“Would I still be able to rhyme?” —Royce da 5'9", “Why I Quit Drinking”
Nearly two decades into his recording career, Royce had established a reputation as one of the most respected wordsmiths ever to put pen to paper. In June 2011, he had experienced unprecedented commercial success with his uncompromising lyricism, topping the Billboard charts alongside Eminem as Bad Meets Evil.
It was daunting, then, for Royce to completely change the lifestyle and creative process that had brought him to this point in his career. This doubt was shared by his peers and fans, too. Many, including his partner in PRhyme, DJ Premier, questioned whether he’d be able to write as well as he once did.
On “Detroit vs. Everybody,” released five years ago today, on November 11, 2014, Royce put this speculation to rest. The single, made for the Shady Records compilation album SHADYXV, served as his first as a lead artist since he found sobriety. (Royce was credited alongside Eminem, Big Sean, Danny Brown, DeJ Loaf, and Trick Trick.) “It took me a few years to be able to record, but with time comes everything,” Royce shared in his Medium op-ed.
Being the first to record a verse for the Statik Selektah-produced posse cut, Royce set the bar high for his fellow writers, undoubtedly prompting them to rise to the challenge. In an interview with Billboard, Big Sean called his own verse on “Detroit Vs. Everybody” his best, to date.
Let’s analyze the verse sparking this technical marvel:
Some takeaways from Royce’s “Detroit Vs. Everybody” verse above:
- The verse is 23 bars long and contains 220 words, or 9.6 words per bar
- 151 of those 220 words are unique, or 68.6%
- 138 of those 220 words include significant rhymes, which is 62.7% or six words per bar
- With 171 significant rhymes, Royce averages 7.43 rhymes per bar
Only once you’ve mastered your craft can you confidently experiment with composition. This universal truth exists in all art forms and is especially so in the case of Royce’s rhyme structure.
Take his end rhymes. As we touched on previously, rappers tend to deliver end rhymes conventionally in multiples of two. If a line ends on a particular vowel or consonant, at least one of the preceding and/or succeeding lines should theoretically share the same sound. In Royce’s verse, however, only eight out of 23 end rhymes, or 35 percent, match up with the previous/next end rhyme. That’s a stark contrast to the conventional 100 percent.
How was Royce able to do this without sounding clunky or audibly odd? The answer lies in the way he manipulates his multis, interweaving and sandwiching them throughout the verse, which unconsciously makes you listen for the complementing multis, rather than the end rhymes. This technique is demonstrated in his second quatrain (lines five-eight):
That last multi-group, labeled 2.5, doesn’t perfectly rhyme with any other multi-group, but it’s the breadcrumb that draws attention to what is possibly the most impressive part of Royce’s verse.
“We tell flaw with heat” is the fifth and final variation of a multi he began seven lines earlier with “by the poison tree.” It’s also a combination of the “seashore if he” and “retail fraud, he’s weak” multi groupings. The former grouping excludes the l sound (tell), while the latter substitutes the ɪ sound (with) for the i sound (he’s).
Illustrated below are these five variations:
The way Royce is able to vary this scheme gradually and maintain its integrity seamlessly is awe-inspiring. Coincidentally, that adjective is just as fitting for the seventh quatrain, or more specifically:
Here, Royce figuratively threatens to shoot through his contemporary’s coupé with his two Desert Eagle pistols. But by accentuating “pair’ll shoot,” he’s able to do two things: rhyme perfectly with “air his coupé” and create the oronym (a homophone of multiple words) parachute. If we were to omit the non-rhyming syllables and focus exclusively on the rhymes, it would look like this:
Matching up 11 syllables in back-to-back lines (22 rhymes in total) while not breaking syntax, as well as having it work on multiple levels (thanks to his manipulation of sound), isn’t easy. But MCs like Royce can manipulate language like children do action figures. And, much like children with action figures, Royce takes great joy in playing with it in a way only he can.
Though he is technically the Bad half of Bad Meets Evil, Royce da 5’9” is anything but.