Heavy is the head that wears the crown: Since 2006, the rapper Rick Ross has catapulted to the upper echelons of hip-hop with streetwise rhymes, an uncanny grunt and a braggadocio fit for a mafia Don. The self-dubbed “Bawse,” Ross oversees Maybach Music Group, an incubator for successful rappers like Meek Mill and Wale; he also recently inked a management deal with former Warner Music Group honcho Lyor Cohen, an industry legend.
And yet, success hasn’t come without setbacks: In 2008, leaked documents showed that Ross served 18 months as a correctional officer in his native Miami — casting doubt on his above-the-law persona — and in 2011, he suffered multiple seizures while flying to an event. Last year, he was attacked in a drive-by shooting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where 18 bullets were fired at his Rolls-Royce; somehow, he left unscathed. Later that year, Reebok dropped the rapper as a spokesperson after a maelstrom of bad publicity over his song “U.O.E.N.O.” which contained a lyric that was widely interpreted as pro-rape. (Ross later publicly apologized: "To every woman that has felt the sting of abuse, I apologize," he wrote in a statement.)
But the shadow of controversy and murder attempts haven’t rattled Rick Ross. As he gears up for the release of his sixth studio album Mastermind (out now on Def Jam Records), the 38-year-old is ready for war and putting the past behind him; Mastermind features hip-hop A-listers like Jay Z, Kanye West and Lil Wayne.
His sleepy eyes partially obscured by designer sunglasses, Ross spoke to TIME from Jay Z’s 40/40 Club in New York about being rap’s pervasive — yet elusive — self-proclaimed boss.
TIME: As you release your sixth studio album, you’ve already reached many rap career milestones. Are you still inspired?
Of course. I’ve been listening to hip-hop my whole life. I just ran out on stage with Jay Z in Miami on the Magna Carta Holy Grail tour. 75,000 of my people in my city. I’m a mile-and-a-half away from the house that I grew up in. It’s getting better and better.
One of the most surprising songs on Mastermind is “War Ready,” which finds you reconciling with long-time rival Young Jeezy. What prompted that?
It was me and Jeezy running into each other. It was one of those moments when his crew was on one side of the door and mine was on the other side of the door. I don’t want to disclose that location yet. I wasn’t expecting it, but when we saw each other, we clarified all the misunderstandings and miscommunications. At the end of the day, I never had a problem with him and it was vice versa. We never lost money together. Nobody ever got hurt. It was just a lot of talk. We said, “Let’s do it for the game. The culture is bigger than us.”
You’ve always embodied a more business-savvy mentality than many of your peers. How are you able to overcome things like ego when making a decision like ending a feud?
It takes a great man to go to war but an even greater man to make peace. At the end of the day, we got to do what’s best for the team, for the culture, for the streets. It’s bigger than us. Me and him never had personal problems.
Your song “Nobody” is inspired by the late Notorious B.I.G.’s “You’re Nobody (‘Til Somebody Kills You).” Do you see parallels in his message and your life?
I felt it was parallel with a lot of different things. That’s real life. Where I come from in Miami, that’s real life before hip-hop. It’s me being the figure I am and the position I’m in. It’s a reality.
Do you wish it could be different?
Not at all. If you want it to be different, you stop. Move to Paris. I want to do this.
Mastermind has a lot of religious imagery and symbolism. Is this reflective of your mentality right now?
There is a lot of religious imagery because religious images are the most powerful images. I’m at a time right now where there are a lot of energies around me and I have to make sure to make good decisions.
Are you a religious person?
God is great. Most definitely.
The deluxe album art for Mastermind was created by controversial pop artist Mr. Brainwash [of Exit Through the Gift Shop fame]. How did you link with him?
I’m a fan of art. I might have got a piece or two at Art Basel. That’s one of the homies. I forgot where we met. I go over to his studio, smoke, let beats play sometimes. He has a huge studio. I let Brainwash get on the mic one night. He was on the mic for three hours, just saying different things. His whole slogan is “Life is beautiful,” so he was saying some powerful things. I love it. If it ain’t controversial, what is it?
Will that song ever come out?
It may. He wants to put it out. He has a vision and he has a lot of powerful quotes. The same quotes he puts in his art. He wouldn’t stop for three hours. My engineer said, “I quit. I’m going to stop.” Brainwash is one of them dudes that has ideas.
You’re known for your larger-than-life persona, but you seem very guarded about your personal life. Do you feel that way?
I think people know who I am, what inspires me, what makes me happy.
Are you happy?
I mean, I’ve never been a chipper guy like that. As far as my personal life, I’m blessed.