[Maybach Music Group / Def Jam; 2012]

Rick Ross has sure had a crazy few years. His bounds towards respect, gradually turning his detractors (this writer included) through charisma and sheer hard work, are undeniable. If 2006’s Port of Miami was practically dismissible, ’10’s Teflon Don was anything but, attracting Rozay’s juggernaut persona the only thing it’d been missing — serious critical attention. In truth, it’s ’09’s less raved over Deeper Than Rap that stands as the Miami rapper’s strongest overall work, but it was the emotions of “Tears of Joy” and the game-changing, “break anything and everything around you” inspiring single “B.M.F.” that launched the overweight kingpin into the true big league.

Some still insist on obsessively scrutinizing and tearing apart the history of the man, but considering the growth of the artist, and that hip-hop’s biggest star is a soap opera star playing house, all that talk is simply arbitrary, so let’s get it out of the way. As accusations grew and grew, so did Ross’ persona. He’s made no real, specific statement defending his legitimacy, instead only growing all the more larger than life. In a genre often marred by artist’s lack of humor, Ross created a film character, dodging facetiousness through becoming a walking Schwarzenegger movie: you couldn’t call him ridiculous. It was all part of the plan.

For all intents and purposes, Ross’ star was brighter than it’d ever been. He’d become one of the most recognizable and likeable faces in hip-hop. Rozay began trumpeting at rap acquaintance-turned-foe Young Jeezy, pointing out how much of the Atlanta trapper’s audience he’d stolen. Not many disagreed, and most joined in with Ross when he snickered at Jeezy’s misfortunes as his album was pushed back time and again. During all this, he revealed plans for his masterpiece, for God Forgives, I Don’t. It seemed like all that pieces were falling perfectly into place, at the peak of his popularity, Rozay promised an album to rival Biggie and Raekwon’s best work, a true mafioso classic.

Then, a strange thing happened. Ross couldn’t seem to get his album out. For all his bragging that “Maybach Music doesn’t do push backs,” his LP was tossed on the backburner. Jeezy’s album rolled around, went gold, Ross stranded all the while without a solid charting single. Yes, it was a tad embarrassing, but Rozay rolled with the punches, never stalling his ceaseless hype building, even amidst two dramatic strokes.

It’s unfair to judge a piece of work from preconceptions, but Ross certainly had to be aware of the aura he was creating. Put more simply, you don’t just say you’re going to match Ready to Die when you aren’t pretty damn confident or expecting some backlash. This makes the final product a bit baffling, if still relatively pleasing. As single after single flopped — Ross clearly anticipated a hit from the Nicki Minaj-hooked “You The Boss” — one can imagine Rozay faced certain realities. Namely, that he couldn’t release a major label album of the sort he’d envisioned in 2012.

None of this is to call God Forgives a bad album. It isn’t. It’s a relatively solid collection of songs, but therein lies its greatest flaw. Preconceptions or nay, Ross seems betrayed by his own popularity, performing to various expectations throughout. There are the obligatory trap tracks (which fail to hit nearly as hard as Ross’ best aggressive cuts), the awkward attempts at pop gold, and a smattering of the sort of tracks one might imagine the rapper intended to release on his original vision a year ago. Albums can certainly benefit from a guided diversification of material, but the sporadic nature of God Forgives instead leaves the impression of a scattered batch of tracks, rather than something with a cohesive voice or any true structure.

Instead, we’re treated to a smorgasbord of ideas without much of anywhere to go. Harry Fraud, certainly among the hottest beatsmiths of the year, somehow is only put to use for a spoken word intro, which gives way to the bombastic, confrontational “Pirates,” only to stumble into “3 Kings”. One might have expected the best from a track boasting Dr. Dre and Jay-Z. Instead, it feels like a calculated, forced ploy, with Hov sleepwalking through his verse and Dre mostly (if not only) interested in marketing his headphones. To the opposite end, Ne-Yo’s hook aside, the lack of features on “Maybach Music IV” is surprising, as the series had previously relied heavily on featured input. This may make the installment a bit lackluster to some, but also speaks volumes on Rozay’s increasing ability to rely on himself.

Up next is “Sixteen,” an eight-minute epic boasting a lengthy appearance from André 3000. The track is both immediately among the album’s most impressive and strangest. Aside from achieving what was surely a dream in working with the OutKast poet, the track, along with the album’s other more touchy-feely ballads, has no real place within the context of the album. Not that anyone’s complaining about the 3000 track, but the Omarion-featuring “Ice Cold” and clumsy Usher single are closer to straight duds.

One flaw gives way to another. In giving in to each and every musical demand leveled at him, Ross mires his greatest talent. The rapper has never been recognized for dazzling lyricism. Rather, Ross’ greatest strength derived from imagery. He might not have been able to best some of his counterparts through pure wordplay, but the man could paint a picture with every bar he spit. By dashing about from subject to subject, Ross largely sacrifices this energy. The likes of smooth, disposable filler such as “Touch’N You,” and even stronger tracks such as “Sixteen,” are ballads constructed for appeal as well-made tracks in nearly uniformly the most traditional of ways, cutting out any room for the sort of turn Ross made on Kanye West’s “Devil in a New Dress.” Ross can write a decent enough verse about women and love, but he’s far more comfortable stringing words together about power and wealth from the perspective of a thinking man. Nowhere on God Forgives is there a track as organically boisterous as “I’m Not a Star,” nor as searing as “Tears of Joy.”

All this may make the album seem like a loss, or at least a bit of a waste. That would be misleading. In fact, it may be more consistent than Teflon Don, but gone are that album’s grand peaks. Instead, God Forgives is consistently, pleasantly underwhelming: the plodding R&B-rooted efforts aside, there’s nothing much to complain about, and tracks such as the ‘80s-centric “Ashamed” and gently bouncing, Pharrell-produced “Presidential” offer real highlights.

Yet, it still can’t help but beg the question: where does Ross go from here? If anything, God Forgives is proof that Rozay can still offer up a decent product beset by fame, a label of young gangsters to market, health problems, and increased scrutiny. With a bit more time, and a more considered, focused approach, Ross could still release that mafioso classic. This certainly isn’t it, but if it’s a misstep, it’s only a slight one, with plenty of pleasures to be found within.