Royce da 5'9"’s lyrical talent is so pure, it should be bottled and sold. His approach is all about craft. You can feel the pride in every punchline setup and the catharsis in every unspooled rhyme scheme.
I remember having to pick my jaw up off the floor the first time I heard him verbally slice his way through Eminem’s “Bad Meets Evil” ("Intelligence level / Is hellier than treble peakin' on speakers in the ghetto”), and it’s that same conviction that has allowed the Detroit veteran to enjoy a 16-year run as a successful solo artist, as well as one-half of both Bad Meets Evil with Eminem and PRhyme with DJ Premier and as one-fourth of the now-defunct supergroup Slaughterhouse.
For the past two years, Royce has slowly been building up to the release of his seventh solo studio album, Book of Ryan, first with his excellent 2016 solo album Layers, and more recently on PRhyme’s second eponymous project. During a recent interview with fellow DJBooth scribe Yoh, Royce referred to PRhyme 2 as his lyrical cheat day. “After working out and being on a diet, I just get to have pizza for a minute,” he explained. On Book of Ryan, he flexes his storytelling muscles more than ever before, with his bars revealing the ties between a childhood of extremes, his battle with alcoholism and his mission to be a great father.
On Book of Ryan, the most personal album of his career, Royce’s trademark lyrical gymnastics (“Caterpillar,” “Woke”) and plainspoken personal life peeks (“Amazing,” “God Speed”) are peppered across 20 tracks. Tracks like “God Speed” and lead single “Boblo Boat,” featuring a guest appearance by J. Cole, find the happy and melancholy of Royce’s past transforming into thoughtful songs with vicious flows and his increasing comfort for singing hooks. Royce also brought plenty of backup for this go-round, with recent Shady Records signee Boogie ("Dumb") and veteran songstress Marsha Ambrosious ("Outside") each turning in a solid complement to his inner thoughts.
One of the most arresting moments on the entire album is when all the bells and whistles are stripped away on “Protecting Ryan,” a skit that finds Royce reflecting in spoken word on how he owes his life and career to his brother Greggy, who gave up his freedom to save Royce from a stabbing in a park. Royce is economical with his words, which makes for a brief listen that is equal parts refreshing and devastating.
However, as nice as it is to hear Royce more comfortable baring his soul, Book of Ryan doesn’t come without a few missteps. There are quite a few punchlines that outstay their welcome or are just plain retrograde (“So many men shopping the women’s section, there ain’t no ladies left”), and on “Caterpillar,” the much-hyped return of Bad Meets Evil, we find a scorched-earth Royce (“All you niggas my little rapper babies / Y’all my children, y’all bit my shit and contracted rabies”) and the version of Eminem who's content ruining an otherwise good guest verse with a poop joke that is extended over multiple bars. And while there isn’t a moment of filler on the entire album, 20 tracks is still a lot to stomach for a story as intense as this one.
Book of Ryan is Ryan Daniel Montgomery as we’ve never heard him before on record: completely raw and fully confessional. This is the homecoming that Royce has been impatiently waiting for after a decade-plus of sharpening his sword and six years after finding sobriety.
In his quest for the crown, Royce has found himself.
Three Standout Tracks
A sputtering breakbeat and wailing sirens from DJ Khalil soundtrack Royce’s father’s struggle with cocaine. Listeners are lead by the nose as Royce finds a baggie in the car after school. “I'm an addict who inherited your pain,” he wonders aloud. Royce’s singing voice is smooth and rich, a fitting backdrop for his father’s eventual entrance to rehab.
“Power (Book of Ryan)”
Royce and his father may have patched things up, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t moments of complete helplessness on the way there. “Power” is a six-minute epic about two holidays marked by fake Timberlands, a ruined turkey and two horrifying acts of domestic violence against Royce’s mother and brother at his father’s hands. Royce beautifully weaves a bounty of small details, flowing over Boi-1da's sharp piano and getting choked up in ways that made my heart hurt. It’s a spell-binding bit of storytelling.
When someone spends so much time making sure everyone around them is doing well, who’s checking in on the strong friend? Royce’s attempts to keep everyone in his circle happy while dealing with his home life had him talking to his bottle of Patron and even calling out longtime friends Denaun Porter and Eminem. This song is an explosive reminder that the shoulder you’re crying on may have a few tears of their own to shed.