Like Bruce Springsteen, Rick Ross is nicknamed “The Boss”. But whereas Springsteen dislikes his nickname (too plutocratic for the blue-collar champion), Ross “The Boss” loves his.
At the Roundhouse the Miami rapper came on stage to the strains of “Ima Boss”, a Meek Mill track on which he guests. Minions in the audience – sorry, I mean fans – hoisted their camera phones. Ross looked sternly out over the scene, arms crossed. Lights strobed madly, beats detonated like the crump of distant artillery. As well as sunglasses and gold chains, the CEO was wearing a T-shirt with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. Of course: bosses gotta stick together.
Ross is one of rap’s top players, a best-selling performer who also runs his own label, Maybach Music. His success results more from old-fashioned American determination than talent. A big man, he has the slightly breathless style of other overweight rappers such as Notorious BIG and Big Pun but none of their finesse.
His back story also presents a challenge. Now 38, he took his stage name from an infamous LA drug kingpin, “Freeway” Rick Ross, despite having no link to him, a borrowing frowned upon in the realer-than-thou world of hip-hop. It’d be like me trying to up my street cred by changing my byline to Pablo Escobar.
Somehow he has surmounted these obstacles – including a brief spell working as a prison officer, another rap no-no – to become a boss. And not just any old boss but “the biggest boss that you seen thus far”, to quote one of his raps.
The song that boast comes from samples James Brown’s “The Boss”, although you couldn’t tell from tonight’s version. The set-up was basic. Ross was accompanied by a hype man, a DJ and a factotum in a Dolce & Gabbana top handing the boss a towel with which to wipe his face. His latest album, Mastermind, has an interesting range of collaborators (Kanye West, Jay-Z, The Weeknd), but live its tracks were reduced to the barest elements: stark booming beats, hollered chants, a mix of pre-recorded and live vocals.
Ross’s rapping, delivered in bursts, had one mode: loud, hoarse – the rap equivalent of Alex Ferguson’s “hairdryer” treatment. It was cartoonishly enjoyable, a two-dimensional hip-hop re-enactment of Scarface. The way the rapper abruptly exited the stage mid-song after an hour summed up his pantomime old-school approach to leadership. Give them what they want, leave them wanting more.