NEW YORK — Aside from being a top MC, Rick Ross is a passionate hip-hop fan, with a keen sense of history. So while it probably wasn't deliberate that his star-studded Tuesday night listening session for his upcoming Mastermind LP looked like a scene from the Fugees' "Killing Me Softly" video — it was definitely fitting.
Hip-hop heavyweights including DJ Khaled, Meek Mill, Fabolous, Swizz Beatz and Busta Rhymes gathered inside New World Stages, an off-Broadway theater in New York where people used to flock to watch discount movies in the late-1990s.
Fans, industry notables and rap stars filled the rows with drinks in hand, mingling, laughing and playing catch-up — much like Lauryn Hill, Wyclef and Pras did back in 1996 for their classic video, which featured '90s acts like De La Soul, the Outsiderz and Fat Man Scoop.
All focus shifted to the large screen though once Khaled took the stage to deliver a message to all press in attendance. "This is a motherf--kin' classic," he said, asking with signature hype to be quoted verbatim.
Ross than briefly addressed the crowd, before the lights went low and the booming thump of "Rich Is Gangsta" played through the speakers. At the same time, images of successful entertainers and entrepreneurs like Jay Z, Beyoncé, Oprah Winfrey and late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs flashed across the screen.
For each track from Mastermind, officially dropping March 4, Rozay's team curated a customized reel of potent still images meant to accentuate the music. "Drug Dealer's Dream" was paired with an overwhelming amount of jail imagery. For one very long moment, a shot of a feces-filled toilet bowl flashed on the screen as Ross rapped of the pitfalls of the streets.
The Notorious B.I.G. was honored both sonically and visually on "Nobody," which is Ross' take on Christopher Wallace's eerie 1997 track "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)." Rozay starts the song with an audio mash-up of various news reports surrounding the January 2013 drive-by shooting that targeted Ross.
From there, Diddy gives a foul-mouthed motivation speech about steering clear of haters, before French Montana sings the haunting hook that Biggie made famous. All the while, classic images of B.I.G. flickered on- and offscreen, drawing resounding applause from the crowd by the song's end. Judging by the reaction, "Nobody" was s clear favorite.
There were several other musical highlights, however, including the Big Sean and Kanye West-assisted "Sanctified." On the gospel-laced track, Yeezy laughs at the public perception that he's too aggressive. The Weeknd shows up as a guest and producer on the hypnotic "In Vein" and Lil Wayne helps out on "Thug Cry," a remarkable closer that flips a sample of Billy Cobham's 1974 track "Heather" (the same song that Souls of Mischief made famous on their classic single "93 'Til Infinity").
It's impossible to determine where Mastermind stacks up against Ross' other LPs after just one listen. But the album is definitely in the conversation with other unforgettable Boss albums like Deeper Than Rap, Teflon Don and God Forgives, I Don't. Mastermind boasts grandiose musical presentation and cinematic story lines, but ranking it will take some time, even if Khaled instantly dubbed it a classic.
The crowd filed out of the theater to the sounds of "Blessing in Disguise," a bonus track on the album's deluxe edition that features Houston rap legends Scarface and Z-Ro. At the end of the session, both industry folk and fans filled the venue's hallway, mostly buzzing that the Bawse had done it again.