Rick Ross’s best-known accessory isn’t whatever chain he’s rocking on any given day, his extravagant designer shades or even his lush, perfectly manicured beard: it’s his giant, majestic, tattooed belly. The Miami rapper and Maybach Music Group label head typically performs shirtless — it’s a fan-favored trademark. But at D.C.’s Echostage on Friday night, Ross kept his black T on his back throughout a strong but buttoned-up, as it were, set.
Maybe the man was just chilly that night, or maybe it signals a shift. Ross, who became famous with 2006’s “Hustlin’,” remains one of the biggest names in rap, but his persona seems to be moving from kingpin to kingmaker. At Echostage, he was stately and subdued, displaying the controlled cool of an executive as he introduced fans to the appropriately titled “Mastermind,” his sixth studio album, released last month. Being a rap mogul might not necessarily mean covering up, but when was the last time you saw Jay Z or Bryan “Baby” Williams flaunting a bare chest?
Or, perhaps Ross wanted to give another shirtless rapper some shine: D.C.’s Fat Trel, who joined fellow area native Wale on MMG in November, opened the show and whipped off his shirt about three minutes into his set, revealing his sizable tattooed torso.
Trel’s hard-core sound — tracks such as “Respect With the Tech” and “No Lames” — doesn’t typically inspire sentimental feelings, but one couldn’t help but feel joy for a guy so obviously thrilled to be performing in front of thousands at a venue near walking distance from his Northeast neighborhood. Trel, who dropped his latest mix tape, “Gleesh,” this month, started his set surrounded by about 30 people and kept pulling more onstage as he performed the thug-passionate single “She Fell in Love” and kept reminding the crowd that he’s from “right down the street.”
Ross was less effusive, but he’s also the boss. He talked as much about his MMG roster as himself and blessed the crowd with important life lessons and parables about relationships and business, sounding, at times, like a rap world Tony Robbins. By performing French Montana’s “Pop That” and Ace Hood’s “Bugatti,” Ross reminded everyone that he can drop onto the tracks of others, add a verse and a signature grunt, and make magic. (He wisely omitted Rocko’s “U.O.E.N.O,” and his firestorm-creating line about slipping something in a woman’s drink — here’s hoping it is permanently erased from his repertoire.)
There were also the expected hits, a highlight reel of his most outrageous boasts and his flawless production choices: “Hustlin’ ”; the grimy, 2012 pop-culture phenomenon “Stay Schemin’ ”; and “B.M.F,” the breakout hit from 2010’s “Teflon Don,” which introduced Big Meech and Larry Hoover into mainstream cultural consciousness.
The selections from “Mastermind” carried more of an “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” aesthetic. On “Rich Is Gangsta,” Ross rapped about the troubles of a “young black executive.” On “The Devil Is a Lie,” featuring Jay Z, Ricky Rozay showed that, these days, he is at his lyrical best when sparring with one of the few people who’ve attained his level of moguldom.
Ross ended with “I’m Not a Star,” from “Teflon Don,” a tongue-in-cheek track about reconciling celebrity and street life. Now, the track takes on new meaning; Ross is still a star, but he is just as defined by his status as a star maker.
Godfrey is a freelance writer.