The constant use of the phrase “self made” by the Maybach Music Group is the product of multiple inflated egos, but, in some sense, it’s appropriate. You’ll notice that Rick Ross is rarely a participant in the signing drama that often surrounds an intensely hyped new rapper. He has never signed a Chief Keef, a Tyler the Creator, or a Kreayshawn to MMG. Meek Mill, Stalley, Gunplay, Omarion, and Wale are all seasoned musicians coming from successful careers.
Before signing to MMG, Meek Mill was a captivating and frenetic street rapper from Philadelphia with a giant local following. Stalley was a Ohio-repping golden era rap revivalist known for his finely crafted mixtapes. Gunplay was an old cohort of Rick’s and a relatively successful mixtape rapper with a strong following. Omarion was an R&B superstar and former member of B2K. Lastly, Wale was a local DC rapper whose name had been repeatedly spoken in dorm rooms across the country. Prior to MMG, these careers were not based on novelty or hype, but hard work and serious entertainment value.
While Ross’ choice of these specific men may seem a little arbitrary, the Self Made albums are based on a concept similar to that of a rock supergroup. Bring disparate but well-known artists together to make a group that is greater than the sum of its parts. They will have a mammoth audience consisting of a wide variety of listeners, ready to be exposed to new sounds: top 40 listeners, trap rap fans, hip-hop heads, and frat boys alike. The weak point in this formula is that it assumes that the distinct sounds of these various artists can somehow be combined into a coherent whole while still maintaining each member’s artistic voice. This is one of many reasons that most rock supergroups are disappointing.
Ross’s approach to this problem has simply been to recycle his own well-tested sound. Results so far have been less than exciting. “Tupac Back” was the first single of 2011’s Self Made Vol. 1, a behemoth of a track made to rattle windows on city blocks across the nation. It began strong, Rick Ross delivering his patented, pregnant-pause weeze. When he handed the track to Meek Mill, however, the song deflated. It remained a solid track, but in the end “Tupac Back” was tainted by Meek’s less-than-Ross flow. Rick Ross’s mythmaking is based upon the idea that he can back up grandiose imagery with rapping to match. When the rapping wavers, the entire concept crumbles.
As one might expect, Self Made Vol. 2 sees Ross steadfastly maintaining the same stale myth to the bitter end. The album is equal parts condescendingly humble, wildly self-indulgent, and menacing. It’s an understandable if unfortunate instinct, given that with the help of this formula he can produce hard-hitting solo tracks at an above average success rate. Songs like “All Birds” and “Bury Me a G” are made in his classic mode, with huge, dispassionate beats. Unfortunately, having maintained this mode for six years, his vocal contributions to the album are less than invigorated.
To its own credit, Rick Ross’s larger-than-life image has always included an element of the ridiculous. After all, “BMF”, his biggest hit, is based upon the premise that he’s proud of how fast he wastes his own money. On Vol. 2, however, he borders on self-parody. He begins the album by declaring that Michael Jackson would want everyone to smoke a joint in his honor if he were to come back from the dead. It’s an almost unintelligible piece of nonsense. On multiple occasions, he compares his woman to a bag of money and he makes it very clear that he’s serious. The line turns him into cartoon, as if he’s Wile E. Coyote looking at Roadrunner and seeing a steak. It might be a good line if he said it once, but after the sixth time, we’re no longer impressed.
Thankfully, Ross is mostly relegated to a supportive position. In comparison to Vol I, Vol. 2 sees the MMG crew settling into their roles, for better or for worse. Each member of MMG performs his part with equal parts complacency and comfort. Luckily, this means that most of them manage to shake themselves out of the hypnosis at least once or twice. Given that Meek Mill and Gunplay are the best rappers in the group, the best songs are those with the darkest emotions. Unfortunately, neither are offered very many opportunities to show their talent.
Meek manages to shed much of Ross’s influence on “Black Magic”, switching out the pause-heavy rap for a nuanced, lyrical verse in his most comfortable, hyped-up voice. His other three appearances, however, are either simply lackluster or out-of-place. Meek is a great rapper, but only shows it when he takes the time. Gunplay, who wasn’t even allowed on the cover, is offered a measly two verses. He excels in both, giving us nuanced, chilling lines like, “Take a close look at my face / the war paint is on”, all delivered in his own unhinged billow. He may not be commercially viable, but Gunplay is the most dynamic and creative rapper in the group.
Most of Self Made Vol. 2, however, is given to the three weakest and most marketable members. Wale and Stalley put in a surprisingly valiant efforts. In the wake of Wale’s signing, he had seemed like an overinflated balloon, obsessed with his own perceived potential while no longer producing any of the content that had made him appealing to his fans to be begin with. He seems to have regained a semblance of conscience at times, although most of it takes the form of complicated MMG apologetics. With that said, his rapping is forced, colorless, and forgettable. Stalley has the least off-putting personality of the group, but also the least appropriate style for this attitude-driven sound. Neither of have distinct enough voices to fit well into a posse album. Positioning them next to more talented rappers simply highlights their own lack of character.
Omarion’s inclusion is the least appropriate of all, although his contributions are by no means unappealing. The Maybach sound slides easily from sentimental to mildly romantic, but the rappers of the group are not predisposed to their own romantic sides. Alone, he produces perfectly serviceable R&B tracks with a sensitive personality and polished voice. “MIA” is the most effective, most likely because Wale is the most sentimental rapper of the group, but his other track, “Let’s Tall”, is crippled by an awkward Rick Ross appearance and an even more awkward Biggie sample in the chorus. His attempt at rapping on “This Thing is Ours” serves only to prove that his creative career choices are as misguided as the rest.
Given the diversity of this crew, it’s hard to say that an album with a wider variety of moods would produce a higher number of entertaining tracks. It would, however, have given the group a chance to expand upon their deep well of creative potential. In January, the group was featured on a song with the other two members of Triple Cs. “Slow Down” featured a sped-up, funky EPMD sample with none of the drama of the MMG standard. Listening to it now, the group raps like they are a bunch of kids being taken to get ice cream after a long dinner full of vegetables. It only makes the complacent consistency of Self Made Vol. 2 that much more disappointing. If Rick Ross cared about what he had in his grasp, we could have a lot more than consistency.