Hearing “The Devil Is A Lie” and “War Ready” ahead of the
March 4 release of his sixth LP Mastermind, it seemed Ross would continue down that path, still invigorated enough to keep his shtick from calcifying. But it turns out those were outliers, and Mastermind instead relies on more monolithic beats (how many triumphant horns can this dude use?) and Watch The Throne: For Dummies lyrics. His larger-than-life persona and sound is becoming tired and tacky; a catalog that started as amusingly overblown is quickly beginning to look like one of those yards littered with a bunch of Greek statues.
The first sign of distress is “Rich Is Gangsta,” which sounds like any other “the king has arrived” song from any other Rick Ross album. Likewise, the best way to describe cuts like “Drug Dealers Dream,” “What A Shame” and “Walkin’ On Air” is just “standard Rozay fare.” But where his old thudders succeeded due to pure heft and chutzpah, these are flaccid re-creations of those lunkheaded highs. The drums are uncharacteristically thin throughout the album, the war cries ring hollow (with the exception of the aaarghs on “Drug Dealers Dream”… but again, it’s problematic if “aaargh” is the most evocative lyric on your album).
Even when he goes outside his own catalog to do some recycling, it falls flat. Other than French Montana‘s prodigious use of “haahn,” ”What A Shame” is notable because it leeches off both a Wu-Tang Clan hook and a Camp Lo hook. Then there’s “Thug Cry,” which employs the same sample that was used on Souls Of Mischief‘s classic “93 Til Infinity”, but in the post-808s and post-Drake landscape, it’s nothing more than a token sad song. And, of course, “Nobody” is a wholesale lifting of Notorious B.I.G.‘s “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You).”
When J. Cole bites, it feels like he’s doing it out of reverence — and at least he’s a great technical MC. With Ross on Mastermind, there’s the feel of calculated laziness, like he’s trying to game the system. In fact, he basically admits as much! On “Intro,” a Napoleon Hill soundbite about the “mastermind” idea sums up this whole album: “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.” Ross followed this blueprint, resulting in regurgitated simulacra.
Thankfully, for a few songs, the album lives up to its title. The trifecta of “The Devil Is A Lie”-”Mafia Music III”-”War Ready” is one of the strongest stretches of any of his albums. You know “Devil” by this point, a roaring, catchy stomper with Jay Z and Ross barely containing their grins as they trade boasts. That’s followed by “Mafia Music III,” its dub reggae arrangement (with extended outro) serving as a real moment of musical adventurism for Ross. And “War Ready” is a brilliantly ominous banger, with Mike WiLL Made It‘s swirling, apocalyptic soundscape underpinning Ross and Jeezy‘s bellowing aggression. (And yes, there’s even a bit of co-opting on this one, as Ross enlists Tracy T‘s manic yelps to channel that ubiquitous Migos flow.)
The album peaks again with “Sanctified,” as Kanye West and Big Sean deliver gleeful verses over a heavenly beacon of a beat produced by West and DJ Mustard. By my count that’s four legitimately good, even great songs. Unfortunately, they’re surrounded by such uninspired bluster that I have to wonder if we’ve stumbled upon butt-rock’s hip-hop counterpart. Butt-rock is one of those “you know it when you hear it” things (think Nickelback, Staind, Imagine Dragons and the like), but generally it is defined by a corporatized, faux aggro, risk-averse and, most importantly, completely derivative sound. All of those things describe Mastermind‘s low points.
Like every post-grunge band that put a clunky Eddie Vedder impersonator over some distorted power chords, Mastermind has the hallmarks of its genre’s best output but none of the individuality, all the trappings of an Important release but almost none of the execution. On Mastermind, Ross is absolutely uninterested in moving the needle, and that’s the most damning aspect of all. That is what makes it butt-rap.
Idolator Score: 2.5/5
— Carl Williott