When Rick Ross’ car was riddled with 18 bullets in a drive-by shooting last January, it affected the rapper more than he let on at the time. And that brush with death—which caused Ross to veer off the road and collide with an apartment building, luckily leaving no one injured—informs Ross’ sixth album, Mastermind, more than most might have thought; the lushly produced project dwells early and often on the subjects of mortality, violence and the costs of being The Bawse.
Mastermind also comes at a critical point in Ross’ career, with younger artists hot on his tail in terms of relevance and many wondering what, after all the albums, collaborations and guest verses he’s put out since his 2006 debut Port Of Miami, he still has left to say. But as the album was pushed back repeatedly—first from the summer, then from Dec. 17 until it landed yesterday, a day early, on Mar. 3 as Def Jam tried to find a single that would catch on at radio—the question became whether Ross had anything left at all, or any way to put it all together in a way that could stick.
The album’s first single, “The Devil Is A Lie” featuring Jay Z, answered those questions to an extent; Ross has always had an exceptional ear for beats, and the “Lie” beat—produced by Major Seven and K.E. On The Track—as well as the Bink!-produced “Mafia Music III,” Mike WiLL Made It’s “War Ready,” Kanye West’s “Sanctified” and Scott Storch’s “Supreme,” all prove that that ear hasn’t diminished at all. Hearing Ross dance and drive through a reggae beat on the same album as he slinks through Yeezy soul and The Weeknd’s delicate soundscapes keeps things fresher than they were on God Forgives, I Don’t. When Ross is at his finest, he can treat a beat as his own personal playground, always exerting control while twisting and turning on top of it.
But even though the production is of the highest quality, and Ross has a newfound credibility—in everyone’s eyes except 50 Cent’s, of course—in the lifestyle of a drug kingpin that he’s cultivated over the years, that doesn’t really mean he’s changed up his lyrical rubric, and he seldom steps too far out of his comfort zone. He’s the bossman who gives Wale a Cartier watch and Meek Mill a Range Rover in “Rich Is Gangsta,” then he’s the drug dealer selling cocaine out of his Benz in “Black And White.” He’s lifting The Notorious B.I.G.’s hook and flow on “Nobody,” then repurposing Ol’ Dirty Bastard lines for “What A Shame.” “War Ready” is a meditation on the violence of the streets, where Jeezy outshines everyone and Tracy T pulls a hook straight out of the depths of Future’s hard drive, and Kanye steals the show on “Sanctified” right out from under Ross’ feet. And throughout, the tracks are peppered with gunshots and death references, reminding the listener that that January shooting never strays too far from his mind.
What Ross does well, and what he does again on Mastermind, is put together a body of work that is as formidable as he is, and taken as a whole it’s impossible to call this anything other than a very good album. Where people like Kanye and Drake and Kendrick Lamar keep winning by shaking up the formula and dabbling in the unexpected, Ross long ago identified his lane, and he is the undisputed kingpin of his brash brand of hip-hop. Ross die-hards will not be disappointed; anyone looking for something new and different was probably looking in the wrong place to begin with. Mastermind is a powerful album, an album with an identity, and one that has some solid songs and a handful of hits. Ross delivers just what he promised.—Dan Rys