People love to talk about Rick Ross, and now more than ever, they’re disapproving. There have been a string of incidents — some Ross’s fault, others magnified because of the way the music press works — that have vilified the man born William Roberts to the point that he was a tragic omission in Chuck Klosterman’s I Wear the Black Hat, which covered the various ways we’re both attracted and repelled by villainy in our artists, politicians, and sports franchises. The seminal debacle was The Smoking Gun’s largely meaningless exposing of Ross as a former corrections officer. It’s simple: Ross thought he’d make some legal tender with all his street connections. Last year, however, Ross was the subject of much controversy after rapping on Rocko’s “U.O.E.N.O.” about slipping molly in a potential conquest’s champagne, and here he references Trayvon Martin because he’s “never missing my target” — less offensive than the David Koresh line on “Sanctified” but offensive for more obvious reasons. On Mastermind — “My sixth LP,” he announces proudly, no doubt wiping lobster from his beard — Ross welcomes your hate with open arms, just so long as you bear in mind that there are AK-47-toting henchmen all around the premises.
“Checking account balance,” begins an automated voice at the start of “Drug Dealers Dream”. If it were a real person, he’d be taking a deep breath before the following: “$92,153,183.28.” Rick Ross, you see, is rich as a bitch. Rap, in its celebration of wealth, is the opposite of indie rock, a genre whose luminaries are dispatched from their band after selling a drum kit for a figure that Ross, at least according to the lovely women of “Dope Bitch Skit”, wouldn’t even pick up off the floor. He doesn’t need to prove the things he spends Mastermind trying to prove: the account balance, the fact that he’s been shot at more than once, his relentlessness in spite of health problems. He’s still bigger than life, though, and he remains too big to fail.
If the 62-minute Mastermind is bloated, it’s a healthy, controlled bloat. The first single is the Jay Z collaboration “The Devil Is a Lie”, a TNT swell of horns not fully realized until Ross brought it to The Tonight Show and had The Roots drape on their Outliers-times-ten live musicianship. The Kanye West and Big Sean-featuring “Sanctified” starts as a deep exhale and switches to trap fare that would’ve fit Tom Cruise’s first entering the castle in Eyes Wide Shut, roaring with a cameo from soul singer Betty Wright. “Supreme” doesn’t sound as big as those last two do, but it simulates the pops and flashes of paparazzi, Ross flexing for them: “Geechi Liberace, I’m rich as a bitch.” Later, “War Ready” sounds like Ross is about to turn the parking lot into a war zone after piling Benjis on injected derrieres at Magic City. It’s close to the rib-crushing trap style Ross pioneered working with Lex Luger but quickly outgrew. Mastermind also works when the album goes for something more deliberate and diffuse, as on the Weeknd-featuring “In Vein”, which finds Abel Tesfaye imitating the guy in the club who gives your girl a pill and says he’s “out” by the time you request one. Piano plinks you won’t notice ‘til you plop on headphones, burbling synths not far from The Chronic, showers of horns, squealing guitars — all of it enough to sink a yacht in the Port of Miami, all implying that Ross is rich as a bitch.
Of all the A-listers who released an album last year, Ross knows it was Kanye who made the most daring LP. That doesn’t just reflect in the dance hall rap stretches here (“Mafia Music III”, featuring Sizzla and Mavado), but also in the way the whole thing churns, expands, and contracts. Not that this is experimental stuff; the producers are guys like Mike Will, DJ Ratchet (I mean, DJ Mustard), Kanye, Mike Dean, and a resurrected Scott Storch, all capable of innovation but none of them gunning for it here. Diddy did the mixing, and for those of us who weren’t around to witness his Bad Boy dominance throughout the ‘90s, it’s safe to assume that this is what it sounded like relative to everything else.
The main tenet of Ross’s Maybach Music Group is loyalty, and Ross is loyal to his fans on Mastermind: it’s more or less what we’re used to from him. It sounds like the album Ross wanted to make, as inspired by heroes like Dilla, and Onyx, and Wu-Tang Clan, and Biggie, and Camp Lo. Some critics are blasting off Planet Boss because they’re “bored.” Rick Ross, who is rich as a bitch and revels in it to the point where it sometimes feels like he’s talking down to the 99 percent, can never be boring, even if stretches of his album are boring. Both of the album covers for Mastermind are amazing, Ross in shades that, as per usual, lend him such an air of mystery that we forget how many tattoos he has. If the sparks of Mastermind are blinding, Ross came prepared. Hopefully you’re willing to do the same.
Essential Tracks: “The Devil Is a Lie”, “War Ready”, and “Sanctified”