Rick Ross is proud and warm. In a blue chinchilla jacket, black sweatshirt and a Saint Laurent belt hoisting up his jeans, he sits at the head of the table in a conference room in Def Jam’s New York offices, thanking his label for a grandiose listening session for his sixth album, “Mastermind,” the night before. A bevy of models in snug skirts, New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith, Swizz Beatz and, more randomly, Jerry Seinfeld’s wife Jessica were among the attendees at the party, held at Manhattan’s New World Stages theater.
“Think of it as your bar mitzvah,” says Barry Weiss, chairman/CEO of Universal Music Group’s East Coast Label Group, of the soiree’s success the night before.
Ross, 38, and not Jewish, didn’t miss a beat: “L’chaim!” Laughter erupts.
But things weren’t always this celebratory for Ross and his team. “Mastermind” was supposed to be a stocking stuffer, arriving in December, as befitting a rapper with four No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200. But when Ross played the album for his peers and didn’t get the reaction he wanted, he went back to the drawing board. “He played us that version of the album last fall and it was crickets,” says someone close to the project.
The weak reaction extended to the charts — “No Games,” featuring Future, was “Mastermind”‘s lead single and only made it to No. 49 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. “The Devil Is a Lie,” featuring Jay Z, arrived in December and is No. 33, though it may get a boost following Ross’ performance of the track on “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” on Feb. 24.
Ross totally renovated “Mastermind,” now set to hit stores on March 4, in response. “It’s a different album,” Ross says later that day, sitting in yet another Def Jam office with a picturesque skyline view. “That extra two-month [delay] was out of passion. As I’m listening to my album now, every record is my favorite.” (“No Games” has been clipped from “Mastermind” altogether.)
Ross credits the album’s improvement to Sean “Diddy” Combs, who signed on as co-executive producer just two weeks before the album was submitted to Def Jam, and was heavily involved in its mixing and mastering. On each of Ross’ previous albums, mastering took about three hours. With Combs onboard, it took three days.
“It was about making the album feel warm. I just heard each snare snap. Pop! Pop! Pop!” says Ross, whipping his arm for emphasis. “I wanted it to feel mid-’90s, and who better for that than Diddy?”
Combs also appears on “Nobody,” an homage to his late protege the Notorious B.I.G.’s 1996 classic “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You).” The song, a crowd favorite at the listening party, focuses on the early morning of Jan. 28 last year in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when Ross somehow emerged unscathed after unidentified gunmen fired at least 18 bullets at his Rolls-Royce. (No suspects were ever arrested.)
“You can take that and run from it,” Ross says of the shooting, “or you can include it into your life and let it make you more passionate about who you are and what you do.”
Indeed, the album, which also features Kanye West, Lil Wayne and The Weeknd, is filled with paranoia and anger. “Looking over my shoulder,” he starts on “Mafia Music III,” featuring dancehall kings Sizzla and Mavado, “I can’t trust a soul.” He later raps that there are guns hidden under his bath towels.
“Where I come from,” says Ross, “it’s nothing to glorify. I come from Carol City. The city renamed it Miami Gardens. The streets renamed it ‘Murder Gardens.’ It’s something that I’ve witnessed my whole life. I could never accept being murdered. I feel like I would have lost in the game of chess.”
The album’s hard bent also could be fueled by a loss Ross didn’t dodge: Last April his Reebok endorsement deal was canceled over a controversial line — about slipping a woman drugs and having sex with her — on rapper Rocko’s song “U.O.E.N.O.” Ross’ eventual Twitter apology wasn’t enough. “Reebok holds our partners to a high standard, and we expect them to live up to the values of our brand,” the company wrote in a statement at the time. “Unfortunately, Rick Ross has failed to do so.”
Today, Ross’ feet rest comfortably in blue Balenciaga sneakers. But, “I’ll always be a supporter of Reebok,” he says. “That’s a forever thing.” Ross has recently Instagrammed pictures of Reebok sneakers, making some question if the brand has quietly rekindled its relationship with him. Reebok didn’t respond when asked to comment.
Besides, Ross says he has his hands full with his other businesses. He’s the head of Maybach Music Group, his label distributed through Warner. Once “Mastermind” arrives, he’ll fully support forthcoming 2014 MMG releases from Meek Mill, Wale and Omarion — all acts he has helped gain or regain the spotlight. “Watching dudes come up is one of my biggest joys,” he says proudly. “I love to see another motherf-er shine.”
He also recently purchased boxing great Evander Holyfield’s former 109-room Georgia estate for a reported $5.8 million. “It’s not even for myself,” says Ross. “I want kids to get out of Miami or New Orleans or Houston for a weekend for a camp we’re putting together.”
The doors haven’t opened yet. Like “Mastermind,” the building needs some work first. “We got to get that thang up to Ricky Rozay standards,” he says. “I don’t even want to put the price out there, but the chandeliers…” He trails off. “You know how Rozay do it. Breathtaking.”