On March 4, Rick Ross will release Mastermind—his sixth album under the Def Jam umbrella. Ross is an interesting figure. On one hand, he boasts many of the accolades any mainstream rapper needs to be considered commercially successful. Four of his albums have debuted at the #1 position on Billboard magazine’s Top 200 Albums chart. He’s recorded alongside a who’s who of Hip Hop A-listers, including Jay Z, Kanye West, Dr. Dre and Andre 3000. In terms of his pedigree, Ross was linked with Tony Draper’s iconic Suave House imprint, and he even enjoyed an early co-sign from EPMD’s Erick Sermon.
But throughout most of his tenure, Ross has also shown a staggering lack of self-awareness. His cocaine kingpin raps fell on deaf ears when it was revealed he was a former corrections officer. And the matter was compounded when Ross essentially claimed authentic pictures of him in uniform were Photoshopped. Ross is the kind of guy who posts an Instagram picture of himself at a Wingstop—a restaurant known for its signature battered, deep fried chicken wings—after having a seizure. He’s the kind of guy who might shrug off a perceived date rape reference and tweet a half-hearted, hashtagged apology.
Ultimately, none of this has anything to do with the music. And in terms of music, Ross has been cranking out hits since 2006’s Port of Miami. He boasts 12 singles on Billboard magazine’s “Hot 100” chart, four gold albums and two platinum singles. His Maybach Music Group imprint provided the platform for Wale to reconnect with his core audience, and its respectively fast-tracking Meek Mill and Gunplay to at least B and C-list status. His success in the booth almost stands in binary opposition to his multiple blunders in real life. And that’s only part of the appeal. Will the dual lives of Rick Ross the rapper and William Leonard Roberts II be reconciled with a new album? Probably not. But it’s fun to prognosticate on all things Rozay as we wait for Mastermind to leak to the public within the next week.
Where Will “Mastermind” Rank Within Rick Ross’ Catalogue?
Marcus K. Dowling: It’s entirely possible for this to be Ross’ finest album of his career. Let’s face it. When the Gangster Disciples want to murder you, you have armed thugs firing guns at your automobile, and you advocated popping MDMA in a woman’s drink and raping her (thus causing you to temporarily lose a big money sponsorship from Reebok), there isn’t anywhere to go but up, and you probably have some incredible stories to tell.
As well, it’s all about perspectives. An argument can be made that there are two schools of Rap gathering at either side of Jay Z and Kanye’s throne. On one side, there’s the earnest and emotive school, where emcees like Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore, J. Cole and Drake pour their heart and soul into rhymes that (possibly due to their overwrought emotive nature) cross over for mainstream success. As well, there’s the hard rhyming and hard partying gangsters, a team that includes 2 Chainz, and intriguingly enough artists like Ross’ fellow Maybach affiliates Meek Mill and emotional/hard line-straddler Wale. Ross is quite literally the boss of this side of the coin, and a strong release from him puts him right back in the lead. It’s a difficult time to cross over and be hard as hell, but Ross has the ear (and the capital to spend) to choose the hits. Furthermore, armed with some of the most ear-worming hooks in the game over the past half-decade, radio and marketing-friendly material will likely be plentiful.
Ross’ best album is easily 2010’s Teflon Don. Pop music overall still hasn’t recovered from Lex Luger’s sonic bombast of “BMF” and “MC Hammer,” while Kanye West production “Live Fast, Die Young” and Drake/Chrisette Michelle feature “Aston Martin Music” have aged well. Of note to watch as well is that Mike WILL Made-It needs to contribute to a standout album too. More so than any hit he’s cranked out for Miley Cyrus, resurrecting the career of Rick Ross would cement his all-time legacy. Ross’ need for classic material meshes perfectly with an industry at a crossroads in redevelopment. A powder keg of a moment (one that elevates Ross back to the top) can result from such a situation.
Omar Burgess: Based upon the singles and track listing Ross has released, I think it’s safe to say Mastermind will be better than God Forgives, I Don’t but not quite on par with Teflon Don. If we’re ranking these according to quality, Teflon Don is the unshakable number one in my book. Mastermind, God Forgives, I Don’t, Deeper Than Rap, Trilla and Port of Miami round out the list.
If the rumor is true that Rich Forever was originally intended to be a retail album and not a mixtape, then Mastermind allows Rozay to rectify a few wrongs that weren’t necessarily his fault. Ross was allegedly half done recording the material that ultimately became Rich Forever when he suffered a seizure tens of thousands of feet in the air. One seizure is enough to derail any artist’s release schedule, but Ross suffered another one, then he either purposely or inadvertently provoked some Gangster Disciples.
Ross has to be held at responsible for the latter incident. But I don’t think we’re even having this conversation if Rich Forever made it to retail. According to DatPiff.com, the mixtape was downloaded 1.7 million times and streamed 1.1 million times. Those numbers don’t necessarily translate to paying customers buying an album, but any time a mixtape spawns a popular single like “Stay Schemin’” (the Drake and French Montana-assisted track peaked at #58 on Billboard magazine’s “Hot 100” chart), it’s usually a decent indicator of future commercial success. To put things in context, Mastermind has yet to produce a “Hot 100” single.
What Defines A Classic Album And Can Rick Ross Make One?
Marcus K. Dowling: A classic album is a release that makes the thought process of literally every single artist that releases a record in its wake switch from “making a good album” to “trying to make an album that compares favorably to a release that set a standard.” Mastermind has the potential to be a classic Pop-Rap release in the same vein as Puff Daddy’s No Way Out, Missy Elliott’s Miss E…So Addictive or 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Rap likes its Pop stars to be ostentatious characters who release grandiose albums that are industry events and meet their titanic expectations.
Ultimately what will make Mastermind a classic album is what makes all great albums the classics they become—execution. For Rick Ross’ sixth studio album, he must evolve into a Diddy, 50 or Missy and be a focused artist assisted by a stellar team, fulfilling and executing with an expectation of success.
Omar Burgess: I think a classic album either defines or redefines a genre. OutKast’s Aquemeni made us reconsider the boundaries of a Hip Hop album. Despite its brevity (only nine songs if the intro is omitted), many hold Nas’ Illmatic in high regard for both sentimental reasons and as the quintessential, New York boom-bap album. What does any of this have to do with one William Leonard Roberts II? To me, there is absolutely no connection.
No disrespect to Ross, but I don’t think he’s capable of making a classic album. He’s not strong enough of a bar-for-bar emcee. But hey, stranger things have happened. I didn’t anticipate remotely liking Teflon Don, but Ross showcased a great ear for beats, an improved (possibly ghost written) flow and just the right mix of guest appearances. In terms of Hip Hop, Ross’ only mainstream competition on March 4 is the A$AP Mob. So even if Mastermind isn’t a classic (and again, I don’t think it will be), a decent album will bring him his fifth #1 debut on Billboard magazine’s Top 200 albums chart.
What Contributing Factors Bode Well For Rick Ross’ “Mastermind”
Marcus K. Dowling: Foremost, never bet against Sean Combs. Say what you will, but even when he missteps (like in the case of 2011 Diddy Dirty Money album, Last Train To Paris) the tremors of the earthquakes he causes with his moves reverberate throughout the industry. And ultimately the tremors can still turn the game on its ear three years later. Diddy hopefully is sitting in the booth playing Rick Rubin to Rozay’s Kanye, and reducing the chaff away from the wheat of Ross’ work.
Insofar as production and performance, what we’ve heard so far has been exciting, if not unexpected. “The Devil is a Lie” features a perfunctory Jay Z performance, but the track from Major Seven is the star here. Saxophones and tom-tom drums signal that the King and the Bawse have arrived, and that just like Queen Bey advises, all pretenders to the throne should “bow down.” Also, while “War Ready” may be one of the most masturbatory Mike WiLL productions ever at seven-plus minutes in length, Ross and Jeezy trade bars like uppercuts between Ali and Frazier in Madison Square Garden, and we as listeners get to be the true winners.
Also, there’s the idea that Rick Ross is respected by so many artists in the industry that refuse to see him fail. Ultimately, because these artists, producers and fellow label execs are motivated by this fear of failure to exceed expectations, this album will not underwhelm. Until 2 Chainz can drop his label’s signature drop on everything from a Wale single to a remix of Lorde’s “Royals” and guarantee radio success, marketability and mainstream sustainability, then…yeah…Rick Ross is the most respected Southern emcee in Rap music in the current era. If he were to fail, then how does the genre (and Hip Hop culture, too) work around that missing hole in the game? Besides the artist formerly known as Tity Boi, YMCMB has extended past the South into a global conglomerate, Gucci’s in jail, Flocka’s making EDM, OutKast are still a question mark, Future is developing into a star and DJ Khaled corrals artists for top tier compilation albums. By default, Ross is the only boss-level dollar mover left in the South. Thus, exceeding expectations on performances for this album in particular is a must.
Omar: I’d stop short of crowning Ross the best Pop rapper below the Mason Dixon line; I think T.I. holds that crown. But I do agree with the point that additional duets with Jay Z and Kanye West guarantee Mastermind a certain amount of A-list star power. Other than enlisting cameos from Eminem, J. Cole, Kendrick or Macklemore (yeah, right), Ross has his bases covered as far as locking down features from top-selling peers. Last album brought guest appearances from Dr. Dre and Andre 3000, and I honestly think that once you get two of the more reclusive guys in Rap to appear on your album, there aren’t too many other options. I’m interested to see exactly what Sean Combs’ role will be on Mastermind. One of Hip Hop’s worst kept secrets is that Puff is sort of a producer in name only. He’ll turn a few knobs and lend your album a certain je ne sais quoi, but he’s not the guy you’ll see tapping on an MPC. Through his time under Andre Harrell at Uptown/MCA through the Biggie era at Bad Boy, Combs knows how to oversee lending a sonic quality to an album. No matter what his actual role is, the brilliant gimmick behind announcing Combs was mixing this project is that it brings all of his Ciroc drinking, Sean Jean wearing marketing cache with it. Take that. Take that.
Combs’ touch should also end Ross’ heavy reliance on the ratchet sound that powered much of Ashes To Ashes and Black Bar Mitzvah. It was nice to hop on the Lex Luger bandwagon for back-to-back hits with “MC Hammer” and “B.M.F.,” but the over-reliance on the sound via the likes of Beat Billionaire for Ross’ next few projects ran a good idea into the ground. Adding in production from Mike WiLL Made-It, B!nk, Scott Storch, Jake One and J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League should make for a nice rebound. Although, as someone who reluctantly pays attention to the numbers game, the fact that not one of the singles leaked from Mastermind has even sniffed the Billboard “Hot 100” chart is troubling. Ross’ six albums have placed 12 singles on the chart. But in terms of a pre-album hit, Mastermind is completely devoid of commercial buzz.
Is This Rick Ross’ “Make Or Break” Album?
Marcus K. Dowling: It’s absolutely Ross’ make or break release. When the Maybach Music chief is focused, his work is begrudgingly stellar. Yes, he’s an ex-correctional officer that adopted the moniker of the inventor of crack cocaine to rap about a life that he has not authentically lived. Yes, he’s a pulchritudinous human being who is similarly fat, black and possibly uglier than the Notorious B.I.G.—but lacks Biggie’s charisma in pulling off sex raps. Therefore, until the “U.O.E.N.O.” remix fiasco, we giggled at, then relented in being overly critical about his heartfelt and well-executed delusion, turning a deaf ear.
However, when Ross is unfocused, the results are absurd, just off the mark and allow his detractors to levy obvious claims against his merits (or lack thereof). When seen as more man than mythology, he’s capable of flaws, including moments like John Legend duets “Magnificent” and “Rich Forever.” As well, there are moments like “3 Kings,” “Sixteen” and “Diced Pineapples” from God Forgives, I Don’t, where he’s so thoroughly outclassed by everyone else on the record that you forget that its his own. Then there’s the abysmal moments: that unconscious girl’s getting raped on a record, and MMG’s captain suddenly isn’t wearing Reebok in the streets anymore.
If Rick Ross wants to be Tony Montana, it’s time to stop letting Manolo and his own ignorance steal the scenes. Coming out with a nose, mouth and face full of cocaine and both guns blazing is Rick Ross’ only solution at this point. If he doesn’t, the fact that he’s less myth than man becomes a liability, and thus Ross becomes an “also ran” and “almost was” don of Rap music.
Omar Burgess: Yes. Ross has pulled off the damn near impossible by surviving at least three massive public relations gaffes. Being outed as a former correctional officer would have spelled the end of a Rap career during the early-to-mid ‘90s. Just ask Boss. But the multitude of Big Boss Man and Officer Ross memes died when Rozay popped up with yet another #1 debut. Ross also survived a short-lived yet hilarious feud with 50 Cent that saw the latter take the mother of his child on a shopping spree and offer her a book deal. In hindsight, it was a rather juvenile clash both men should have low key been ashamed of.
Through it all, Ross was able to survive by constantly churning out popular songs and albums which continued to impact the charts. Despite being certified as a gold-seller by the RIAA, that largely ended with God Forgives, I Don’t. Add in the blemish of pissing off women everywhere with a perceived date rape reference and totally dropping the ball on apologizing for said reference, and there wasn’t much left on which to fall. I still don’t think Hip Hop has collectively wrapped its head around the fact that the vast majority of Ross’ persona appears fabricated, and a large amount of fans and his peers don’t seem to care. That’s either a modern miracle or a simultaneously depressing and enlightening statement about how Hip Hop views authenticity.
So if the quality of the music is diminished (see the last two Self Made compilations), the coveted female demographic thinks Ross wants to slip a Molly in their champagne, and the real gangsters are sending real bullets in his direction, who does that leave to buy the next Rick Ross album? Marinate on that one for a minute. A man can only survive a finite amount of PR disasters. Those have largely been avoided this time around, but in terms of the actual music, I think Rick Ross can ill afford to release a subpar project.
What Do You Expect From “Mastermind” As A Listener?
Marcus K. Dowling: For as much buzz as has been given to every single artist that has put out an album in the past four years since Ross’ Teflon Don, it’s entirely possible that only Drake and Kendrick Lamar have met and exceeded their superstar hype. However, in doing so by releasing albums crafted in a conceptual manner that mainstream Rap hasn’t seen in arguably 20 years, they have circumnavigated an established Rap system. Above average young people tell me how they feel. There’s more to Rap than that, and I expect Rick Ross to balance the scales insofar as expectations of greatness in Rap music.
Rick Ross is going to release a hard-ass Gangster Rap album that won’t involve well-meaning young men tell me how they are feeling. Ideally, on Mastermind, the following will occur:
- Bitches getting fucked on expensive rugs (and tiptoeing along Ross’ marble floors back to their boyfriends)
- Ni**as getting killed over failed drug deals
- Wack rappers will get ethered for not stacking paper like the “bawse”
- Gleaming gold statues of Rozay the Legendary will be erected at the Port of Miami
In these moments being showcased with rhymes painting vivid and panoramic vistas on pristine and earworming sonic canvases. I expect Mastermind to be the Rick Ross album to win me back as a fan.
Omar Burgess: I totally agree. As Devin Friedman pointed out in his 2011 GQ profile of Ross, Rick Ross is successfully selling the gangsta fantasy on wax. Anything less is just uninteresting.
“Trying to get me to take you seriously as a former drug dealer (which he does, at several points in our time together) is, at this point, boring,” Friedman wrote. “Whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter.”
I expect some truly epic production, some rhymes that vacillate between pedestrian and pretty damn good and what amounts to a 36-hour bender of playing Grand Theft Auto translated to audio form. Rick Ross’ greatest asset is arguably his ear for beats, with his networking abilities ranking a close second. So he might do some paint-by-numbers shit like rhyme “clean” with “clean,” but you’ll also get some bars from Jay, Kanye and what we can only hope is a version of Lil Wayne that isn’t solely interested in rapping about busting off his gun and his penis.
But at this point, I’m not even sure if it matters. The marketing machine has been moving since the fourth quarter of 2013, and I expect another #1 album. We can debate about the quality of the actual music until our faces are as blue as the one in Rick Ross’ Rolex. This thing is happening.
Marcus Dowling is a veteran Washington, DC-based writer who has contributed to a plethora of online and print magazines and newspapers over the past fifteen years. Follow him on Twitter at @marcuskdowling.
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @omarburgess.