NEW YORK (Reuters) - Rick Ross sold hit albums rapping about selling crack cocaine but a revelation that he once worked as a prison guard threatened to end his career.
For a rapper cultivating a bad-boy image, a uniform put him on the wrong side of the law.
U.S. rappers often sell songs about drugs and guns based on "real-life" stories, but increasingly some of those stories are being exposed as embellishments aimed at helping them build successful careers, experts say.
"Some of the stories are fabricated and some of it is reality, and what they are doing is mixing the two," music executive Devyne Stephens said. "When you say you shot and killed somebody and you put it on a CD, nine times out of 10, you really didn't shoot and kill anybody."
Ross is a bearded, burly Miami rapper who brags of a cash-fueled, drug-boss life. His real name is William Leonard Roberts II but he takes his stage name from a drug trafficker.
So he was publicly humiliated when pictures surfaced of him last year through The Smoking Gun website looking clean-cut in a correctional officer's uniform.
Ross at first denied his past, then admitted it but maintained his drug-dealing tales of the street were true.
His third album, released in April and featuring titles such as "Rich off Cocaine," still sold well.
Stephens, who has been hailed as an image branding king and has worked with artists including Mary J. Blige, Usher, Sean "Diddy" Combs and Nelly, said many rappers mix lines in their songs that aren't literally true but draw from real experiences or stories they have heard.
He says "probably 85 per cent" of rappers embellish stories in songs and calls the current trend "reality music" which, like reality television, is something of a misnomer.
Stephens helped groom another successful U.S. rapper, Akon, who has had hits like "Locked Up" and "Ghetto." Akon was ridiculed last year and accused of dramatically enhancing claims of belonging to a car theft ring and having served prison time.
The new crop of rappers want to emulate the success of rappers-turned-moguls like former New York drug dealers Jay-Z and 50 Cent, who both sold albums based on their transformations from street hustling to popping champagne.
"You formulate that story to make it just as interesting as the Jay-Z story," Stephens said, describing an outline of: "I am a hustler, I came from nothing and turned it into something and now I am on yachts in St. Tropez."
Jay-Z, married to superstar Beyonce Knowles, is now one of the world's wealthiest musicians, having signed a deal reportedly worth $150 million with concert promoter Live Nation.
50 Cent, whose album and film "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" was based on his past as a crack dealer who was shot nine times, now runs a multimedia empire. He banked about $100 million after taxes when his stake in Glaceau, creator of Vitaminwater, was sold to Coca-Cola, Forbes reported.
Both depart from that image at times. Jay-Z has promoted bicycles with New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg and 50 Cent recently stood alongside entertainer Bette Midler to promote parks and gardens.
"Image would be people's perspective," 50 Cent told Reuters when asked what his old fans would think. "It might not coincide with what I am doing, but this is who I am."
Much of the underworld image is obviously real with many rappers arrested for drugs and gun possession, including one of the current top rappers, Lil Wayne, who faces narcotics and weapons possession charges. Others, like former teenage drug dealer T.I., reshaped their image when facing prison time.
Atlanta-based T.I. just began serving a one-year sentence for illegally possessing machine guns, but reduced his sentence by warning young people about the dangers of drugs and gangs.
The Grammy Award-winning rapper chronicled his community service on the show "T.I.'s Road to Redemption" on MTV. He appeared at an anti-gun rally in New York in May with another rapper, Ja Rule, who currently faces gun possession charges.
"It was savvy ... the best thing for his career at that time," Sean Fennessey of hip-hop magazine Vibe said of T.I.
Fans seem to care less if a rapper's lyrics are exaggerated as long as the music is good, said Elliott Wilson, founder of RapRadar.com.
Ross's last album "Deeper Than Rap," was critically acclaimed and sold 150,000 copies in its first week. Akon's last album, "Freedom," sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
"I never saw anything like Rick Ross where someone took so many career damaging attacks and it still did not stop his success," Wilson said.
Rappers may still criticize each others' credibility in songs, but fans know hip hop music has always been part aspiration and part reality, Wilson said.
"The goal is to succeed with the odds against you," Wilson said. "It's storytelling, it's art, so there tends to be exaggerations in it."
Editing by Daniel Trotta and Alan Elsner