ross does however, reveal that his end goal is not a reconciliation. “[Meek and Drake collaborating is] not my goal at all. It’s just we have moved forward. Meek has moved forward.”

Ross takes a similar stance on MMG lablemates Meek Mill and Wale. Last year, Meek accused Wale of not tweeting support for his album and called Wale a “cornball.” Wale told NYC’s Power 105’s The Breakfast Club in October that Meek lost the battle with Drake. “I honestly think [Meek] brought a pencil to a gunfight,” Wale said on air. “He ain’t even bring a knife but a pencil. [He brought] a piece of paper [and] tried to paper-cut [Drake] to death.”

Meek soon exiled Wale from MMG and advised him to jump off a roof via Instagram. “It’s nothing to even think about when you know these two dudes got love for each other,” Ross says of the tension between his two artist. “It’s like two brothers who haven’t seen each other in a month and haven’t been on the same page and soon as they, you know, reconnect it’s all love.”

If there’s one thing about Rick Ross, he maintains a stiff upper lip always. Controversy and beef are minor distractions. That shit rolls off his back. He’s never gonna let you see him sweat, kid. Is it part of some master plan? “There’s nothing that I plan and strategize,” he says. His secret to survival is equal parts Oprah and Machiavelli. “When I end up in any situations, I’m always remaining positive. I guess that’s why I’m always here. The Bawse is always here.”

Right on time.

Check out Kendrick Lamar's cover story and more from XXL’s Winter 2015 issue on newsstands now.