2. Rich Is Gangsta
3. Drug Dealers Dream
4. Shots Fired
5. Nobody [feat. French Montana and Diddy]
6. The Devil Is A Lie [feat. Jay Z]
7. Mafia Music III [feat. Sizzla and Mavado]
8. War Ready [feat. Jeezy]
9. What a Shame [feat. French Montana]
11. BLK & WHT
12. Dope Bitch
13. In Vein [feat. The Weeknd]
14. Sanctified [feat. Kanye West and Big Sean
15. Walkin' On Air [feat. Meek Mill]
16. Thug Cry [feat. Lil Wayne]
Running time: 1:01:47
Last week, Schoolboy Q released Oxymoron and in doing so fired the first shots in the battle to be crowned king of hip-hop in 2014. Last year was a strong year for the genre, with albums by the big-hitters shifting millions but perhaps more importantly, the quality across the genre picked up. Oxymoron was a great start to the year and following the announcement that a new Kendrick Lamar record could be dropping in 2014, the pressure is on Rick Ross to deliver with his new studio album Mastermind.
Of course, Ross isn't your conventional hip hop star, and he's had a difficult rise to the position he's in now. It emerged a few years ago that Ross worked as a correctional officers for a number of years in the 90s, and this made him an easy target for his contemporaries. An ugly beef with 50 Cent was the only thing that kept Ross' names in the news for a prolonger period, and there was debate as to whether an attempted drive-by shooting with Ross as the would-be victim was a staged incident or not. In 2014, all of that has been put behind him as Ross looks to get back to doing what he does best, making great rap music.
After a redundant spoken sampling on “Intro,” the album opens proper with “Rich Is Gangsta,” a blaring beat underpinning cinematic string and outrageous horns. But on the track, Ross sounds lackadaisical, and downright monotonous. Ross has always carefully chosen his beats and he's picked a doozie here, but he doesn't bring them same energy to the track that the beat needs. Lyrically he makes a point of quickly dismissing the beef with 50 Cent, and while it's good to hear he's moving on, would it not make more sense to not mention him at all. “Drug Dealers Dream” opens with a smooth vocal sample of a bank clerk revealing Ross has some $92 million cash lying around, and it's on this track that Ross really brings the heat and it finally feels like this album has truly begun. The beat has this cinematic scope to it, and it gives the song a really slick vibe. Ross is rapping about nothing new, but the track has such a boastful nature to it, it's hard to deny it's worth.
“Shots Fired” is a minute-long skit featuring 999 calls and news bit clips of the alleged drive-by of which Ross was the intended victim a number of years ago. This segues into the track “Nobody,” which is a re-working of Biggie's classic “You're Nobody (Until Somebody Kills You)” from the legendary Life After Death. Ross reflects on the drive-by over a beat that is barely altered from the original, French Montana provides a pretty killer chorus while Diddy rants throughout the track, and while it is a stand out on this record, it doesn't necessarily justify lifting this track from Biggie, and doesn't change the beat enough to be able to say it's paying homage. Elsewhere, Jay Z shows up on single “The Devil is a Lie,” one of the first of many instances where Ross brings in religious themes to his new record. Despite being one of the record's singles, it doesn't have much in the way of a hook and it's not Ross' best work. Personally, I enjoyed Jay's contribution but even that was far from his best work.
On Mastermind, Ross produces the third in his Mafia Music series with “Mafia Music III.” It has something of a reggae vibe to it along with some distorted guitar riffs, but the production from Bink is rather distracting. Sizzla and Mavado show up and add very little to the track, while Ross once again sounds somewhat pedestrian. Jeezy appears on single “War Ready” which features some of the best production on the record, and Jeezy provides a hot verse put a head-scratcher of a chorus and another subpar effort from Ross drags the track down massively. Jeezy was wasted here. “What a Shame” pays homage to some classic Wu-Tang Clan and French Montana nails another chorus, which makes him two for two on Mastermind, surely his best strike-rate ever? The track has one of the poorest beats one the record though, with some aimless synths and some fair monotonous drums providing the back up to one of Ross' better verses and it's clear by this point that nothing's quite coming together on Mastermind as it should.
The album picks up with the Scott Storch-produced “Supreme” which heavily relies on some marvellous horns and more streamlined synths. Ross sounds inspired on this track as well, and while it lyrically deals with the same themes of making money and having sex, it's just a smoother delivery all round both in terms of production and Ross' contribution. “BLK & WHT” continues the run of solid tracks with a catchier chorus, and on a record sorely lacking in hooks, this is a track that truly manages to stand out. The production is more laid back and it appears as though Ross has moved from a darker place into a more free-flowing area of production in the record's latter half. After another skit, The Weeknd features on “In Vein” and provides the album's strongest track. It may or may not be a coincidence that it sounds the least look a true hip hop track and more like a club-banger with vicious rapping by Ross over the top of it. It's a slow-burner of a song that sees The Weeknd command the opening verse before a floor-filling chorus. By some distance this is the most inspired song on the record and credit goes to Ross for making this bold move and The Weeknd for bringing the goods as always.
The hot streak continues with a soulful sample on “Sanctified,” before Kanye West produces a slick opening verse. Big Sean does the business on the chorus, but it's Kanye who takes the crown with one of the better guest spots on the record. The beat is well-produced, with some looped piano and massive drums making for an epic-sounding track. Not for the first time, Rick Ross is the weakest link on the track, though he does spit some fire here. “Walkin' On Air” is an otherworldly track that's packed full of energies, horns and synths and feature more of the religious imagery mentioned previously. It takes the record back to a darker place, Meek Mill gets and combines nicely with Ross for another strong take. Lil Wayne then provides one of his better verse in years on album-closer “Thug Cry,” another tack paying homage to some classic hip hop, and this time it's “93 Til Infinity.” It's a solid way to end an album of two halves, and you have to say both Ross and Wayne delivered brilliantly on this one despite working with limited lyrical themes.
Rick Ross - “Nobody [feat. French Montana and Diddy]”
The 411: As eluded to, this really is an album of two halves. From the opening track right through to “White A Shame,” there's really only a couple of highlights. Jay Z fails to deliver the goods while French Montana of all people provides some of the record's highlights. “Nobody” is the only stand out track early on and it really only makes you admire the original Biggie version all the more, but the record picks up pace later on with Kanye, The Weeknd, Lil Wayne and some killer production really turning the record around. It's hard to really give Mastermind much credit because it's arguable that Rick Ross was the element of this record that didn't deliver on a consistent basis. Sure, he spits the occasional hot verse but he's frequently outshone by some of his guests. The choice made in terms of production are mostly wise ones, if there are more than a few instances of playing it safe. When Ross does take a risk with production like on “Supreme” and “In Vein,” the gambles really pay off and we're treated to some of the record's highlights. Lyrically it leaves a lot to be desired but all in all, Mastermind is a very enjoyable listen. If not on par with the best hip hop of 2014 so far, it's definitely worth an hour of your time.