Depending on the circumstance or song, William Roberts II thinks he’s Rick Ross, Big Meech, Larry Hoover or MC Hammer. The rotund 36-year old rapper also claims that he’s not a star – arguably his most brazen delusion of the bunch. After all, empirical evidence exists to the contrary, with 5,000-plus fans cramming into Los Angeles’ Nokia Theatre on Friday night to chant “Rozay” and mimic the Miamian’s trademark “Huhh” grunt.
Since transcending his short-lived 2009 feud with 50 Cent, Ross has become rap’s most popular artist outside of the Watch the Throne duo and the Young Money millionaires. Credit his ability to parlay a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man-sized persona (and build), gruff but nimble baritone and absurdist boasting into a 24-hour bacchanalia of Bugattis, Maybachs, Louis Vuitton luggage and lavish crustacean-filled feasts.
Meet the Bawse, the bizarro Springsteen, who identifies with the common man through his singular strain of South Beach surrealism. On “9 Piece,” he boomed about selling dope on his iPhone. On “Aston Martin Music,” he visualized a world of automatic weapons, sweet wine, and luxury goods only accessible to the 0.01 %. His gift is to make those aspirational ideals accessible; he is the avuncular villain inviting his fans to be “rich forever” and to “have a night they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”
A Rick Ross show in 2012 is part P.T. Barnum, part Biggie Smalls, part Scarface as directed by Brett Ratner. Clad in a USC letterman jacket, black jeans and Louis Vuitton sunglasses, the Bon Iver-bearded and barrel-chested rapper ran through an hour-long litany of his greatest hits amassed over the last six years. The bell-ringing braggadocio of “BMF” allowed even the most strait-laced squares to temporarily identify with the Black Mafia Life crime ring, while “Hustlin” had the first four rows so rowdy that you would have thought Ross had stage-dived.
Yet Ross leaves the rollicking live presence for the hip-house crowd. He barely moves onstage and his banter is minimal. In between songs and smoke breaks, he sticks to a few catch phrases: hooting out “Let’s blow some money,” “Rozay!” and “Maybach Music” like a pull-string talking doll.
So white-hot is Ross’ star that he’s the rare rapper able to earn regular airplay amidst the R&B and pop-heavy numbers that dominate the top 40. His songs are slow-moving haymakers equipped with the power of a late-period George Foreman punch. And in a subtle nod to his current ubiquity, he opened with “Holy Ghost,” a track released on last week’s free mixtape, Rich Forever. A less confident artist might have opted for something more battle-tested, but Rawse is the anomalous artist capable of turning every verse into an event. Accordingly, his acolytes had memorized every word. Even if the audience has never spoken to the Holy Ghost in their Bugattis, these lean times allow everyone to empathize with Rozay’s claim that “being broke is the root of all evil.”
Whereas Ross’ star was Betelgeuse-big enough to command his set with minor assistance, opener Busta Rhymes opted for aid in passing the Courvoisier. During his 40-minute set, the veteran New Yorker enlisted Chris Brown for “Look Me At Me Now,” Snoop Dogg for “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” and Swizz Beatz for “It’s Me Bitches.”
Rapping with supernatural speed, the cameo killer ran through his estimable catalogue: “Whoo-Ha (Got You All In Check),” “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See,” and his guest verses on “Scenario” and the “Ante Up Remix.” In any other scenario, he would have stolen the show. But so centripetal is Ross’ pull and so strong is his gravity that he consumes all the oxygen in the room. After all, what other rapper could get more than 5,000 people to hang with the “Bawse” after the workweek is over?