At the beginning of his career, Rick Ross seemed to be playing the part of kingpin rather than actually living it. Now, after last year’s surprisingly tremendous Teflon Don, Rick Ross has become the Mafioso myth he created. Self-Made Vol. 1, a compilation from Ross’s Maybach Music Group record label, arrives as further proof that Ross means business. Plenty of rappers promise posse or supergroup albums, but the truth is that they rarely deliver. And of those posse albums that actually make it to stores, the list of successes is short while the list of disappointments is legion. So, Ross deserves serious kudos for getting this album out of the gate, not to mention the fact that it’s not an outright bomb.
As for evaluating talent, Ross could have done worse. The featured rappers here are Wale, Pill, and Meek Mill, three of the most excited young rappers around. (Maybach Music Group is the name of Ross’s label, even though the publicity shots and the way the album is being marketed suggest it’s the name of a group featuring Ross and the aforementioned trio.) The guest list is equally impressive, with Gunplay, Curren$y, Cyhi da Prynce, Jadakiss, and J. Cole making appearances. With so many blistering emcees fighting for airspace, it’s not surprising, if a little disappointing, that Ross himself takes a supporting role, shouting on a lot of the verses but rarely rapping.
The first mixtape from Maybach Music Group, which came out earlier this year, was heavy on pummeling, Lex Luger-style productions and verses from rowdy thugs like Torch and Gunplay. By emphasizing Pill, a trap rapper who often dabbles in social issues, and Wale, a certified descendant of '90s conscious hip-hop, Ross shows that he wants to switch things up a bit. The opening track, “Self Made,” has a delicious horn-fed Just Blaze beat and an enthusiastically all-over-the-place verse from Wale in which he goes from whacking his old boss Jimmy Iovine to referencing Michelangelo, Maya Angelou and Michael Jordan in a matter of seconds. “Rise,” with its crystalline production and recumbently brilliant verses from Pill, Wale, Cyhi da Prynce and Curren$y, brings to mind Puff Daddy and Mase waltzing around the palatial set of the “Been Around the World” video. Ross has said he’s trying to capture the spirit of late-nineties Bad Boy with Maybach Music Group, and in these moments he offers a welcome update to that attitude of effortless, all-star decadence.
Self-Made Vol. 1 falls flat, though, when Ross sticks to the same, familiar script he and much of hip-hop have been following for the past year or so. Too many of the songs here -- “600 Benz,” “Tupac Back,” “Pacman” -- jock the same huff-and-puff cadence and snakey synth line from “MC Hammer” and a million other Lux Luger hits. Ross is better when he’s more ambitious, when he goes beyond the tired hood-rap/pop-rap divisions -- after all, this is the guy who put Erykah Badu and T.I. on the same song. That’s the magic of songs like “Rise,” “Self Made,” and the R&B jam “That Way,” perhaps the album’s best hope for crossover airplay. Through sheer effort, Ross has (self) made himself into one of rap’s head honchos. More amazing is the fact that he’s using his power to amplify new, unique voices rather than squash the competition. Although far from perfect, Self-Made Vol. 1 promises that if Ross can somehow maintain his supremacy, he’s determined to be an enlightened despot.