Rick Ross’s Mastermind, the booming Miami rapper’s sixth album, might be his least and most important album ever. On one hand, Ross’s music has never felt less vital than it does at this very moment: Mastermind is a fine album with a few great songs, but Ross embodies little about where rap music currently is or where it might be going. He is a perfunctory presence on radio and a middling one on social media. He is still a skilled rapper with a fully-formed aesthetic, but his music now is mostly just there. It can be taken or left with similar ease.
The arc of his career is still being drawn, but when it eventually ends we might remember him as an artist who simply endured. At the start he was a magnetic, but perplexing, artist, a true character whose rapping, it seemed, might never catch up to the alluring fantasy he so easily sold. Still, he hung around, gathering momentum with his second album before he was exposed as an ex-corrections officer and tormented mercilessly by 50 Cent. But he survived that, too. He thrived, even, writing his most lasting songs at a time when he was most vulnerable.
2013, however, was not a good year for Rick Ross. He released three lead singles for this album — “Box Chevy,” “No Games” and “The Devil is a Lie” — and not only did none chart on Billboard’s Hot 100, they barely even registered on the rap and R&B charts where Ross makes his living. The first two didn’t make the album, an admission of failure as total is it was quiet. He appeared on hit singles by Jay Z, Ace Hood and Rocko, but he was mostly a mere attendee, except on the latter’s “U.O.E.N.O.,” in which Ross rapped about date rape and got his sponsorship with Reebok (temporarily) severed.
All of that is backward momentum, and Ross was not able to reverse the slide with the album’s fourth single “War Ready,” which received a response so tepid that the song inadvertently makes a mockery of the idea of a “single.” It seemed like Ross’s career was sliding down a steep slope, much like 50 Cent’s was at the time Ross rolled over him with the best verses of his career. Ross’s career had always been improbable, but maybe it was meeting the ending he had long warded off.
With first week album sales projections trickling in, it’s clear now that isn’t the case. Ross is expected to notch the fifth No. 1 album of his career, at the expense of Pharrell, who has America eating out of his hand. He may sell more albums in his first week than Schoolboy Q, who has two current radio hits and the propulsion of the zeitgeist. This past week was another crucial moment in Ross’s career, and yet again he stands victorious, enduring at a time when all signs pointed to his demise.
It is in this context where Mastermind, a forgettable album in many respects, becomes memorable. If Mastermind prolongs Ross’s relevance another few years, he will not be a passing figure in the history of hip-hop. Maybe that is why he feels so comfortable connecting himself to unimpeachable classics on this album, a show of love to history but surely a thumbed nose, too. He raps over beats from indelible songs — Camp Lo’s “Luchini,” Notorious B.I.G.’s “You’re Nobody (Til’ Somebody Kills You)” — and has French Montana atonally croon the hooks. This is blasphemous to some, but Rick Ross always has been. Nonetheless, here he stands.
It’s “Nobody” — the one in which Ross explicitly embodies Biggie for at least the third time in his career — that is the album’s best song. Ross flashes writerly skill in places on Mastermind, but never more than here: “New Mercedes as it peels off/ Nothing penetrates the steel doors/ Gang signs, see ‘em all.” But it’s later in the verse that the man still somehow resting comfortably at the mountaintop sums up his existence: “Never really athletic, but I play for keeps/ Do you feel me?”