It’s hard out here for a bawse. Life’s been anything but smooth for Rick Ross since 2010’s stellar Teflon Don. First he suffered two seizures back-to-back in 2011. Then he witnessed 2012’s over-hyped, uneven God Forgives I Don’t come and go without a hit single (though it still went Gold). Then he canceled the Maybach Music Group tour following gang threats. If all that weren’t bad enough, 2013 resulted in an attempt on his life, a controversial date rape lyric and a lost endorsement deal with Reebok. So finally we come to Mastermind, in which the former corrections officer William Leonard Roberts II attempts to reinstate the street cred he never had.
He very nearly succeeds. The stunning opening salvo, “Rich is Gangsta”, comes out the gate with guns literally blazing. Black Metaphor’s bombastic production, stacked to the brim with strings and horns and soulful backing vocals, provides the perfect setting for the sort of cartoonish brags only Rozay can pull off: “I came back a rich nigga / Young mogul, Bo Jackson, I’m a switch hitter.” Elsewhere the rapper has money on his mind, and like all great storytellers his number changes with every yarn. “Drug Dealer’s Dream” opens with a ridiculous automated recording that describes his bank account to the tune of $92,153,183.28, yet on the track just before it Ross claims “from here on I need 50.” So which is it, Ricky? It doesn’t really matter. Tall tales are Rozay’s bread and butter and he’s been eating well for years. Consider the chorus to “The Devil is a Lie”, an outstanding collaboration with Jay-Z and an apt summation of Ross’ lyrical content:
“Big guns, big whips, rich nigga talkin’ big shit
Double cup, gold wrist, double up on that blow, bitch!
Two mil on that I-95
Bow your head cuz it’s time to pay tithes
Opposition want me dead or alive
Motherfucker but the devil is a LIIIIIIEEEEEEE!”
If you want to hear the man with the best voice in hip-hop spit pure thug fantasy over sumptuous production, this album’s for you. The Major Seven and K.E. On the Track beat is straight fire, that Gene Williams sample is essential and the raps are on point, especially Jay-Z’s verse. It’s a thrilling and truly enjoyable track that never forgets to have fun. The same can be said for the late-album showstopper, “Sanctified”, with its fascinating blend of classic soul and modern trap stylings. Producers DJ Mustard, Kanye West and Travi$ Scott are wise enough to let Betty Wright sing her ass off for a full minute before Big Sean comes in with an immediately infectious hook over club-ready synths:
“All I wanted was 100 million dollars and a bad bitch
Plus that paper chasin’, it done turn me to a savage
Groupies in the lobby they just tryna get established
God, I’ve been guilty, fornicatin’ from my status”
If these guys are doomed to a life of sin they’re gonna enjoy it, dammit. Yeezus himself blesses the track with double duty on the hook and a typically memorable verse. Kanye tries the Migos flow on for size, explains his tendency for acting out and questions God himself. Ross contributes a solid lyric as well, and though the production and guest spots threaten to drown out his voice altogether this track is an undeniable highlight.
It’s not all boasting and good times, however. The opening half of the album meditates heavily on the rapper’s brush with death. The first eight songs hit hard and often, carrying a thick, hazy atmosphere that’s alternately lavish and imposing. Lo-fi tape recordings string together a series of larger-than-life crime tales with impressive consistency. We haven’t heard Ross this hungry (or paranoid) since 2011’s Rich Forever, a sprawling mixtape that sounded more like an album than some of his actual albums. “Nobody” finds the MC resurrecting the Notorious B.I.G.’s “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)” with surprising skill, and partner-in-crime French Montana actually improves the existing hook instead of ruining it.
Mastermind’s momentum peaks with the menacing 7-minute epic “War Ready”, featuring an excellent verse from Jeezy and a Tracy T hook that shamelessly rips off Future’s “Shit.” Incredibly, the track manages to stay compelling for its entire run time. Ross devours the beat from the first line and makes every syllable count by refusing to accelerate the track’s battlefield march tempo. By the time the track ends you can’t help but feel drained, but in a good way. It’s a satisfying stomper that ends in a jarring barrage of gunshots before slowing to a chopped-and-screwed halt. And that’s where the album starts to fall apart.
Ultimately, the excess that propels Mastermind to dizzying heights also proves to be its undoing. “What a Shame” is passable but unnecessary. “BLK & WHT” has a cheesy beat and a corny hook from Ross; the insistent reminder that he’s a “young nigga black, but he selling white” is mildly amusing at first and downright irritating 16 repetitions later. Note to the bawse: never, ever try to sing again. “In Vein” is pretty much a Weeknd song—and a bad one, at that—with a tacked-on verse from Rozay. “Walkin’ on Air” has a potent Meek Mill feature and carries the same paranoid aura as the album’s first half, but it sounds out of place alongside some of the latter half’s more demure duds. “Mafia Music III” starts out strong on an interesting reggae kick but really, did this track need to be five minutes?
If someone convinced Ross to trim the fat from Mastermind he might have an album to rival the lean, mean Teflon Don, but discretion is never an option in the eyes of a bawse. Take “Dope Bitch”, a three-minute skit that slingshots from repulsive to hilarious in no time. The skit starts with two women bragging about their fortune: “This stack right here? It falls out of your pocket? You don’t have time to pick it up. Your time’s worth more than that stack.” By the end, however, both girls are cracking up after one particularly absurd claim about Belaire Rose champagne. “I have people WASH ME in Belaire Rose. I’m a fucking BAWSE. UH!”
“I can’t take life,” the other woman laughs in response. Neither can Rick Ross. That’s what makes him so enjoyable to listen to…faults and all.