Rick Ross
Maybach Music Group,Def Jam Records

The most embarrassing moment of my early twenties was getting fooled by a Rick Ross impersonator at a Starbucks in the Hamptons.

(This is the greatest truth I will ever write. Put it on my tombstone, please.)

I had been a huge fan of his music since Teflon Don came out and it was beyond odd to see him in person. I remember thinking he was shorter than I pictured him, but so is everyone and I wasn’t about to miss my chance at getting a picture with Florida’s rap kingpin. I approached, addressed him as Ricky and asked him for a picture.

Hhhyeeah, baybee” non-Rick Ross rasped, aspirated heavily and in perfect cadence.

I wasn’t the only one. There was a line. Everyone wanted a picture with non-Ross. I was so excited I left my coffee on the table.

The picture spent about 20 minutes on Facebook—up immediately and gone shortly after the first ‘Not Ross’ comment.

After that, I fell off a bit with his music just because it brought that memory right back. Plus God Forgives, I Don’t didn’t really do it for me at its release.

Between then and now, it felt like he was slipping toward being a punchline more than a rapper. The seizure, his affiliation with Wingstop, the drive-by, his beef with the Gangster Disciples, his willingness to take his shirt off (noooooooo) and the rest was comedy to a lot of people.

What got lost in all that is that Ross can rap his ass off and has an amazing talent for picking beats—both abundantly clear on his new album, Mastermind.

The first six or seven tracks on Mastermind are vintage Ross. His verses are slow but deliberate, especially on the track Drug Dealer’s Dream, which starts with grandiose horns and a string section plucking before Ross jumps on the track and raps about the hardships of being a drug dealer mixed with the opulence that comes with it. Having the horns and strings over a consistent and heavy beat is a nice touch and mixes well with his verses.

He continues into the same theme on Nobody, a track that Diddy produced. French Montana provides a nice hook that makes you consider the futility of the lifestyle that Ross leads—being nobody until somebody kills you.

The next track is The Devil is a Lie, the first single off of Mastermind featuring Jay Z. It’s a strong track on the album where Ross doesn’t have to deviate very far from the overriding themes of the album—drugs, money, guns and murder.

Then comes Mafia Music III, my favorite track on the album. It’s slow and has some Carribean themes to it (I’m a sucker for a good reggae horn) with an addictive guitar riff over it and features Jamaican acts Sizzla and Mavado. It’s a bombastic and slow boom-bap beat with a minimal baseline and Ross just kinda laces his verses through it, touching upon the attempts on his life and more drugs, money, guns and murder. It’s an odd mix of the paradise and hell that is Miami and the life that Ross portrays.

Ross approaches the violence against him and threats made upon his life with a pretty cavalier attitude toward those who were threatening him. War Ready, which includes a nice Jeezy feature, feels like a taunt to people who actively want him dead. He even shouts out the Gangster Disciples, who made public threats against him at his shows for name dropping Larry Hoover. It’s either amazing bravado or Rick Ross has smoothed out a few of his problems.

The rest of the album lacks the same luster as the first few tracks. BLK & WHT is a good track with an annoying hook and the his songs with The Weekend and Lil Wayne are alright. Sanctified, featuring Big Sean and Kanye West, who also produced the track, is a minute of a gospel singer followed by a beat that misses me. Do stick around to check out Scarface and Z-Ro with Ross on Blessing in Disguise. You should always make time for Scarface, who offers the only really meaningful discussion of the Zimmerman shooting, which struck me as a little odd considering that Ross is from Florida. Maybe it didn’t really mesh with what he wants to talk about? I don’t get it, but that’s on me.

There was one other thing that stuck with me, the intro (yeah, I’m gonna be that guy who talks about the intro to a rap album). Ross takes clips from his old songs and meshes them together before he puts in a clip of Napoleon Hill, a motivational speaker, who talks about what being a mastermind is about. Here’s the part that stuck with me.

“First of all, it is the principal 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. It is the principle through which you can accomplish in one year more than you could accomplish without it in the lifetime if you depend entirely upon your own efforts for success.”

Yeah. That’s kinda tricky, Ricky. People who have a problem with Ross have pointed to him using names and experience of other people to increase his gangster image. What’s really weird is that those problems have given Ross more of a gangster image in itself. So, following the Rick Ross path to success, it goes like this: namedrop gangsters, get into beef with gangsters, get shot at by alleged gangsters, rap about getting shot at by alleged gangsters. Do with that what you want with that, but that Hill sample exposes a problem that people have with Ross, that they don’t know what’s real and what’s hyperbole.

Overall, this album is his best since Teflon Don. It might have been as strong had Ross trimmed a few of the lesser tracks, and I could have done without the hundred million M-M-M-M-M-Maybach Music drops and gunshots in what feels like almost every song. But this is an album worth a few listens.