I hate the term “slept on.”
We use it so often, yet most of the time it doesn’t even apply. For example, there’s no way we could accurately call J. Cole slept on. When you sell out Madison Square Garden, an arena that holds more people than most of the cities in North Dakota, you are not slept on. Just because someone doesn't listen to Born Sinner every day or every media outlet doesn't constantly sing his praises doesn’t make Cole slept on. Conversely, and I’m guilty of it too, it’s very hard to sleep on an unknown rapper. Chances are, people aren't sleeping, they just haven't heard that artist yet because he has 20 followers and still uploads his music to Zippyshare.
It's rare, but there are some artists that can, in fact, be slept on. Say....maybe an artist who has been active in the game for 15 years and has dropped over 15 projects? Maybe an artist who has worked with the likes of Eminem, Black Thought, DJ Premier and Killer Mike and has had large-scale success as both a member of a group and as a solo artist? Maybe this same emcee has a reputation as a no-nonsense rapper, one who represents what hip-hop is all about? Maybe an artist who has released music I absolutely love, but still, I hadn't really taken the time to really dig into? Maybe this artist is Royce Da 5’9" and maybe I’ve definitely been sleeping on him.
Aside from hearing his work on my brother's copy of The Slim Shady LP that I stole when I was 11 and then later a few Slaughterhouse cuts here and there in college, Royce wasn’t really an emcee I knew too well. He was always part of something bigger, be it Em or “Move On,” and as a result I never got to know him on a personal level.
My first real in-depth introduction to Royce came on PRhyme; but what an introduction it was. I called the album the most hip-hop release of 2014 and I’d go as far to say it was also the most hip-hop album of 2015 (don’t forget about the Deluxe version), and unless Nas convinces Tupac to come back and they release a collaborative Illmatic remix project produced by Just Blaze, I’d argue it’ll be the most hip-hop album of 2016.
Since I first pressed play, PRhyme has never left my rotation, and recently in the wake of compiling the brackets for our March Madness tournament, I realized I would go to war for that fucking album. I also realized that, while it was Premo's work that originally drew me in - I am a sample nerd after all - it was Royce who really left the biggest impression.
That man has bars for days. Every kind of bar you could imagine. The kind of bars that make you laugh and the kind that give you chills. The kind I find myself rapping right along with and the kind that leave me lost; I’ve still yet to nail every line of the second verse of the album's title track. Also, can we talk about how the Detroit native goes bar for bar with Black Thought on “Wishin II”? I’ve never heard anyone keep up with a Thought guest verse. That album is absolutely amazing. So amazing, I thought I never needed to go searching elsewhere. I didn’t really want to.
I thought, what if his non Premo-produced stuff doesn’t hit as hard? What if it somehow retroactively effects how I listened to PRhyme? I didn’t want that, so I just kept listening to PRhyme, but the more I listened, the more I got to know Royce, the more I could feel a curiosity scratching the back of my brain like it was an Adrian Younge sample.
You wouldn’t know it from the ravenous conviction with which he raps, but Royce is an underdog. How could I resist an artist who is making some amazing music while stone cold sober in an era where it pays to be fucked up? He caught the holy ghost by exorcising his demons.
How could I say no to an artist who saw a close friend become one of the most popular artists of all-time (and almost lost him along the way) and turned down unlimited Dre beats? Unlimited...Dre...beats. After all that Royce is not only in the fight, he’s landing haymakers.
It is the only Royce project I know and yet I can't help but feel like PRhyme was a rebirth. Now, thankfully, I am realizing that there is so much more to this emcee than I ever imagined. It was a side of him that remained hidden amongst the barbed one liners and dizzying, elaborate descriptions that overflow on PRhyme, but with his upcoming album Layers imminent, I look forward to getting to know that side of the emcee. Thankfully, it sounds like he’ll have no trouble sharing it with me.
For me Layers will be my first venture into the world and mind of Royce and only Royce, a stage that has been set by lead single, “Tabernacle.” It's a profoundly personal song for, what I imagine will be a profoundly personal album. Never sacrificing sharp sixteens for sentimentality, Royce gives us a deeply personal effort that still manages to have the same hunger and attitude as “Underground Kings.”
He talks family, his career, and a love for Heltah Skeltah, but it’s the second verse, the last three minutes, that really moved me. Royce details December 28, 1997, a day on which he had a child, lost his grandmother, killed a show and met Eminem. By the end of the track I was left exhausted. Three minutes sounded like a lifetime. Royce turns things inward and the result is a compelling autobiography. I was a fan of his bars, a fan of PRhyme, but now I can truthfully say I am a legit fan of Royce.
Looks like I woke up just in time.