In 1999, the walls started closing in on Sean “Puffy” Combs. Two years prior, his friend and Bad Boy Records superstar, the Notorious B.I.G., was gunned down in California. Puff’s album No Way Out, released a few months after Biggie’s death, bled with genuine grief and sorrow, and Bad Boy seemed like it could be poised to reign for decades. The label’s roster was stacked with many of New York’s most exciting voices — the Lox, Lil Kim, Faith Evans, 112, and Harlem rapper Mase. But by 1999, things had taken a stark turn. That spring, Puffy was charged with assault after an incident with label exec Steve Stoute. Then, in December of that year, gunfire broke out at Club New York in Manhattan. The city charged Puffy and Bad Boy rapper Shyne with criminal possession of a weapon after police allegedly found a 9mm-caliber gun in his vehicle. (Only Shyne actually served time.) Over the course of a few years, Puffy had gone from dancing in Times Square with 112 to being a target of the NYPD.
In the midst of this chaos came Harlem rapper Robert Ross, a.k.a. Black Rob, who dropped his debut album, Life Story, after a memorable appearance on No Way Out standout “I Love You Baby.” Black Rob’s album didn’t sound like it belonged in the Shiny Suit Era that Puffy was pushing; it sounded like the result of Biggie beats being passed down to the label’s Harlem bulldog. But where B.I.G. was a Jamaican don with his flow, Black Rob was an uptown street soldier. Where Biggie rapped as a mafioso who had lieutenants working for him, Black Rob talked about having a small crew of dudes that would rob folks in underground tunnels. “Whoa!,” the album’s lead single, is definitely a nod toward the success of New Orleans rapper Juvenile’s “Ha” — but it is still excellent in its own right. Between the bars about parole officers not being “whoa!” and getting money down South being “whoa!,” you get the feeling that Black Rob isn’t just rapping. He is bringing a feeling back to New York that Bad Boy had largely been trying to leave behind after Biggie’s murder.
In the years that followed, Puffy changed his style once again. He went back to his R&B roots and changed his name to P. Diddy. He became an actor, appearing in Monster’s Ball. He was an opening act for N’Sync and ran the New York City Marathon in the early 2000s. Black Rob, meanwhile, rapped over the type of Hitmen beats that would ring in your ears on your way to the 2 train. There was an implicit asymmetry present that, in hindsight, left Black Rob’s talents to languish.
Black Rob’s second album, The Black Rob Report, came out in 2005, six years after his debut. It is just as good as Life Story. Away from Biggie’s shadow, he became a full-fledged MC. His flow was still rooted in Biggie’s style, but Black Rob sounded like only Black Rob could. His vocals felt more lived-in. “They Heard I Got Life” is one of his best songs — he proves to be a masterful storyteller, serving us braggadocio along the way. The song only ups the ante as it goes on. Still, The Black Rob Report struggled commercially, never making much of a dent in the hip-hop charts. The following year, he was handed a seven-year prison term after failing to appear in court for his sentencing in a grand larceny case. After his release in 2010, he parted ways with Bad Boy and dropped another album, 2011’s Game Tested, Streets Approved. He appeared on a reality show called Come Back Kings in 2013. This was sad to see. Black Rob was one of the last MCs from a generation that brought Harlem to the forefront, and despite a string of decidedly solid records, he never seemed to get what he deserved.
When DMX was in the hospital after his heart attack earlier this year, Black Rob shocked fans on Twitter by posting a video saluting X and wishing him well. He didn’t look well himself. He was skinny and confined to a hospital bed. The video inspired many discussions about label owners’ responsibility to help out with artists’ health issues. Like many Americans, Black Rob at one point had to raise money for treatment on GoFundMe. The conversation around taking care of hip-hop legends was only made more urgent with the untimely death of DMX at age 50. On April 17th, roughly a week after X’s death, Black Rob died of kidney failure. He was just 52.
It’s an all too familiar reminder that life in hip-hop is precious and precarious. Black Rob should have been taken care of more than he was. Now we’re mourning another rap star who didn’t see enough flowers in his lifetime.