Already victimized by poverty, parental alcoholism, an education gap and the prison industrial complex, the newly christened Black Rob had plenty of hardcore subject matter and hard-life experience to draw on. Life Story, his occasionally autobiographical March 2000 debut, sold over a million units by concentrating on vivid storytelling, radio-friendly hooks and personalized street missives. First appearing on the R&B quartet 112’s “Come See Me” remix in ’96, he also put his stamp on other labelmates’ remixes (Total’s “What About Us,” Faith Evans’s “Love Like This”), as well as Mase’s “24 Hrs. to Live,” before Diddy allowed him out on his own.
Diddy was waiting for a song like “Whoa!” which was produced by Buckwild of hip-hop’s celebrated Diggin’ in the Crates crew. Rob initially hated the song, bristling at the commercial structure of the verses. The ending of each line famously consists of “like whoa,” recalling a similar trick from Juvenile’s 1998 single, “Ha” (or even KRS-One’s “Hold,” from ’95). But as Diddy played and replayed the track, blessed with Rob’s rugged delivery, he must have known the time had finally come for the Black Rob solo album. Life Story sold nearly 178,000 copies in its first week, in the year before Napster’s freebie digital downloading would rewrite all the rules of record sales forever.
A one-time affiliation with Bad Boy is regarded as somewhat of a Kennedy curse by some. Biggie and Craig Mack died. Shyne and G. Dep got locked up. The L.O.X. fought their way off the label. After the meteoric success of “Whoa!” and Life Story, Black Rob dropped memorable verses in 2001 on Bad Boy staples like “Bad Boy for Life” and G. Dep’s “Let’s Get It.” But on the Combat Jack Show, Rob confessed to stealing a woman’s jewelry at the On the Ave Hotel in New York City, which landed him back in jail.
His second album,The Black Rob Report of 2005, satisfied hardcore fans, but the record industry was in a tailspin, and Bad Boy’s radio dominance was a memory from the 20th century by then. Game Tested, Streets Approved followed in 2011, away from Diddy and his former label, with lesser sales and attention. After suffering a stroke, Rob independently released Genuine Article on his own Slimstyle Records. He’d never repeat Life Story’s success; his health progressively continued to fail.
Looking older than his 52 years, a grizzled, homeless Black Rob recently appeared in a video on DJ Self’s Instagram, asking music lovers to pray for DMX’s health from his own hospital bed. Rapper-producer Mike Zombie soon set up a GoFundMe to pay for Rob’s medical expenses. Though social media started placing the blame for his condition squarely at the feet of his multimillionaire former mentor, a counter-argument began almost as immediately, raising questions about healthcare benefits in the music industry.
But the greater tragedy of rapper Black Rob’s death lies in Robert Ross’s passing: ultimately, another African American man gone too soon from suffering indignities best outlined in Pulitzer-winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s best-selling Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. There’s a price to America’s penchant for keeping a stratum of its society at the lowest end, and it’s always paid by those who can afford it the least.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Harlem-based author of Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar, out August 17.