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Rick Ross at the Nokia Theatre

January 14, 2012 |  2:05 pm

Rick Ross at the Nokia Theatre

Rick Ross took his rap name from an antihero of the '80s (that would be the California cocaine kingpin Ricky Ross). But the Miami MC’s façade of opulence and confidence seems more akin to a different boss from the same era: Ronald Reagan.

Ross is an enormous man whose physique -– two fleshy spheres of torso and head dipped in wooly beard -- evokes a Santa Claus that only delivers Bolivian primo and Louis Vuitton sunglasses. But it’s no accident that the perpetually underestimated rapper named an album “Teflon Don.” His whole career, like Reagan's, is a lesson in shaking off detractors by staying on message and promising to deliver the goods. And Ross' new free mixtape "Rich Forever" is very good indeed.

His Friday set at the Nokia Theatre showed how one of commercial hip-hop’s unlikeliest fixtures rose from a coke-rap caricature to a dominant MC who's challenged what it means to be credible as a rapper.

When Ross first emerged with 2006’s "Port of Miami," critics pounced on several perceived weaknesses. The first was that he wasn’t especially good at rapping. His craggy, minimal delivery wasn’t exactly brimming with verbal dexterity -- his breakthrough single "Hustlin'" memorably rhymed "Atlantic" (the record label) with "Atlantic" (the ocean). The character of the rapper-as-cocaine-kingpin was already overripe, with Young Jeezy and Clipse the more regarded flag bearers.

Revelations that Ross had actually served on the right side of the law as a Miami prison guard seemed certain to sink his proverbial speedboat full of kilos -– a fate that 50 Cent encouraged by calling Ross “Officer Ricky,” and which led the actual Ricky Ross to unsuccessfully sue for trademark infringement.

But what happened next is a textbook in hip-hop crisis management. Ross issued a sort of non-denial-denial (Yes, I worked in a prison; yes I also simultaneously trafficked millions of dollars of cocaine into Florida) and went on with the business of making more regally gothic LP’s about his import/export trade. It helped that the singles -- especially the star-making Lex Luger track “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast)” -– had all the apocalyptic menace of “Ride of the Valkyries.”

Ross’ mic skills solidified as well -- it turned out that his clipped, quirky phrasing (“boss” becomes “BHAO-ws”;  his tipple rose wine becomes an “RHO-zaay”) was really fun to rap along to. The Lonely Island’s SNL skit “Like A Boss” was a loving tribute, and his wordplay got better the more outsized his persona grew. Kanye West, Drake and the hip-hop firmament deemed Ross a crafty megastar, and now it’s Morning in Miami.

At Nokia, Ross swore off any big stage productions to keep attention on his own imposing presence. Dressed in a USC letterman jacket, he launched right into one of the best tracks from “Rich Forever,” the skulky “Holy Ghost,” where he singles out a proletarian nemesis for post-fame revenge: "My teacher told me I was a piece of ... / Seen her the other day drivin’ a piece of ..."  

Ross' default live-show pose is to stand, arms folded, with a stoic Easter Island stone face, but "Yella Diamonds" and "Stay Schemin," each high points from the mixtape, had him almost breaking a sweat with growly menace. The consistency of his charisma and the sheer ammunition belt of eerie, pulverizing hits like "I'm Not a Star" went -- like his favorite import -- right to the brain's pleasure centers.

Ross' set, which started almost an hour late, ended on a goofy off-key croon session beside his young cohort French Montana just before the lights abruptly flipped on, breaking the spell. But it probably didn’t faze him. Like Reagan, his showmanship went so deep as to be impervious to real-life glitches, and with enough time and mythology behind him, maybe Miami will name an airport after him.

Ross' polar opposite, the nimble veteran Busta Rhymes, opened with a volley of hits from his 20-year career. Though he seemed frustrated with the support slot, rubbery singles like "Woo Ha!! Got You All In Check" and "Touch It" didn’t need help to feel manically exciting, and guest turns by Swizz Beats, Chris Brown (whose single "Look At Me Know" got an excellent speedball Rhymes verse) and Snoop Dogg paid appropriate alms.  


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-- August Brown

Image: Getty Images