With 2009's Deeper Than Rap, Rick Ross' sophisticated-but-hardcore quiet storm approach firmly established the rotund Miami performer as street rap's preeminent superstar. So it's no surprise that he's still sticking to the same script on his fifth album, God Forgives, I Don't. Over triumphant, brass-heavy soul loops and low-end thumps, he barks and wheezes about the mechanics and rewards of his wholly imagined criminal empire. He threatens death and basks in his own life of luxury while heavyweight guests—Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, Outkast's Andre 3000—fill the space in between. The returns have diminished, naturally, but not nearly as much as one might expect. Ross' well-polished narcissism remains oddly engaging.
Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play
Losing none of the momentum put in motion by his 2009 effort, Deeper Than Rap, Rick Ross keeps a very good thing going on Teflon Don, arguably his best album to date. You want rap-style luxury? Then Deeper is the better fit, but Teflon plays up the chilled and soulful elements of its predecessor, meaning Ross has graduated to a level where words like “organic” and “poignant” come into play. The former is best represented by “Mayback Music III” and it’s swirling, ‘70s-flavored dreamscape created by the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League production team. Ross allows guests T.I. and Jadakiss to go first on the cut, then grabs his cigar for an uplifting story of ghetto triumph that goes from pushing to pleasing the folks (“Parents never had a good job/Now it’s black American Express cards"). When it comes to “poignant,” the evidence is dotted throughout the album with the rapper reflecting on where he’s been, and he often questions his own lust for fame. He chants the title to the opening “I’m Not a Star” as if it was a remindful mantra, but it’s his new love of contrasts that’s really interesting, following Kanye’s swaggering on “Live Fast, Die Young” with “Seems to me we gettin’ money for the wrong things/Look around, Maseratis for the whole team/Look at Haiti, children dyin’ round the clock/I’d send a hundred grand but that’s a decent watch”. The familiar party and thugging tunes work too with “B.M.F. (Blowin' Money Fast),” “No. 1,” and the mixtape favorite “MC Hammer” -- now with added Gucci Mane verse -- all coming correct. Add all the Illuminati references in the Jay-Z team-up (“Free Mason”), a decent smoking song (“Super High”), and a track where Cee-Lo’s performance just might make you misty (“Tears of Joy”), and it’s obvious Ross’ albums are no longer just vessels for his singles.
David Jeffries, Rovi
Everything is big with Rick Ross. Triumphs, blunders, singles, videos, and everything else he does is huge, but having the audacity to call his third effort Deeper Than Rap is extra risky, especially since it's his first effort since being "exposed" as a former corrections officer. That's poison in the gangsta rap game, and while there's little here to sway the haters -- and certainly nothing "deep" -- the rapper's ability to steamroll over all of his shortcomings, along with all of our preconceived notions, is simply remarkable. In a sure trilogy of albums, Deeper Than Rap is the surest, kicking off with a decent 50 Cent diss and closing with a "Run with me or run from me" ultimatum that's gutsy enough to feature harps and castanets. While that's enough fuel for the haters to burn the whole place down, anyone willing to ignore Ross' iffy relationship with street cred and his incredibly narrow subject matter (money, women, victory) will find Deeper is the superstar, gangster weekend album done right. Boss of them all is the grand "Maybach Music" with T-Pain, Kanye West, and Lil Wayne all in top form. Same goes for the cut's production team, the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, who are also in charge of the slippery and swaggering "Magnificent" with John Legend, plus the Caribbean flavored highlight "Yacht Club." "Face," with Trina, is the street cut of note, and "Usual Suspects" places in the album's top five, although Nas' loyal fanbase will find his contribution rather ordinary. Redundancy is an unsurprising and ignorable issue thanks to all the hooks and slick beats, including a batch from the returning Runners. Even if this isn't much "Deeper" than the average Three 6 Mafia album, the glitz and guts of Deeper are a big step up, making Ross sound like a Miami-fied version of Young Jeezy. [A deluxe edition CD/DVD was also released.].
David Jeffries, Rovi
Hip-hop debuts don't come much more "highly anticipated" than Kendrick Lamar's. A series of killer mixtapes displayed his talent for thought-provoking street lyrics delivered with an attention-grabbing flow, and then there was his membership in the Black Hippy crew with his brethren Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, and Jay Rock all issuing solo releases that pleased the "true hip-hop" set, setting the stage for a massive fourth and final. Top it off with a pre-release "XXL Magazine" cover that he shared with his label boss and all-around legend Dr. Dre, and the "biggest debut since Illmatic" stuff starts to flow, but Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City would be a milestone even without the back-story, offering cool and compelling lyrics, great guests (Drake, Dr. Dre, and MC Eiht) and attractive production (from Pharrell, Just Blaze, Tabu, and others). Here, Kendrick is living his life like status and cash were extra credit. It is what makes this kid so "good" as he navigates his "mad" city (Compton) with experience and wisdom beyond his years (25). He's shamelessly bold about the allure of the trap, contrasting the sickness of his city with the universal feeling of getting homesick, and carrying a Springsteen-sized love for the home team. Course, in his gang-ruled city, N.W.A. "was" the home team, but as the truly beautiful, steeped-in-soul, biographic key track "The Art of Peer Pressure" finds a reluctant young Kendrick and his friends feeding off the life-force of Young Jeezy's debut album, it's something Clash, Public Enemy, and all other rebel music fans can relate to. Still, when he realizes that hero Jeezy must have risen above the game -- because the real playas are damned and never show their faces -- it spawns a kind of elevated gangsta rap that's as pimp-connectable as the most vicious Eazy-E, and yet poignant enough to blow the dust off any cracked soul. Equally heavy is the cautionary tale of drank dubbed "Swimming Pools," yet that highlight is as hooky and hallucinatory as most Houston drank anthems, and breaks off into one of the chilling, cassette-quality interludes that connect the album, adding to the documentary or eavesdropping quality of it all. Soul children will experience déjà vu when "Poetic Justice" slides by with its Janet Jackson sample -- sounding like it came off his Aunt's VHS copy of the movie it's named after -- while the closing "Compton" is an anthem sure to make the Game jealous, featuring Dre in beast mode, acting pre-Chronic and pre-Death Row. This journey through the concrete jungle of Compton is worth taking because of the artistic richness within, plus the attraction of a whip-smart rapper flying high during his rookie season. Any hesitation about the horror of it all is quickly wiped away by Kendrick's mix of true talk, open heart, open mind, and extended hand. Add it all up and even without the hype, this one is still potent and smart enough to rise to the top of the pile.
With his 2012 effort, Control System, Ab-Soul is the fourth and final member of the Black Hippy crew to stake a solo claim, but chalk it up to this album being crafted over time, because here he's matched his teammates (Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, and ScHoolboy Q), and arguably topped them. Ab-Soul is the child of record store-owning parents, and his backing tracks are not only diverse, but purposefully diverse, with the horny "Lust Demons" (produced by Tae Beast) sounding brittle and moneyed like a chopped-up R. Kelly cut, plus, had Ab-Soul not gotten to this buttery stuff first, the woozy "Empathy" (with Skhye Hutch at the controls) would've started a bidding war between Devin the Dude and the neo-soul genre in total. Still, with "Double Standards" beating on misogyny as hard as 50 Cent beats up on Fat Joe, it turns out that what really sticks is Ab-Soul's open mind about anything and everything, as "Showin' Love" praises a higher power with sincerity before putting the sting on the competition by brutally focusing on their cheap bag of schwag ("nugs as big as Chuck E. Cheese tokens!"). That's the brain, the brawn, the beats, and the belly laughs all at once, and when "Pineal Gland" twists a Cypress Hill track into a "Twilight Zone" episode, it's something new altogether, something Ab-Soul must have triangulated with Bizzy Bone and Dipset as his two known angles. Stunning, and at 17 tracks, surprisingly solid, Ab-Soul gets it right on the opening "Soulo Ho3," cracking the whip in that Eazy-E style with "Said I was the underdog/Turns out I'm the secret weapon."
David Jeffries, Rovi
Like a real-life urban drama script (think "Hustle & Flow" or "Juice"), Jay Rock's hard-edged debut focuses on his struggles to leave the mean streets behind him as he tries to make it as an artist. As a onetime gang member of the Bloods in the projects of Watts, California, Rock has street credibility to spare, and like gangsta purveyors N.W.A and Snoop Dogg, he has a true knack for rhyming about the dangers of the West Coast. Follow Me Home was several years in the making. The gruff-voiced rapper scored a deal with Warner Bros. by persistently hustling his demos and mixtapes (he acts out this process in a video for the ghetto homage lead single “All My Life”), and then split to Tech N9ne’s Strange Music when things were not progressing fast enough. The result of the long wait was a carefully constructed album. Along with Lil Wayne, who appears on “All My Life,” the album boasts production from the Game and an impressive list of collaborators, including Ab-Soul, Chris Brown, Rick Ross, and will.i.am.
Jason Lymangrover, Rovi
Half gangster, half left-field artist, ScHoolboy Q comes correct when he snarls "I ain't on my Odd Future tip" before threatening to disembowel any challenger, and all while a zombie-walk beat lies underneath. For any old-school fan, Habits & Contradictions rolls like it was brought up on hip-hop magazines instead of indie websites, with beats hitting hard and most dark spots traceable back to Three 6 Mafia and their wonderfully wretched ilk. On the rapper's sophomore effort, this "steeped in the hardcore tradition" attitude is a wonderful contrast to the funky experimentation from names like Lex Luger, the Alchemist, and Tabu, the last of whom creates a wonderful Daft Punk in Shadyville production for the opening "Sacrilegious." Swinging away from this and toward the surprisingly polished, Best Kept Secret gives "Hands on the Wheel" a big and busy construction, over which ScHoolboy and guest ASAP Rocky party, swagger, and shine supremely. Interesting how both mother and guilt are hanging over the jacked-up gangbangers of "Raymond 1969," and when you see the titles "Druggys wit Hoes Again" and "Blessed," neither are ironic and this ScHoolboy lives up to both. In turn, Habits & Contradictions, the album, lives up to its title, which could throw some, but the complicated rapper always seems to convert more than he scares away, and you can blame his keen, exciting, risk-taking, vintage-styled, and deep set of skills for that.
David Jeffries, Rovi
With Section.80, 24-year-old Kendrick Lamar offers himself up as a critical spokesperson for his generation, addressing drug use, religion, gender politics and the fallout of the Reagan era. It's dark and exploratory, as the Compton emcee seems more interested in raising questions about the issues than offering hard answers. More importantly, he never lets the politics overshadow the music, which is every bit as ambitious as the themes. Lamar’s a strikingly adept technical rapper, bending time to his will through angular fast raps, while producers Sounwave and THC bounce across genre experiments—from slowed Southern thump and New York boom bap, to jazz rap and alt rock—with mostly fluid results.
– Andrew Noz, Google Play