Wednesday, March 5, 2014

album review: 'mastermind' by rick ross

I have never, ever been able to understand Rick Ross' appeal.

And by this point, I probably should have an idea why this guy is famous, but for the life of me, it's not clicking. Rick Ross released his debut album in 2006 and ever since then, we've been inundated by hits from this guy, none of which have impressed me. His reported 'best' album was Teflon Don back from 2010, and if we're looking for admittedly well-produced luxury porn, I guess Rick Ross delivers, but that's not a version of escapism I find attractive or all that interesting. Maybe it's because I look at that sort of music as walking advertisement from all the brands he mentions in his songs, and sure, I get the appeal of luxury rap, but wouldn't you want a better rapper spitting those lines?

Because here's the problem: while he has gotten better, I've never thought Rick Ross as a good rapper on a technical level. What's worse is that I can't exactly look past how transparently phony elements of his persona are - sure, he's rich as all hell, I can buy into that side of his rapping, but when he talks about hustling coke or blowing away his rivals, I find it hard to buy in comparison to a guy, to take a recent example, like Schoolboy Q. At least at his peak, Rick Ross' appeal was that of the crime boss, but maybe it was a lack of charisma, his inconsistent technique, or the fact that he was frequently blown off the stage by his many, many collaborators in the Master P school of making albums, but I was always underwhelmed by the guy. Where he wanted to come across as Vito Corleone, I always saw Luco Brazzi. And when you throw insulting trash like the 'U.O.E.N.O' verse from last year onto the mix and the complete lack of stage presence appeal in the 50 Cent mold, I was just about done with Rick Ross.

But yet, he still gets positive reviews and that utterly mystifies me. And since I'm always one to give artists a chance to surprise me, I gave his newest album Mastermind a few listens. How did it turn out?

Well, it's a Rick Ross album - and after listening to this thing a few times, I'm just tempted to say 'it's not for me', stand up, and walk away. But the frustrating thing is that there are a few elements that I don't mind on this record, and I figure I'd be doing less than my due diligence to not give Rick Ross a full examination. On that note, this album isn't Rick Ross' best by a longshot, and in a broader context, it's a pretty lousy luxury rap album that brings nothing new to the table. 

Let's start with the element I did find marginally appealing: the instrumentation and production is mostly solid. The standouts from me were from The Weeknd and Kanye on their respective tracks, as they had solid melodies and a pretty slick vibe. Hell, if it wasn't for the fact Rick Ross completely missed the point on 'Nobody', I'd say that Diddy collaboration actually stood out for some real charged energy. And I'll say what I've always said about Rick Ross' production: he has a taste for opulence and good samples of jazz and soul that lends the record some character - provided this is the first Rick Ross record you've heard, because on an instrumental level, we don't get a lot of innovation. There are tracks here that are a little dirtier than normal, but nothing that really gripped me.

And the guest stars fall into the same boat. Kanye continues to have personality but is still as self-obsessed as always, Jeezy does a decent job with a gangsta verse on 'War Ready', and someone made the very smart decision to put French Montana on the hooks so the damage could be limited. The one welcome surprise for me was Jay Z, who actually talks about some interesting themes regarding how systemic racism still exists with regards to stop-and-frisk, the loss of black culture as one gets rich, and accusations of Illuminati just because he makes money. Sure, it's bookended with luxury rap, but on a record like this, I'll take the insight wherever I can get it.

Because here's where we start running into problems, in the lyrics and themes. I think by this point any hip-hop fan can tell you Rick Ross is shallow, and his records are basically a wallow in luxury porn with a heavy dose of Mafiaso and gangsta imagery. And to some extent, there's a limit to how much you can ask for out of this kind of rap. But here's my issue: I don't think anyone told Rick Ross that, and thus this album ends up taking itself way too seriously in with the reckless pursuit of wealth above everything else - and to some degree, I think that's intentional. Very early on in this record, on the second track 'Rich Is Gangsta', Rick Ross equates virtue with wealth, and with all of the religious iconography he appropriates (with very little appropriate context), he's trying to stress the point the ends justify the means, and that since he hustled hard and got rewarded, God obviously favours him. It's almost objectivist in its equation of virtue = success, no matter how you get that success.

And here's the problem: Rick Ross supposedly gets the majority of his wealth as a cocaine kingpin - except he doesn't, because there's no evidence he hustled a day in his life. And if it was just meant to be viewed as just a decadent fantasy, it could be excusable - but it's not framed like that. This is his reality, and since this album has no self-awareness whatsoever, it's a reality that Rick Ross glorifies to no end with his religious imagery. And even though he mentions the drive-by attack last year, the fact he brags about surviving it because he's just that smarter than everyone else proves he's learned nothing. What's worse is when he attempts to talk about the dire straits of poor communities in 'Mafia Music III' and blames Obamacare for not helping, he comes across with the level of insight of an average FOX anchor. Rick Ross, you opened up a song with a bank account print-out saying you have a fantastically huge amount in your bank account - wouldn't you actually be able to earn some virtue by giving back to those poor communities so they don't have to hustle hard and go through your struggle? 

Except there is no struggle here - when you listen to guys like Schoolboy Q or Danny Brown or even Jay Z, there is enough detail and grime to their stories to lend context and how they want their kids or friends in that community to not go through what they did. Rick Ross has no such insight, and it's one of the reasons it makes his Mafia fantasy such a badly told story. There's no drama to Rick Ross' story of wealth or being a gangsta, because his 'character' never suffers in the slightest and his vague attempts at existential dilemmas like on 'Thug Cry' come across as unearned. And that's before we get his Trayvon Martin comparison in 'BLK & WHT', where he tries to compare himself to the average black man by saying that they all need to stay on point and be careful - but the comparison doesn't work here because Rick Ross has described himself as a murderous drug-dealing criminal, which was about the furthest thing from Trayvon! 

And the worst part of it all is that Rick Ross ultimately doesn't redeem any of the shallower tracks with charisma or good wordplay or anything I haven't seen done on the past five Rick Ross albums. Simply put, on a technical level, he brings nothing special or all that impressive to the table, and between bad rhymes, flubbed lyrics, rhyming words with themselves, and just not being all that interesting outside of luxury porn. And considering Rick Ross repeats similar cliches track over track, I just find this album boring in the end.

Look, there's a way to make shallow material work right. Kid Ink's album My Own Way was shallow as hell, but it was well-written for what it was, it was fun and inclusive, and you didn't need a seven-figure bank account to appreciate the spirit and content of the lyrics. Rick Ross, on the other hand, seems to have bought into his own toxic myth of success - and the sad irony is that it's just not that interesting in the end. This album gets a 4/10 from me and no recommendation, even if you're a fan of Rick Ross. He's made marginally better albums than this, and outside of a few guest verses, there's nothing on this album that's worth much. Skip it.

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