Miami boastmaster Rick Ross got to where he is by playing a hustler, a don, a master of outsize fantasies of golden-toilet luxury. But the seemingly untouchable king of self-invention – the man who once rapped, “The rumors turn me on, I’m masturbatin’ at the top” – uses his sixth album to attempt the near-impossible: becoming a serious artist. All the cues that point to “important rap album” are here, from a famous visual artist doing the deluxe cover art (Banksy pal Mr. Brainwash), to lush Black Album-in-the-trap beats, to a song called “Thug Cry,” to a remake of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You).” Reflective, a little nervous, full of references to feds intervening, Mastermind plays like the first Ross album that’s actually seen the last act of Scarface.
Ross certainly has the skills to pull this off: In the past eight years, he’s turned from a guy who infamously rhymed “Atlantic” with “Atlantic” to an evocative wordsmith, with lines like “Rose petals dripping on the casket/Baby boy done grew into a bastard.” The only thing he lacks is the ability to properly balance his brags with his more repentant lines (“Is this a drug dealer’s dream?/’Cause all I ever see is niggas dyin’ from disease”). Standout track “Sanctified,” for example, shines with guest singer Betty Wright’s powerful gospel rasp and Kanye West confessing his sins on a featured verse. Ross, meanwhile, ends up talking designer clothes and fellatio. Mastermind is full of moments like this: All the pieces of a game-changing rap LP are there, just a little jumbled.