It’s perfect that the first word Rick Ross raps on God Forgives, I Don’t is “hallucination” – after all, he’s in the fantasy business. Over his career, Ross has gone from generic dope-boy with a stolen name (the actual Ross, a California cocaine drug lord, sued for copyright infringement) to unmasked former corrections officer to inspired charlatan, who pretends to be a high-living kingpin sticking to his script with hammy gusto, never breaking character. In interviews, Ross laid out a clear MO for his fifth album: He wanted to craft the equivalent of a Scorsese or Tarantino film.
There are times when God Forgives is as engrossing and surprising as rap can be. Over beats that alternate between sparkling, decadent string arrangements and assaultive, synthesized blare, Ross pretzels hip-hop’s familiar rags-to-riches arc into a Möbius strip, slaloming around an autobiographical timeline that may or may not be his own. One moment he’s enjoying “20-stack seats at the Heat game”; the next he’s counting small-timer “brown-bag money.” Here he’s in a Maybach; a few bars down he’s in a rental car. An Audemars Piguet on “Amsterdam” morphs into an empty fridge on the next song. Soon he’s shouting, “Fuck all these broke niggas!” The result is a thrilling whiplash effect. Ross never feasts here for long without fretting about famine.
There are human-size details throughout: His wish to see “each one of my kids born,” on “Amsterdam”; his mom’s minimum-wage salary, on “Ashamed.” Ross’ favorite scale, though, is still Big & Tall – he remains rap’s reigning maximalist. On “Maybach Music IV,” where J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League set louche electric guitars atop hotel-spa synths, he raps, “Get a blowjob, have a seizure on the Lear” – a reference to two seizures he had in 2011. (One was on a Delta flight, which doesn’t have quite the same ring.)
Ross is a restless eccentric masquerading as a no-frills traditionalist, and his best boasts go overboard to the point of incoherence. Over blissful chants on the Pharrell-produced “Presidential,” he brags about “walking on Jewish marble.” (Balling at a synagogue?) On “911,” mashing together materialism and fatalism, he fantasizes about driving his Porsche to heaven.
There are flaws. Finer versions of most of these beats exist on Ross’ 2010 triumph, Teflon Don: The Skinemax-sax on “Sixteen,” to wit, is a faint echo of past sumptuousness. The gassy, cliché-stuffed “Diced Pineapples” may be the worst song Ross has ever made. But Ross has grown into a near-virtuoso rhymer: splashing in alliterative eddies, capable of crisp enunciation and consonant-melting barks. His luminary guests include Jay-Z and Andre 3000, who, like Ross, play fast and loose with fact: “Used to shop in T.J. Maxx back in ’83,” Jay notes, adding, “I don’t even know if it was open then.” Andre rhymes, “Summer ’88. Or was it ’89? Or was it wintertime?” “It’s just another story at the campfire,” Ross raps elsewhere, and that’s his specialty: unburdening rap from the tyranny of realness, one tall tale at a time.