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Rick Ross, ‘God Forgives, I Don’t’ (Def Jam)

The Boss / Getty
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: July 31, 2012
Label: Def Jam

On the cover of God Forgives, I Don’t, Rick Ross poses in a church, wearing a tangle of gold chains around his neck — ten of them, to be exact. We know this because he tells us: Album closer “Ten Jesus Pieces” is unambiguous. “One Jesus piece was always fly,” the Boss told MTV. “But I just wanted ten. I just wanted to go to that next level.”

Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure one of those Jesus pieces has Ross’ own face on it. And I think it’s there on the cover, buried among the many guises of Christ, like it was the first one he put on that morning, like it’s the last one he took off that night. He probably kisses it before storing it in the bedside table where the lawsuits gather dust, evidence of the time a real-life kingpin named Rick Ross sued, in vain, to get his name and life story back. Get in line, Jesus. Rick Ross’ lawyer will be with you in due time.

We need not recapitulate this rapper’s adventures in the deep end of the identity pool (though here are his monster hits “B.M.F.” and “MC Hammer”, if you need a refresher), but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Rick Ross’ theology, his relationship with God. On “Holy Ghost,” from January’s mixtape Rich Forever, he rapped, “Being dead broke is the root of all evil,” which is itself so, so evil. When God gave Ross seizures, Ross bragged about having seizures: “Get a blow job and have a seizure on the Lear,” he boasts on God Forgives‘ “Maybach Music IV.” Then he wrote a terrible song about the advice he got afterward from his doctor — to stay hydrated and eat more fruit. That song is called “Diced Pineapples,” and Wale does spoken word on it.

Rich Forever is among the best records Ross has ever made. He gave it away for free. Who knows why. It was his third street-rap classic in a row, after 2009’s Teflon Don and 2010’s Deeper Than Rap. Maybe he wanted us to know how much he had to give. After all that, God Forgives is a comedown — sporadically introspective, occasionally rousing, and sort of without purpose. It’s the sound of rap’s primary trendsetter for the past half decade — the man who made luxury rap before “luxury rap,” who repurposed hostile Lex Luger face-pummel as galvanizing pop, who wondered at length about who he was before the same question drove Drake to tears — cruising on highways of his own creation. Others, like Ross’ fiery protégé
Meek Mill, will build new roads, and that’s fine; Ross will be out there somewhere on a victory lap, driving in a discontinued Maybach.

You get the sense he’s been thinking about the past, not the future. Ross’ triumphalism has become almost nostalgic. “Nothing to lose, I was starving from the start / Now the same cat driving Jaguars,” he raps on “Amsterdam.” He’s talking about not just what he has, but how he — well, “he” — got it. “Hold Me Back” is a pointillist narrative (“I look in my fridge, my shit looking scarce”) about turning to dope dealing out of economic necessity — or it is until Ross works himself into a froth of present-day cash comfort: “Fornicate in my fortress! / 40k still my mortgage! / 24K my toilet! / All my taxes reported! / All my exes deported!”

The music here is lush, accommodating, and unobtrusive, full of strings and loose, live-sounding percussion. Ross’ appetite for the biographies of strangers continues unabated: He’s the “Christopher Wallace of my time,” he’s “Eric B with mob ties.” Other past lives elude easy identification. “I remember picking watermelons,” Ross raps on “911.” “Now the Porsche cost me a quarter-million.” On “Ice Cold,” he’s uncharacteristically poetic, even melancholy, about the story he’s claimed as his own: “Top down and it feels right / I could tell you what a dope boy feels like / I could tell you that he never sleeps / He may smile but it’s never sweet / Swisher burning at his fingertips / Tears on the inside but they never drip.”

Among other things, Rich Forever was a testament to Ross’ savvy as a pop collaborator: Diddy, Nas, 2 Chainz, French Montana, and Drake all had lithe, purposeful turns. Ross’ ease with himself was contagious. But there is ease, and then there is Andre 3000 playing a guitar solo on your record, as he does on “Sixteen”; there is friendly collaboration, and then there is allowing Jay-Z to say the word “Banksy” on your song, as he does on “3 Kings,” the same track producer Dr. Dre uses to shill for his ubiquitous headphones. There is a certain quality of inattention here, an artist drifting in and out of focus. Ross has made an art out of sounding near-somnambulant, but there are times on God Forgives, I Don’t where he seems just plain asleep. The doctors did prescribe rest, after all.