Contemplative is not a word typically associated with Rick Ross, but it’s exactly the mood he finds himself in on his eighth studio album. It’s a fitting comedown from the two albums he released in 2014, Mastermind and Hood Billionaire, both of which were critically maligned and saw Ross’ once mythic gangster persona seem tired and worn out. Perhaps it was releasing two albums in the same year, perhaps it was simply the repetitive themes in Ross’ work, but whatever the cause, he was no longer the vital artist he was in his Teflon Don days. Ross’ 2015 fared even worse, being arrested for kidnapping and assaulting his groundskeeper and spending a week in prison before being released on a $2 million bail. In the run up to the release of Black Market, Ross indicated that these events would see him drop his gangster villain persona, and simply write lyrics from his own perspective, and by-and-large that holds true.
Ross has always felt somewhat like a man out of time; a classicist gangster rapper who managed to rise to fame around roughly the same time as Drake popularised his brand of vulnerable honesty. The strangeness of Ross’ cartoonish supervillain persona is only amplified by the revelation that he once worked as a corrections officer, separating Ross from the pantheon of gangster rappers to whom authenticity is such an important qualifier. There was a time when none of that mattered to his audience (his run from 2009-2012 was fairly spectacular), but Ross’ music has gotten stale to the point where a reinvention of this sort is necessary, functioning similarly to the latest releases by Justin Bieber (both albums even feature a song named Sorry).
Sorry is actually one of the stronger songs on the album, with Ross rapping about his devotion to a new relationship, and chronicling his partner’s frustration with his infidelities. The chorus features Chris Brown, and taps into his cultural cachet of a need for redemption, and sees him singing “sorry don’t turn back the clock, baby I took advantage”, and confessing to his “broken promises”. This all plays out over a string-laden beat that comfortably fills the sonic space left by Ross’ deep voice. There are several other similarly styled, melancholy tracks on the album, from the superb opener Free Enterprise, which sees Ross pondering his legacy over a lushly orchestrated beat, to Crocodile Python, the strongest track here, in which Ross discusses the systemic persecution of African-Americans via his own tax problems, over a creative beat of looped vocal samples that lend the track a pensive tone.
However, there are some regressive qualities here, with the more opulent stylings of Ross’ previous work coming through on several songs. One Of Us sees Ross joined by Nas, who handily outclasses him in his opening verse, as Nas immediately imbues his lines with a sense of dangerous experience – “mess around and die before 21 out here” – that has the unfortunate side effect of making Ross’ braggadocio about his millionaire lifestyle seem quaint by comparison. By far the worst offender in terms of vapidity is Dope Dick, apparently a term used to describe having sex whilst on heroin, although the song seems to just be garden variety sexual posturing. Whilst the final verse houses some amusing lyrics – “I can’t come to your crib unless you got that Netflix account baby” – overall the song just feels out of place on a record that seems to actively strive for more depth and meaning.
In spite of some weak spots, this album is the most vital Ross has been in years, ironically thanks to his choice to tone down his previously exciting approach to writing. It turns out that real-life Rick Ross is a much more interesting character than comical gangster Rick Ross, and he would be well served by continuing down this path, or at least striving to make his music more thoughtful from now on. But for now, Black Market is the album that deserves to make Rick Ross relevant again.