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Rick Ross, ‘Mastermind’ [ALBUM REVIEW]

Rick Ross
Def Jam

Rick Ross thrives on excess. A Maybach here, “having sushi down in Nobu” there. Bigger is better for a man whose beliefs are centered on grandeur. After 50 Cent outed him as a former corrections officer and the consequent side glares, Ross decided to inflate his gangster mythology even more while refusing to believe the helium that’s inside would eventually leak. The big balloon hasn’t quite popped during the months leading to the release of his sixth studio album ‘Mastermind.’ However, today’s hip-hop landscape is just different.

Albums like Schoolboy Q‘s ‘Oxymoron’ and ‘Satellite Flight: The Journey to the Mother Moon’ — which is experimental even for a Kid Cudi album — would not be on the verge of beating Ross in first-week sales a few years back. There’s obviously success to be had elsewhere, and Ross makes a good — not great — argument that there’s still some to be had in being the Bawse.

Ross’ fall-off as a reliable feature (see Rich Gang’s ’50 Plates’) and as a brand over the latter half of 2012 and through 2013 doesn’t mean his shtick is tired necessarily. If anything, it just shows he’s a one-trick salesman. ‘Mastermind’ doesn’t find Ross traveling too far from being the Bawse. But instead of the bull-headed approach that dragged down ‘God Forgives, I Don’t’ and nearly everything that came after it, Ross plays the raconteur sitting on the leather couch in his recently purchased mansion, playing up his mystique with puffs of his cigar and models periodically filling his glass with Belaire Rose.

His sixth effort finds him skating over his most lushly-produced beats with flashes of vivid imagery and a well-measured sense of grandiosity. Some of his prior efforts — particularly ‘Teflon Don’ — bests ‘Mastermind’ song-for-song, but this is Ross’ most enjoyable front-to-back listen.

‘Mastermind’ is actually bizarre at some points. French Montana‘s impish grin replaces Notorious’ B.I.G.’s mourning on ‘Nobody,’ where Diddy plays the perpetual trash-talker turned motivational speaker (“These n—-s is mere motherf—in’ mortals / I’m tryna push you to supreme bein’.” There’s more testimony to follow.) Backpackers also get a little something to get pissed off at with the album finale ‘Thug Cry,’ which has the temerity to throw a decent Lil Wayne verse over Souls of Mischief’s ’93 Til Infinity.’

Watch Rick Ross’ ‘Nobody’ Video Feat. French Montana & Diddy

‘The Devil Is a Lie’ shouldn’t even work with its rehashed focus on the Illuminati. But a listen to the track reveals once again why Jay Z and Rick Ross are holding on to millions — great salesmanship with some artistry along the way. Ross’ feigned spiritual cleansing — he renounces the devil by drinking baptismal champagne — on the hook is over the top, but it’s somewhat cathartic and convincing over the orgasmic bursts of Major Seven and K.E. on the Track’s horns.

Jay Z is still D’usse’s freelance promoter as he again muses at his affiliation with Illuminati like he did on ‘Free Mason.’ It’s not a retread though; Jay Z sounds more urgent than he has in recent memory while giving himself the obligatory pat on the back (“You seen what I did to the stop and frisk / Brooklyn on the Barneys like we own the bitch”).

Listen to Rick Ross’ ‘The Devil Is a Lie’ Feat. Jay Z

The album’s best moment belongs to the Saturday night gospel that’s ‘Sanctified.’ Betty Wright joins the choir, Big Sean serves at the altar, and Yeezus the Evangelist leads the service. It’s all soul-burning, indulgent excellence and all of it is spearheaded by Kanye West performing his world-conquering duties. “But when Ali turn up and be Ali, you can’t ever change that n—- back to Cassius,” he preaches. Everybody bows down, and that includes Ross himself during his following verse.

Ross is well within his right to use ‘Sanctified’ for whatever Belair Rose campaign he may have in tow, but it’s also a reminder that his charisma isn’t consistent throughout the album. There are times he runs the show like with his focused ‘Nobody’ verse (“Hustlers moving out of rentals, art of war is mental / Having sushi down in Nobu / Strapped like an Afghan soldier, nowhere to go to”) and when he kicks the door open on album opener ‘Rich Is Gangsta.’

Elsewhere, Ross is haphazardly crooning on the painfully on-the-nose “Young n—-s black, but he’s selling white” and dropping an ill-advised Trayvon Martin reference over D. Rich’s lush, woozy synths on‘BLK & WHT.’ Other moments have him getting upended by his features; Jeezy owns the middling ‘War Ready’ and Meek Mill handles the celebratory horns on ‘Walkin on Air’ with his trademark freneticism.

Ross does make a case on ‘Mastermind’ that a Bawse-centric worldview is still respectable even if he isn’t as dominant as he was. But where does that leave the Miami don? That’s hard to tell. As hip-hop curves in between trends, points of focus and hits, Ross’ persona remains on his usual path, touting excess. There was a time when Rossian values consistently intersected and seized the culture’s zeitgeist. He isn’t too far away from the genre’s line of thinking on ‘Mastermind,’ but he doesn’t do a good job of convincing that he’s running parallel to it.

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