Think of Rick Ross' catalogue as a resounding march from Port of Miami to "B.M.F.," the 808s popping deeper at each successive turn. A progression from the screwed hooks and beachside conspiracy bluffs of Ross' debut to black-glove mafia menace, all culminating in his last studio album, God Forgives, I Don't, an obese symphony including all possible instruments, features, ad libs, boasts—making for a sometimes indigestible buffet.
Thankfully, Mastermind loosens the belt a few notches.
In the sense that 2009's Deeper Than Rap marked Ross’ shift into cinematic, charismatic storytelling, and widescreen appeal as a persona, Mastermind is Deeper’s rightful sequel. From jacking the synth flood of Brian De Palma's Tony Montana soundtrack to launching its first act through alternating Caribbean sunshine and .38 caliber hail. Traces of Trick Daddy and Young Jeezy linger—the former's influence most clearly pronounced on Mastermind's first single, "The Devil is a Lie." Yet all Ross’ flows converge in tribute to Bad Boy's new jack soul and Drake's reconciliation of banging beats with R&B deceleration.
Like all of Ross' albums, Mastermind is expansively gorgeous—a scenic blend of curbside taunts, felonious overreactions, groupie shout-outs, and orgasmic braggadocio. It's cohesive without being “concept.” Its soundscape is dynamic without being as scattershot as God Forgives…. Where that record crowded Ross out of his own project—the beats were too atypical and the features too plentiful—Mastermind brings a somewhat more understated roster—if you call Puffy and French Montana and Kanye West and Big Sean and Lil Wayne and Jeezy and The Weeknd and Mavado and Sizzla understated.
Diddy and French tag-team throughout as Mastermind's consiglieres, with Montana blues-crooning the hook to "Nobody" and lending his favorite ad lib and new money cliches to "What A Shame." As Mastermind's final guest—on "Thug Cry," the outro till infinity—Lil Wayne flips his most sober verse since the Bush administration. Jeezy outdoes both himself and Ross on "War Ready"—not that Ross seems to notice or mind as he cackles. Even the project's most gratuitous feature—Big Sean's eight bars of just-happy-to-be-here—bolsters Kanye's heathen-gospel contribution, in which Yeezus waxes raspy as Shyne.
With Ross the past always rings present. Whether he's spitting his bounciest Weezy impression over the purple Prowler brood of "BLK & WHT," or answering Puffy's Vicodin-deprived rants with a Biggie memorial flow on "Nobody," the influences are clear. Scott Storch, Puffy, Kanye, and Bink!—all doing their best to approximate the fun of a Mannie Fresh session—overwhelm the dynamite booms and trap claps favored on so many MMG projects. "The Devil Is A Lie," featuring Jay Z, and "War Ready" rank as Mastermind's biggest, most lethal beats, bookended by blues and reggae relief. The levity of a pyretic Puffy and a faded Katt Williams rounds out Mastermind's comprehensive leisure, concluding with somber Acknowledgments from our grateful host.
Hand him the Oscar, already.
As the curtains fall, Ross' fantastical resilience—woven from equal parts truth and absurdity—seems justified, earned. Hand him the Oscar, already. Consciously or not, the Mastermind has positioned himself as both Drake's older, wiser brother, and Kanye's sober cousin. That’s ambition without the galactic grandiosity of God Forgives.
At Rick Ross' zenith—embodied by 2010's Teflon Don—he thrived by obliterating beats that thumped too heavily for his skinny contemporaries, on the one hand; and by jet-skiing over piano riffs on the other—his lighter, more recreational tracks. Here he's dialed down the symphonic onslaught of his later efforts, opting for island bass strums on "Mafia Music III" and the marching brass segno of "Rich Is Gangsta." It's a graceful balance from an artist who, in recent years, could easily be accused of trying too hard, doing too much.
All of which goes to say, if you love Deeper Than Rap, then you'll fuck with this. For all of his cheeky experimentation with flows here, Ross’ Mastermind features minimal innovation of the formula that he patented five years ago. This album isn't growth, exactly, so much as a feat of pure persistence. Ross appropriates Kanye's funk and YMCMB's pop hypnotics without meaning to become them. And so, true to the album's artwork, Mastermind is a graffiti portrait of the artist as a grown-ass multi-millionaire.