Better than: Actually being Big Meech. Or Larry Hoover. At least in 2012.
"Schindler and I are like peas in a pod! We're both factory owners, we both made shells for the Nazis, but mine worked, dammit!" - Mr. Burns, "A Star Is Burns"
I don't employ the above quote because Rick Ross and Busta Rhymes are similar in any real way artistically: Busta emerged out of the Native Tongues diaspora in the early '90s, whereas Rick Ross apprenticed on Slip N Slide Records and hails from Miami, a city whose rap scene has no use whatsoever for "third eye" lyrics.
They couldn't rap more differently either: to this day, Busta is phenomenally dexterous MC, bug-eyed and animated, whereas Ross delivers bellowed proclamations in a halting cadence that sounds like he's allowing regular pauses for taking pulls of an asthma inhaler.At a certain time, Busta Rhymes' physique had people wondering if he and Timbaland had the same steroids hookup. Ross, meanwhile, is someone many have seen shirtless against their will. But a single commonality and subsequent divergence determined why Rick Ross was headlining last night's show at Nokia Theatre despite the fact that Busta Rhymes has sold more records, had bigger hits, appeared in movies, been quoted on The Simpsons and is probably known by at least 33% of your parents' friends: in 2006, both Busta Rhymes and Rick Ross were lying about being drug dealers. It only worked for one of them.
Think about that for a second: the "What's It Gonna Be" video was more of an obstacle to street credibility than being a former cop. Then again, Scarface rap is in large part determined by fantasy, and while Ross was building his persona from scratch, Busta's recasting himself as a brooding, hardhead "King of New York" on The Big Bang, a record so simultaneously expensive and joyless that it could only be released on Aftermath, contradicted with over a decade worth of goofy videos and party-starting singles that were etched in the public domain.
Even in this day and age, Busta Rhymes' inability to put out an actual record remains kinda sad, but then again, albums were never his thing: even in his '90s heyday, When Disaster Strikes, The Coming and E.L.E.'s best tracks were almost always the singles. And though he's managed brief re-entries into the conversation ("Arab Money" unfortunately comes to mind), Busta is still Busta and can still be relied upon for a track-stealing fast-rap verse and little else these days. But as his performance last night proved, even if he has no artistic direction whatsoever in 2012, his sheer technical ability and twenty years of goodwill are still enough to get the job done.
It didn't seem that way in the beginning, as Busta took the stage in a majestically feathered jacket that looked like something Scott Weiland might rock if it were ten times smaller. Unfortunately, the first thing you notice is just how badly he and definitive hypeman Spliff Star had let themselves go. On the unforgiving Nokia Theatre screen, Spliff looks something like a shrunken and melted Chuck D who hadn't slept for a week, and ever since he cut his dreads, Busta has been going for a supersized Tracy Morgan look, or at least "Bang Bang Bart" from that episode of the Simpsons where Marge and Homer are told their son's future lies as a male stripper if he doesn't get his grades up.
Indeed, from the outset, Spliff and Busta seemed intent on antagonizing the crowd or at least stress the sense of obligation they felt. Busta repeatedly asked the crowd if they were tired in a way that didn't feel typically rhetorical. He threatened to fuck up the weaves of anyone in the front rows who didn't have their hands up. He expressed his extreme disappointment in local rap promoters failing to book him in the city at least six times a year. In the most disturbing portion, he pressed a bottle of Ciroc flush against his pelvis and proceeding to pour it into the front row before taking a truly heroic chug of the stuff.
But you know what? For a situation that was probably far beneath him, Busta made the most of it. In fact, he was actually kinda fantastic. The chemistry between him and Spliff is simply irreplicable, ever reminding us that if Robert Horry or Steve Tasker are considered legitimate candidates for their respective sports' Halls of Fame for being the best ever at a very specific task, Spliff can surely end up in Cleveland some day.
Some particularly endearing moments: Spliff doing a beatbox routine that segued seamlessly into peak-era Neptunes one-off "What It Is," mimicking the adjustment of a volume knob while Busta rapped during "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See" and the pair's performance was so on-point, I thought Busta's mic really was broken. The two rarely rapped more than three feet apart from each other, and Busta was so appreciative of the support that he actually let Spliff spit his verse from "Make It Clap."
There was also a pretty impressive display of star power considering that Busta's name on the scrolling marquee outside the Nokia was the size of YG's, and I don't think that guy got to bring his friends. Swizz Beatz came through to do a brief bit of "It's Me Bitches," and when Busta demanded he and Swizz play "that classic shit we did together," they didn't go immediately into "Tear Da Roof Off." Instead, we got the Daft Punk-sampling "Touch It," which did precede Kanye's "Stronger" by a year except everybody thought it was awful. Also, Swizz seems to be constantly wearing a hat nowadays, so I wonder if that "I'm higher than Swizz Beatz's hairline" line from Danny Brown's record really got to him.
Other than that, because this was a rap concert in Los Angeles, Snoop showed up even though I don't think these two ever did a song together. Snoop's scarf looked suspiciously like a tallit, and combined with Spliff Star's "chai" chain (I've seen bigger ones rocked by Jewish sorority girls at USC), the Hebrew iconography was in full effect. Also, suffice to say there's nothing that gives you more confidence in the human condition than seeing an arena full of men cheer Chris Brown (who came out for "Look At Me Now") in front of their girlfriends with no repercussions whatsoever. Mostly because the girlfriends were cheering too.Even if it set the bar pretty high for Ross, well, Ross is hip-hop's commercial and sonic center of gravity. As the calendar turned to 2012, there was a run of worthwhile mixtapes that came out at a clip that was incredibly hard to keep up with - Fabolous' T.I.N.C 3, T.I.'s Fuck Da City Up, Raekwon's Unexpected Victory, Project Pat, Juicy J and French Montana's Cocaine Mafia and a shitload of other joints that involved French Montana in some way. Rich Forever dropped and almost instantly, none of them seemed to matter. It's that good.
These days, at least artistically, if not physically, Rozay reminds me of ca.-2000 Shaq, immovable, dominant, flat-out mean, and ultimately makes his version from a few years prior seem like a completely different person. The shock of hearing Ross so timid and bumbling on Port Of Miami is akin to LSU pictures of a skinny Shaq. Unfortunately, tonight Ross seemed like Shaq on the Cavaliers. Or "Big Cactus" Shaq. Or "Big Shamrock" Shaq. Whichever one had the least motivation and physical well-being and went through the motions most blatantly.
Still, there were reasons to believe his stuff would translate better than most to an arena: it's loud, it's slow and incredibly fun to yell along with. But as thousands flipped out to the intro of "9 Piece" ("I'M SMOKIN' DOPE! I'M ON MY CELL PHONE! I'M SELLIN' DOPE! STRAIGHT OFF THE IPHONE!") and then had the energy completely sucked out of them the moment Ross actually went into the rest of the song, you could see where the problem is. The best of Ross' music sounds like it's being delivered from the most expensive couch possible - it moves for nobody. Which is exhilarating to hear in the gym or at the car, it's the kind of thing that could make you want to spend your entire weekly paycheck or attempt to lift a Volkswagen.
But if Deeper Than Rap and Teflon Don have been accurately likened to Stallone or Schwarzenegger action movies, translating them live is sorta like trying to stage Rambo or Commando for community theatre. The burden of believability comes right back into play and helps no one. "Fuck yo dreams, this is reality" - these were the words of Diddy, piped in via Macbook for Ross' behemoth "Holy Ghost," and in this light, they were truly unfortunate. Because reality does Ross' music no favors whatsoever, and that was abundantly clear throughout his entire performance, one so laggard and disinterested that I could only come up with wimped-out, synth-toting indie rock bands like The Ruby Suns in terms of comparisons.
Part of it is purely physical: Ross is a hulking dude who, let's not forget, almost died a couple of months ago. Part of it was technical, as Rozay makes the eternal rapper mistake of putting the mic as close to his mouth as possible, resulting in the sort of tinny and abrasive tonality that brings to mind Teflon Don produced by No Age.
But mostly, it's just expressed through Ross having absolutely no idea or willingness on how to read a crowd. He yelled "can I get a ROZAY?!?!" repeatedly between songs (this is essentially how the Rich Forever track "King Of Diamonds" was created), and it became even more deadening than his DJ's bomb drops.
Between every track was a momentum-deadening break for him to wipe down and make conversation with his crew that probably lasted thirty seconds apiece but felt five times as long. He promised "something for the ladies," and played Wale's execrable "Lotus Flower Bomb." It lasted all of ten seconds. Worst of all, he played "Stay Schemin'," but not Drake's verse, robbing a crowd literally yards from an in-progress Lakers game the opportunity to shout along with the "bitch, you wasn't with me shootin' at the gym!" line about Vanessa Bryant. It would've been amazing.
By the time he played the watershed "B.M.F.," half the crowd that hadn't already left was sitting down, muttering things like "I bet he's tired." During "B.M.F."! And then a Nokia Theater rep came on stage to whisper something to Ross about how this was going to be the kind of rap show that actually ends at its scheduled time. He hurried through a couple of seemingly arbitrary Rich Forever tracks as everyone filed out politely.
At that point, the P.A. played Rich Forever highlight "Fuck 'Em," which contains the mixtape's most talked-about line - "didn't think I'd make it, now I'm winning - Timothy Tebow." Earlier that night, Heather Cox asked LeBron James about that line in light of his recent fourth quarter troubles. James told her he'd been listening to Rich Forever before their game against the Nuggets as inspiration. The Heat lost. Fuck yo dreams, this is reality, I guess.
Personal bias: Seriously, though. Rich Forever is fucking amazing, even if watching me adlib "WOOP!" and "BAWSE!" with my headphones on is more compelling than Rick Ross live.
The crowd: Perhaps even more astounding than the unanimous love shown to Chris Brown was how many people turned this show into Date Night in the first place. I hope these reminisced in bed about the moment they had hearing "Make It Clap" together. Also, the considerable Arab presence in the crowd seemed to have no qualms with "Arab Money."
Overheard in the crowd: "Oh, my god, I am just going to lose it if Wale shows up!" - nobody
Random notebook dump: If USC's football team ends up back on probation, I guarantee we'll be tracing it back to Ross' garnet and gold varsity jacket giving tribute to all of the Trojan Heisman winners.
Set lists below:
Ante Up (Remix)
Make It Clap
Never Leave You (Remix)
I Know What You Want
It's Me Bitches (w/ Swizz Beatz)
Look At Me Now (w/ Chris Brown)
What It Is
Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See
Break Ya Neck
Drop It Like It's Hot (w/ Snoop)
Pass The Courvoisier
I'm Not A Star
I'm A Boss
(untitled w/ French Montana)
I'm On One
Lotus Flower Bomb
Aston Martin Music
King Of Diamonds