We cannot presume that Rick Ross is a mastermind, a genius or even sober. We cannot attest to his level of education, his employment history, or his net-worth. We have no idea where he came from: he claims to be Mohammed, the son of Moses, and the reincarnation of Haile Selassie. But, as he tells us on his latest album: none of that matters.
Rick Ross burst onto the charts with 2006’s “Hustlin’” with a crudely colored background as a cocaine dealer from the streets of Miami-Dade, but it was revealed that he spent several years on the other side of the law as a corrections officer—a potentially career-ending discovery in a genre that values authenticity as much as hip-hop. Instead of fading away, Ross turned his cocaine-dealer character into an aesthetic that is beyond being taken seriously, and it seemed to come through sheer force of will. This came to a head on 2010’s “B. M. F.,” on which he shouts “I think I’m Big Meech, Larry Hoover” over the I-don’t-give-a-fuck production of Lex Luger’s churning synths and rattling high-hats, aware of the incongruity of his past and rap persona and giving it the middle finger.
Rick Ross’s latest album, Mastermind, is a feverish and often incoherent romp through religious references, ringing gunshots, and crack-dealing boasts. At the beginning, it powers through several bangers—the triumphant “Rich is Gangsta,” the boisterous “Drug Dealer’s Dream,” and one of the best songs on the album, partly because Ross sounds like he is genuinely afraid of Mephistopheles but mostly because of Jay-Z’s unbeatable swagger, “The Devil is a Lie.” The incoherence, however, takes its toll, and after “War Ready” (if Jeezy’s verse came on while you were driving, you’d be obligated to accelerate), the tempo begins to lag and Ross’s rhymes about fast-food and murder slow to a molasses-like pace. On “BLK & WHT,” Ross’s humming about life in the drug trade is as predictable as it is lackluster. “In Vein,” which features The Weeknd, feels like a cheap appeal to the largely indie-listening public that sometimes dabbles in hip-hop. Ross’s contributions to the track are limited, and the song suffers for it. The lush “Sanctified,” which has majestic production fit for the defiant stragglers of a post-apocalyptic rave marching through a cathedral, begins with an incredible soul introduction by Betty Wright that includes the words “I’ve been born again/ In his spirit, and his name, I’m sanctified.” While this introduction is about a religious awakening, the verses detail vast material wealth and the song equates Ross’s rise to power with spiritual rebirth and organized religion itself—despite his alleged impious origins in cocaine trafficking. “Walkin’ on Air” too is littered with religious references, and at times, feels like an excuse to put Maybach Music Group label-mate Meek Mill on the album. Ross compares himself to Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie—who some claim to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. In a four bar span, Ross just names books (Leviticus, Exodus, etc.) and compares his fashion sense to that of John the Baptist.
Ross blesses most tracks with ostentatious metaphors that often border on the absurd. He raps about a rich, imprisoned friend installing a wireless router in his cell and skyping to watch Ross count money, compares himself to a fresh version of criminally insane cult leader David Koresh, and brings a small armory with him to the shower. Rick Ross knows that he is funny. “Just joking,” he prefaces slyly at the start of “Supreme,” which itself is a musical joke, with a two-chord horn arrangement that takes a swanky, over-the-top jazzy melody and chops it up alongside a rumbling bassline. “My sense of humor is like one of a kind.” Between the religious babblings and crime references, Ross shows sprouts of self-awareness, like when he raps “barely fit in a lambo, but I did it for the appearance.” On Mastermind, appearance is everything. Ross traffics in image and atmosphere, not wordplay.
The album’s pivotal moment is not a song but a skit that runs for a full three minutes. Titled “Dope Bitch,” the skit features two young women bragging about their wealth and clothing to a strangely and suspiciously sedate, unidentified man. During the skit, Ross allows the reality he constructs to unravel. It begins with standard contemporary rap fare—an enumeration of outrageous baubles. “I love a Daytona rose gold Rolex, the back face, a good Fendi fur, some Tom Ford thigh high’s and a crocodile Birkin,” a woman breathily confesses. As the skit progresses, it grows increasingly absurd. “You wanna know what basic bitches do?” The other young woman asks. “They wash their hair with shampoo. You know what we wash our hair with? I wash my hair with fucking champagne, baby.” The absurdity crescendos. “I bathe in Belaire Rosé. I have people wash me in Belaire Rosé.” And then reality shatters. The seams of the production fall out and the sketch reveals its constructed-ness. The women drop their act and seemingly ask the recording team, “Was that good? How was that? Ugh.” The sound of a door swinging shut plays just as one of the women utters the closing line, “but there really is a lot of money on the floor.”
What Ross means is real and what is not is unclear; it is not clear that even Ross himself knows. There are a number of instances on the album in which Ross quotes his net worth as wildly different figures. “Drug Dealers Dream” begins with a recording of an automated bank teller reading a $90 million balance, but elsewhere on the album, Ross estimates his worth at $100 million, $60 million, and $70 million just 30 seconds later. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, though. He’s fucking rich.
Still, “Dope Bitch” is also a brief moment of self-awareness on Mastermind. It exposes the absurdity of the Ross’s opulence by taking to its impractical extreme and having it come out of the mouth of a non-rapper. In this unexpected and staged context, Ross appears to acknowledge that his braggadocio may be a show. But it might not be.
On “The Devil is a Lie,” Jay-Z begins his verse with “is it truth or it’s fiction, is it truth or it’s fiction.” This question undergirds all of Mastermind. Ross’s ambiguous personal history and alleged time as a corrections officer has, in the minds of rap purists, soiled his credibility. But as Ross makes clear with the opening sample of the album, the answer to the question “is it truth or its fiction” does not really matter. The first phrases of the album are quotes from Napoleon Hill, the pioneer of the personal-success and self-help-get-rich genre. “First of all, it is the principle through which you may borrow and use the education, the experience, the influence and perhaps the capital of other people in carrying out your own plans in life,” says Hill in the sample presumably taken from one of his lectures. “It is the principle through which you can accomplish in one year more than you could accomplish without it in the lifetime.” Rick Ross, whether conscious or not, is an amalgam of different narratives and as a narrator he is unreliable. As listeners, we do not know which personas to take seriously and which to disregard. But should we concerned about authenticity? “Nah, I’m just fucking with you,” Ross raps at the start of “Supreme.”
Whether conscious or not, the way Ross plays with questions of authenticity and realness (is he Rick Ross the drug kingpin or a corrections officer and how do we differentiate between the two?) brings attention to how image and brand are designed by record labels and studios. Rick Ross exposes what we all know about contemporary rap and the recording industry in general: everything is produced, fabricated, intentionally designed and and specifically tailored. When we hear Rick Ross’s absurd lyrics, it enables us to look at other rappers and see the industry sutures on their image. Pitchfork criticized Ross for slipping from character to caricature, but that misses the point entirely. Character is meant to be believable, it’s meant to seem real—and that’s not what Rick Ross is about. Ross is about caricature, taking hackneyed hip-hop tropes and driving them to the utmost extreme. And while there is something about Mastermind as a collage of clichés taken to their limits that shows a self-awareness other reviewers underestimate, it is impossible ascertain the extent to which Rick Ross is aware of his own ridiculousness.
At the same time, Ross appears to acknowledge the need for authenticity, and Mastermind features two tracks that shamelessly channel ‘90s hip-hop legends—if not their real-life street credibility, then the enduring quality of their music. “Nobody” apes the production, hook, flow, and even the spoken P. Diddy interludes of The Notorious B.I.G.’s haunting, posthumous “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You).” “What a Shame,” which features French Montana, draws its hook and a sizable portion of its 2:15 running time from a 1993 Wu-Tang Clan classic “Shame on a Nigga.” These somewhat derivative songs serve to awkwardly insert Ross into hip-hop’s history as a great, but often remind us that we’re only listening to an imitation of great hip-hop. Mastermind debuted at number one on the Billboard 200—a notable accomplishment for a man whose artistic signature is an onomatopoeic “ughn.” While it shows both self-awareness and worrying confusion, comical absurdity and serious swagger, Mastermind is best summed up as Rick Ross grunting sweet nothings in your ear.