Ed. note: This is a guest post from Mychal Denzel Smith. He is a writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate whose work on politics, social justice, mental health, and black male identity has appeared in outlets such as The Nation, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Gawker, Salon, The Root, and more.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Rick Ross as of late, given all the controversy surrounding him and his disgusting, indefensible lyrics condoning rape (and his subsequent non-apology that was almost as bad as lyric that prompted it). In a way, I feel partially responsible, having been a fan of Ross’ music despite the overt misogyny, and I’ve had to wrestle with what exactly draws me to his music. His first two albums sucked, but somewhere around Deeper than Rap he mastered the craft of constructing anthemic tracks well-suited for driving around aimlessly on a perfectly sunny day with no concern for the rabid flock of imaginary haters or your carbon footprint.
But that was never the sum of his appeal. And in one of those epiphanies that only come when you’re in the shower or meditating or high (I don’t smoke, I was in the shower), it finally hit me: Rick Ross is basically hip-hop’s version of Don Draper.
I don’t mean to compare the rapper and Mad Men’s leading character’s status as sex symbols, because the parallels go beyond the superficial. They are both products of fiction. They’re both identity thieves whose actual life stories hold the potential to ostracize them from their chosen communities. But more importantly, they both have constructed elaborate fantasy worlds around an idea of masculinity they know isn’t true to who they are. And neither one can escape.
Or it might be that they don’t want to escape. They both know that what they’re selling is bullshit, but they do it anyway because it affords them the opportunity to indulge every hyper-masculine fantasy they’ve been told would bring them happiness. In Don’s 1960s world it means he has a beautiful wife, a beautiful ex-wife, beautiful mistresses, beautiful kids, a beautiful home, a thriving business, the envy of Pete Campbell, and respect. Every night he should lie down to sleep feeling like a king.
I know Rick Ross does. At least, I know he screams at me a dozen or so times. He’s a “king,” he’s a “bawse.” He’s got Maybachs and yachts. He’s rich off cocaine. He’s living the dream of everyone that ever got into the drug game and didn’t make it out. Probably because Rick Ross has no competition and he edged (or killed) them out. But it’s OK, all you would be kingpins, because Rick Ross will enjoy the champagne and supermodels for you.
There are parts of the fantasy that are understandably appealing. If you’re born a poor Dick Whitman you might also hope to grow up and become a wealthy and powerful Don Draper. Why wouldn’t William Leonard Roberts II, Florida corrections officer, want to trade that in to be multi-platinum multi-millionaire Rick Ross? It only makes sense.
But there’s a reason it’s a fantasy: it can’t last. You can only participate in the illusion so long before it comes crumbling down all around you. For Don Draper, it means being an abusive, alcoholic adulterer with anxiety issues. For Rick Ross, it means writing lyrics that condone rape and in the process of “apologizing” revealing you’re a 37 year-old man who doesn’t know what rape is.
That’s precisely what’s so compelling about watching either of them. If you’re paying close enough attention, they’re warning signs for what happens when you buy into the myth of American masculinity. It leads directly to a path of self-destruction, and along the way you damage the people and communities you assume to hold dear.