The success of "Teflon Don" presented an opportunity for Ross: He could begin building a roster of artists on his MMG imprint and use his own visibility to give their releases some juice. Maybach's business model could become to Ross what Roc-a-Fella was to Jay-Z and what Young Money has become to Lil Wayne.
"I've most definitely been a fan of Hov and his whole movement," Ross says of Jay-Z. "He gave a blueprint to a lot of young entrepreneurs, as well as Wayne, with how active Wayne is with artists. There's a lot of different approaches, but at the end of the day, we've . . . just got to be hands-on and walk our own path."
The signings fell into place naturally. Meek Mill ( @MeekMill), a mixtape specialist from Philadelphia, says he asked Ross through Twitter last year to contribute a verse to his "Rozay Red" remix and started seeing the rapper and talking to him on the road. "He must have liked what I was doing. I came down to Miami, and I've been Maybach ever since," Mill says.
Wale's manager, Rich Kleiman, who is also Roc Nation VP of management, says that Ross had been talking to Wale backstage at club shows for months last year - the D.C. rapper's verse on Waka Flocka Flame's hit single "No Hands" had been earning him new recognition. Ross says that he could see the passion in Wale's rhymes, and the poor sales of "Attention Deficit" didn't deter him from offering Wale a deal. "It wasn't about hype, and it wasn't about past success," Ross says. "It was about who Wale was as an MC - an incredible MC - that made me a fan. I felt we could make history together."
With Mill and Wale in place on the roster, Ross decided to inject some "new energy" in the Maybach imprint after the label's deal with Def Jam Recordings expired. Rumors of a bidding war for MMG spread until the label solidified a partnership with Warner Bros. Records on Feb. 22, the same day Ross announced the signing of Atlanta rapper Pill ( @Pill4180), an online favorite, to MMG.
"[Ross] was someone we had our eyes on for a long time, so as soon as we were in a position to act on it, we did," Warner Bros. Records co-president/CEO Todd Moscowitz says. "When we started having serious conversations, he outlined exactly what he'd hoped, which was a multiyear plan to thoughtfully build an important label, artist by artist."
The first move was the May release "Self Made, Vol. 1," an MMG compilation album, which featured the ferocious single "Tupac Back" and has sold 183,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The album came out while Ross was supporting Lil Wayne on his I Am Still Music tour, and the rapper peppered his sets with Maybach shout-outs. During a March 26 performance at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Ross brought Mill, as well as Sean "Diddy" Combs and DJ Khaled, onstage, and toasted his MMG signee to Mill's hometown crowd. The audience went wild.
Meanwhile, Ross began guiding Wale as he readied his comeback album in Atlanta, giving him feedback on each song, helping him select the moody "Lotus Flower Bomb" (featuring crooner Miguel) as the impact single (it was a Greatest Gainer on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart on Oct. 29.) Ross also appears on two tracks.
"He wasn't there all the time, but he was instrumental in deciding where Wale was going to record, the people Wale was going have around him," Kleiman says. "And then there were periods where he'd meet with Wale in Atlanta or Miami or New York and have quality 24- to 48-hour periods of going through every song and trying things and giving advice-truly executive-producing the album."
Ross also boosted Wale's social profile with nonstop promotion of "Ambition," including 71 mentions of the album on Twitter the day of its release and links to Wale's latest music videos. Now Wale has 1.3 million Twitter followers - almost as many as Ross.
The MMG deal put Ross in an awkward label position: He'd laid a foundation at Warner Bros. for his label, but was committed to Def Jam Recordings as a solo artist for three more albums. "I get to see two different systems and two different perspectives," he says. And Def Jam Recordings is happy to watch Maybach flourish as it focuses on solo projects like "God Forgives, I Don't."
"With all of the incredible activity Ross has been generating in the marketplace with MMG, his profile is as hot as ever," IDJ president/COO Steve Bartels says. "This puts us in the unique position to do what we do best: catapult the artist to the next level, while solidifying and expanding his core and his standing in the industry."
Chris Atlas adds that Ross' many guest verses in 2011 helped increase his visibility in different genres. On the Oct. 22 Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, Ross appeared on seven of the tally's 100 songs, including Monica's R&B jam "Anything (To Find You)," DJ Khaled's chart-topping posse cut "I'm on One" and Mill's "Ima Boss" from "Self Made, Vol. 1." "Whether it's all MMG records or just other feature records, they've all added to his growing brand," Atlas says.
Also on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart are a pair of Ross singles -- the Nicki Minaj-warmed pop track "You the Boss" and the Just Blaze-produced banger "I Love My Bitches" -- that will be included on "God Forgives." The two tracks debuted Oct. 4 -- a little more than a week before Ross suffered the seizure -- and despite the album delay, the songs will remain the focus of Def Jam Recordings' marketing rollout for "God Forgives," with no new single expected before year's end.
"You the Boss" has moved 80,000 copies while "I Love My Bitches" has sold 17,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and Atlas says that "Boss" will be crossed over to rhythmic and pop after initially finding a home at R&B/hip-hop radio. A video for the song is coming, as are TV opportunities, live concert events and Twitter campaigns, depending on the new release date. On the MMG side, Warner Bros.' Manda says that a "Self Made, Vol. 2" could arrive as early as late January and that Mill's proper debut is expected to be released in March. As for the further expansion of MMG's roster, including a rumored partnership with veteran MC Trina, Manda will only say that Ross "is constantly looking for new talent."
It's not a surprising play for Ross. After all, larger-than-life personalities are always looking ahead for new opportunities, searching for ways to "take it to the next level," as he so often says. Even if "God Forgives," I Don't is coming out after the calendar flips due to his seizure in October, he's making sure he has more clutch opportunities lined up for 2012.
"Rick's a warrior," manager Bethune says. "I hear what everyone is saying [about his health], but me knowing him, I see none of that. I just know he probably needs to get a little rest. We all do. But . . . we're back at it, and we've been back at it for a while now."
"It could have been a lot worse," Ross adds of the health scare. "So I'm just thankful. I feel good-and I'm back on my grind already."
Jason Lipshutz ( @jasonlipshutz) is an assistant editor at Billboard.com and edits singles reviews for Billboard magazine.