It feels like it’s been a lifetime since word leaked out that the actual backstory of William Leonard Roberts II, since we learned that his real prison-guard past couldn’t be further removed from the drug kingpin he likes to portray on record. His ability to sell that over-the-top and avowedly fake persona has been a fascinating, unprecedented success over the past five years or so, and he’s essentially rewritten the rulebook on rap authenticity just by existing and staying popular. On Mastermind, though, Ross goes to primary sources to prove his own largesse. “Drug Dealers Dream” opens with an automated bank teller letting Ross know exactly how much he has in his checking account — $92 million, give or take. I have no idea whether the phone message is genuine, but it feels like it could be genuine, and it feels, even more, like Ross wants us to know that it could be genuine. It’s not enough for him to throw a stray eight-figure number into a verse; he needs you to crosscheck its veracity. One song later, there’s another line that we know is real: Sampled news reports on a recent failed attempt on Ross’s life, with Ross already milking it for hardness points. (He does not, you’ll notice, include any news reports about suffering sleep-deprivation seizures.) The interminable “Dope Bitch Skit” is three minutes of two girls trying to one-up each other talking about how much money they have; it’s super-irritating, and you won’t listen more than once. Together, these extramusical moments begin to tell their own story, a story of a man who created a persona, sold that persona, and then spent six albums piling so much up on it that this persona finally began to sag. Because Mastermind marks the moment that Rick Ross starts to sound like a dinosaur.
To make something clear before I get any deeper into this: I’ve always enjoyed Ross’s bigger-than-life escapist cocaine-cowboy persona, and I started enjoying it a lot more once Ross’s rapping improved. (He took a gigantic leap between his second album, 2008′s Trilla, and his third, 2009′s Deeper Than Rap.) Plenty have never been able to get over Ross’s ridiculous theatricality or his groaning wheeze, and I understand that. But once you make the necessary mental adjustments, Ross has as much great music in his catalog as nearly any currently-operational A-list rapper. When Ross can invest that persona with some level of urgency and righteous wrath, he’s at his best.
Ross hit his peak with the tough, short, stripped-down 2010 album Teflon Don and with the should’ve-been-an-album 2012 mixtape Rich Forever. On those records, he found an ideal partner in the then-peaking Virginia producer Lex Luger, whose raucous seesawing gut-stomp style was ushering in a new era of thunderous anger. But Luger’s short reign is already over, and he’s entirely absent from Mastermind. Luger’s 2014 equivalent is probably the California beatmaker DJ Mustard, whose prim and spacey style isn’t exactly a perfect match for Ross’s bulldozer grunt. Mustard shows up once on Mastermind, co-producing the album highlight “Sanctified” with Kanye West. But the style on that one is way more Kanye than Mustard; it reminds me of when Kanye turned Luger’s thump into actual opera on his Jay-Z collab “H.A.M.,” adding heft but removing some of the forward push that made Luger’s style great in the first place. On “Sanctified,” the synths are spare and futuristic, but the real emphasis is on the fiery gospel-wail chorus and on the layers of orchestral drama that Kanye layers on. “Sanctified” is a fascinating track, but not really a propulsive one, and I don’t imagine Mustard will ever make a track like that again. It succeeds largely on the basis on a bugshit Kanye verse and on Ross sounding like he’s having more fun than he does on most of the rest of the album. The rest of the time, he coasts by on pure bloat, and that bloat is starting to wear itself out.
Most of the time, the musical context of Mastermind is overstuffed orchestral churn: violins, horn sections, gospel choirs, R&B singers. On “Supreme,” Ross recruits the disgraced early-’00s maximalist Scott Storch to make the sort of soggy midtempo symphony that once depressingly weighed down rap radio. “Nobody” is a straight-up remake of Biggie’s “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You),” not exactly Biggie’s best song in the first place, and Ross’s imitation of Biggie’s mobster pronouncements verges on Guerrilla Black ripoff territory. Until Meek Mill storms through “Walkin’ On Air,” it’s just Ross issuing increasingly absurd, borderline-meaningless statements (“Bob Marley blow the trumpets on the day I die”) over regal MIDI-horn flourishes. There’s nothing wrong with any of this stuff, exactly, but an hour-plus of it gets boring fast. And as rap’s focus turns toward a new generation of idiosyncratic weirdos, Mastermind starts to feel like a relic of a late-’00s moment when excess was all you really needed to get by. It’s that old Ross persona with none of the energy of his best music. And when you’re dealing with 16 tracks of kingpin claims, energy is extremely fucking important.
As a rapper, Ross is still a heavy presence. He’s capable of some truly absorbing, evocative set pieces: “I seen a rich nigga go to jail / He put wi-fi in his cell / Middle of the night, my nigga wanna Skype / I just count money for him; that shit just get him hype.” And even when he’s being risibly dumb (“Trayvon Martin, never missing my target”) or blatantly fase (“All I ever wanted was to get scrilla / And have a recording session with J Dilla”), there’s something lovable about Ross’s widescreen projections. And Mastermind does have its share of great songs. On “Mafia Music III,” the reggae firebreathers Sizzla and Mavado turn out to be a great complement to Ross comparing himself to Bill Belichik. The tempo on “The Devil Is A Lie,” just slightly elevated, somehow pushes both Ross and Jay Z into talking some of the most dizzily grand shit we’ve heard from them in recent years. On “War Ready,” Ross and old foe Jeezy bury the hatchet long enough to get old-school guttural, both putting extra bass in their voice and finding the fire-and-brimstone tone that the song needs. “War Ready” goes on for seven minutes, and the energy never flags. But if Ross can’t summon that energy on more than a few songs per album, than he may well be on the way out.