Rick Ross is ready for a new era.
The 45-year-old rapper delivered the news last month that he’s dropping his 11th studio album, Richer Than I Ever Been, on Dec. 10. Paired with the announcement was a striking photo of Ross (born William Leonard Roberts II) donning a blush pink fedora and a crisp white cape with a diamond-encrusted brooch pinned to his chest. His face is hidden behind white leather driving gloves, with a glittering ring the size of an AirPod case sitting on his pinky.
It’s a stunning photograph, and one that marks a brighter, more artistic approach than Ross usually takes with his promotional images. Many of his past albums feature dark and moody cover art, with Ross presenting himself as an imposing figure, his eyes always shielded by sunglasses.
But it didn’t take long for the trolls to chime in, joking that Ross’ ensemble on the new cover looked more akin to a grandma headed to church for Easter Sunday than a portrait of a successful rapper. Some compared him to Queen Elizabeth, and others made thinly veiled homophobic jabs, calling him a “material girl” and claiming they mistook Ross for Big Freedia, a gender-bending rapper..
If Ross had any qualms about the persistent teasing over the image, he seemingly ignored it with the release of his single “OUTLAWZ” last month. The track was accompanied by another luxurious shot from the same photoshoot, but with a slightly different angle—Ross’ hands are parted in the photo, almost as if he’s praying.
Photographer Jonathan Mannion took credit for the shoot, writing how thrilled he was to work with Ross for the fifth time and dismissing the negative comments.
“We’re already going over a lot of people’s heads with this image,” Mannion wrote in an Instagram comment. “Let’s stay in that crisp fresh, rare air and let them rise to meet us if they’re able.”
But on Monday, just days before the album’s slated release, Ross unveiled the apparent official Richer Than I Ever Been cover—a complete departure from the previous imagery he’d shared. This one is more similar to his past albums’ art, with Ross standing to the side against a dark background, his head tilted downward with blue-tinted aviator shades hiding his eyes.
It’s unclear if Ross had intended all along for the most recent image to be the actual cover, or if his team swapped in the new photo after the barrage of negative commentary. (The Daily Beast reached out to Ross and his label for comment.)
Nonetheless, a wave of fans giddily took credit for bullying Ross into changing his cover art, begging the question: Are rappers so fragile in their masculinity that it could be shattered by faceless trolls?
It wouldn’t be shocking, considering hip-hop’s warped perception of masculinity and bleak history of homophobia—something Lil Nas X cited when he came out as gay in the wake of his breakout song “Old Town Road” in 2019. To be considered a “real man,” rappers have been told they have to dress, look, and speak the part. Any signs of softness or vulnerability risked you becoming an outcast. A$AP Ferg, for instance, once said that being considered “hard” within the Black community boiled down to the clothes you wear, and recalled how when members of the A$AP crew were coming up in Harlem, people called them “weirdos” and “gay” for simply wearing skinny jeans.
There are some in the hip-hop community who are slowly helping to shatter those perceptions, including Young Thug, who wore a ruffled powder blue dress on the cover of his 2016 mixtape Jeffery, and Kid Cudi, who sported a dress during a performance on Saturday Night Live.
“You were so confident in your skin that you put on a fucking dress but maintained your status as a real n---a,” T.I. said while praising Young Thug during a taping of his podcast in 2020.
All artists, rappers included, should have the same freedom as any other musician to play with their image as they grow and evolve. And “evolution” certainly seems to be the focus on Ross’ Richer Than I Ever Been. As the name of his new album makes clear, Ross no longer considers himself the hustling, “new money” kind of rich. Instead, his wealth and status now whisper, and his priorities have shifted, as he explained to Questlove in a recent conversation for Interview.
“We’re most definitely stronger than we’ve ever been, both mentally and financially,” Ross said. “After spending time with myself during the pandemic, it convinced me to make sure that that was the title.”
He continued, “The time I’m really spending with myself is when I feel the wealthiest. That’s when I feel like, ‘Yo, you’re the most valuable.’ These moments are priceless. What makes you feel rich? What’s wealth? Me on the couch with my kids on my lap. That’s me feeling the richest I could feel. It ain’t no doubt we gettin’ big bags, but it’s a higher place than that. It ain’t even about the money, it’s something else out here.”
Ross seemed to capture that new mindset in the album teaser art, where he ditched his stacks of gold chains for something more subdued and refined—a more Jay-Z-esque approach to his image. The album’s tracklist also speaks to his new era, with triumphant song titles like “The Pulitzer,” “Made It Out Alive,” and “Rapper Estates.”
“Really, I feel this is the best album I’ve ever done,” Ross said back in September. “I feel like some of the stuff I’m saying on this album is really going to separate it from others.”
The original cover art certainly succeeded in separating Ross’ newest project from his past ones, so it would be a shame if he took those mocking comments into consideration when deciding upon the album art.
And if Ross needed any validation for sticking with his creative vision in the future, some fans are already complaining they liked the old cover better.