“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”
Buddha coming in hot with a major key.
A few weeks ago, I confessed to sleeping on Royce da 5’9” like Snorlax on a lean binge. My bad. Though I'm definitely now woke (thanks to a plethora of stop-what-you-are-doing-and-listen-now releases), our readers have been hitting me with old Royce projects that I had to listen to. In the name of full transparency, I haven't yet acted because, as Buddha suggests, I want to focus on the here and now.
The here and now is Layers, and I didn’t need a Royce history lesson to know that heading into this album Royce was rapping on another level. The old projects will be listened to eventually, I promise, but I wanted to focus all my time, energy and enthusiasm on the red hot Royce that is upon us. That’s why I decided to wait for Layers before diving into Royce's discography head first.
Speaking of Buddha, there’s nothing more Buddhist than a 1 Listen Review. 1 Listen reviews aren’t about where an album ranks in the big picture or where it will placed in a best of the year list, it’s about living in the moment. It’s about trying to translate into words the goosebumps that a dope line or a nasty sample flip gives you the first time you hear it. It’s all about unwrapping that Christmas present and savoring those first few moments of newness. It’s about excitement, and what Royce has been bringing these first three plus months of 2016 is definitely exciting, so it just seemed right to dive in and revel in the bars.
Here we go...
1. “Tabernacle” (prod. by S1, co-prod. J. Rhodes)
I had already heard this one, in fact it was the record that really got me juiced for this project, so it’s a great place to start. A fittingly “real” introduction to Royce; it’s deeply personal and delivered with authenticity and passion. Also, I know S1 is all over this album and I personally can’t wait to hear more. S1 is one of my favorite producers. His beats are sonic landscapes. They are theatrical. I can't wait to hear how epic things will get with Royce’s non-stop bars and S1’s overwhelming production.
2. “Pray” (prod. by Mr. Porter)
Okay, here we really go. The first track of the unknown. The record starts with a child? If it’s anything like Oxymoron I’ll be flipping out in three seconds. MMMM. I love this sinister feel. Ohhhh, that small vocal chop is so dope. Haha, "Google my dick." Wow. Sweet baby Jesus this second verse. It's so crisp. Goosebumps already. I’m a sucker for hoes in yoga pants. Royce is so ruthless, then all of a sudden he drops a hilarious bar. I love that. “You sleeping on me I might come wake you to death” is my life right now. This shit is so hard that I might not be ready. I’m a production-first guy but I find myself trying to catch every bar over the beat. He may actually kill me because balancing listening to Royce rap, checking out the intricacies of the beat and typing this is brutal. Royce may actually kill me, although Death By Royce Raps doesn't sound like a bad way to go.
3. “Hard (What Was I Thinking)" (prod. by Antman)
A song called "Hard"? Huge drums already? This is gonna be amazing. Jesus this intro is huge! The momentum is building. WOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! ROYCE is singing?!?! SHIT KNOCKS!!!!!!! WOOOOO!!!!! Holy fuck I need to hear this live. Man, the Crying Jordan meme will live on forever. Seriously, this is an incredible feeling. I have goosebumps. I’m floored and he still makes me laugh? Hamilton reference? I need to see that play so bad. Very cool to hear it inspired Royce. I can definitely hear the theatrical inspiration on this album and we're only three tracks in. Wait. Is this the same song? Elephants? My Lord. I honestly don’t know how many emcees could survive over a beat this epic and yet Royce is soaring. This song is straight bars but it’s so uniquely arranged and inventive. No real hook. Elephants. Giant drums. I’m hanging on every word. Trying not to get ahead of myself (shout out to Buddha) but I can’t wait for the next twist and the next turn.
4. “Starter Coat” (prod. by Mr. Porter)
"Starter Coat"? Expecting some pure '90s rappity raps here. Man these drums are crazy. Holy shit he’s slicing up this beat. I’m trying to focus on Royce, but this is the first time the beat has drawn most of the attention from my ears. Love that cool flange sound. Perfect pacing. This second verse things calm down and I’m able to focus a bit more. I’ve been kind of flying at 10,000 feet since the beginning but now I feel like I'm settling in and ….whaaaaat? That little double time flow in the middle of the second verse? So dope. I love this jabbing flow. God damn he sounds great. This bass line. Now a chorus? Fuck. Love it.
5. “Wait” (prod. by Jake One)
JAKE ONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WHOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!! I love the way Royce always mentions other artists; Questlove here, Wale earlier. It’s cool, like an inside joke for rap nerds. Man, I love the way his flow snowballs. Each bar gains momentum and builds to something that feels so much bigger than me. I love feeling lost in raps. I'm tempted to go back and listen to this one again. Let them wait for this review, there's too many bars I need to hear. Okay fine. I’ll keep going…
6. “Shine Your Light” (Skit)
7. “Shine” (prod. by Nottz)
Is that Royce singing? This beat is real interesting. Love how it juxtaposes Royce’s gritty flow. All these productions have fit his flow perfectly but I love how this one comes in and out. This shit makes me feel like a film noir private detective doing some sleuthing. Royce on his Rap Game Wilson Chandler. The pockets he finds, hell the pockets he creates, are astounding. His flow changes up so often, he’s breaking up lines in interesting ways but never loses his rhythm. This was cool, more of a mellow track. Shine your light, Royce.
8. “Lincoln” (Skit)
Uh oh. Horns. Drums. I'm scared. I’m waiting for some drums. Oh a skit. Don’t know what’s going on but I’m loving this basseline. This is...uhhh..interesting.
9. “Real” (prod. by DJ Khalil)
I wasn’t sure about that skit, but this bounces like Tigger on a pogo stick so I’m all good. I love his cadence! Man, Royce does so many things so well. Holy shit this shit goes! FUCK! FAAAAK!!!! This might be his cleanest effort yet. Everything is hitting just like it needs to. HOLY!! DOUBLE TIME! I’m in awe. I’m trying to catch these bars but they're coming at me too quickly. I also feel like no matter how many times I listen I’ll never be able to rap along with him, which is much rarer than a rapper giving me a line to rap along with. Best effort on the album yet.
10. “Hello” (Skit)
Even his skits have top notch beats...
11. “Misses (On My Line)" (prod. by DJ Khalil)
More DJ Khalil, we all win. Man this Khalil-Royce combo is phenomenal. The track is about love but it's still just as hard as anything else. Wait….ecstasy, Patron? Maybe this ain't a love song. I get the feeling this is going to be more of a story. Yeah. I knew this was headed for trouble. This hook is nice. Short and sweet. Love this story. Uh oh. Uh...oh….. Thunder? Dial tone? Man this feels like a movie.
12. “Dope!” (prod. by DJ Pain 1)
I love the story that has been building. I just want to know what kind of Hot Pockets Lincoln eats. I've gotta believe Abe goes with ham and cheese, right? (I swear that'll make sense when you hear the album.) Speaking of cheese, this one has queso vibes. Melty and creamy but still with some flavor. Yeah, I just freestyled that comparison. Royce has me inspired. Wow. Loren Oden is great. Give the engineer a raise or a coupon for a 60 minute massage. Everything sounds so crisp and textured.
13. “America” (prod. by S1)
A song titled "America" starts with gun shots by the producer of "Power"? Yes. Please. I love the way this track is building. OHHHH the beat just dropped. And just like that it changes up again. That posthumous line was dope. I can't wait to go back and unpack this one but right now I’m all hopped up on Mountain Dew and there's too much virulent rap to really unpack, this energy is unreal. I stupidly never realized how multi-faceted Royce was as an artist. He can make you laugh, tell a story, hit with ruthless one-liners and then build something much deeper. This feels deeper than I can comprehend right now...like that alcohol line I couldn't quite catch…. I want to hear it again. What a motherfucking song. Definitely a standout.
14. “Layers” ft. Rick Ross & Pusha T (prod. by Mr. Porter)
This was released earlier but I didn't listen because I wanted to save it, I’m glad I did. Pusha’s dope, digging this verse, but really I just want to hear Royce. It’s rare, I often enjoy features, but Royce has been so good I need more of him and just him. Having Royce sandwiched between his two guests magnifies what has made me enamored with this album through 14 tracks. I'm telling y’all he caught the Holy Ghost. Ross is good, the beat is perfect, and so is Pusha, but Royce is just shining brighter.
15. “Quiet” (prod. by Mr. Porter)
Another voice? Another flow? Jesus. I literally don't know what to type. I can’t. If I'm being honest, maybe I’ve become slightly exhausted, but this one feels a little less “Wow” than the last 14 tracks. That being said my head hasn’t stopped nodding. Annnnd, just as I type that Royce picks up that flow and I’m back in. I really enjoyed this last verse. That 'blind man with Braille spikes' line jumped out at me for some reason.
16. “Gottaknow” (prod. by Mr. Porter)
OK. Two tracks left. I think I can do it. I'm exhausted but in the best way possible. Holy shit. Why wasn’t this on the new Rocky soundtrack? That baseline has that Rocky feel, no? That haunting chorus makes me want to bench a million pounds and go punch some kittens. Man. I'm trying to type but my eyes are closed trying to absorb every bar. I can't remember the last time I hung on every word like this.
17. “Off” (prod. by Mr. Porter)
I love this sample. I’ll always take a soul sample to round out an album. Royce is almost as old as Kobe? How have I been asleep for so long? I love these introspective raps. Now he’s describing a girl he’s going out with tonight? Now back to dropping knowledge about the game. Wait, a fade out? He wasn’t done! No. Don’t end. Noooooooo. Come back. Noooooooooooooooo........
I haven't had that much fun listening to an album in a long, long time. This was a heavy 1 Listen review, but I also didn’t want the experience to end. That album was so jam-packed with sounds, styles, and most of all, bars. While the skits didn't add much - I'd rather just hear nonstop music - they also didn't take away from the overall tone. PRhyme was where I first really got to know Royce and although the production here is very different I hear that same sharp, decisive emcee. But these aren’t just dope bars over soul record flips, Royce and his squad of producers (Khalil and S1 really shine) created an album that is theatrical, daring, and adventurous. Royce is right up there with Black Thought in terms of leaving me speechless. Considering Black Thought is my favorite emcee ever that's about as high praise as I can give.
In light of me now being wide awake, I thought it would be fitting to end this review with another knowledge bomb from our boy Buddha.
“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and Royce Da 5’ 9.”