"Divas 2000" Tribute to Diana Ross "Divas 2000" Tribute to Diana Ross
D'Angelo at the VH1 Men Strike Back concert at Madison Square Gardens in New York, USA on April 11, 2000.
James Devaney/WireImage

The Incantation of D'Angelo's 'Voodoo'

The soul singer's seminal masterpiece turns 20 years old, and so does its complicated legacy.

“Envision this: a lone man in a haunted room surrounded by glowing instruments. What sounds are evoked from a room where Jimi once slept? What are the rewards of those who tend to their God-given talents as they would have the Creator tend to their spirits and daily lives? What happens when the artist becomes the conjur man?”

Twenty years ago, poet Saul Williams posed this question in the liner notes for D’Angelo’s sophomore offering, Voodoo: notes that served as a listener guide while exploring the long-awaited follow up to 1995’s Brown Sugar. Voodoo is considered by most as D’Angelo’s definitive work. (In fairness, he’s only graced us with three studio albums in his 25-year career.) Upon release, the LP was widely celebrated; it landed near the top of every major year-end list for 2000, and garnered the Grammy for Best R&B Album in 2001. In the years since, living up to its name, Voodoo has become something spiritual for many – a totem of musical greatness and genius. Okayplayer declared it “neo-soul’s most salient creation,” and no doubt this month there’ll be a flood of pieces examining the project’s importance in R&B music. Indeed, D’Angelo’s debut and sophomore albums each marked turning points in R&B. The Virginia native’s first outing came two years before the phrase “neo-soul” was coined. Add Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996), Erykah Badu’s Baduizm (1997), and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), and you have the four musical horsemen of neo-soul. Baduizm inspired executive Kedar Massenberg, who also oversaw Brown Sugar, to create a descriptor that came to define a subgenre. But when Brown Sugar first hit the streets, it simply felt like an extension of the jazz and classic soul influences found in the work of D’Angelo’s future collaborators from A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots.

Five years later, Voodoo bowed at the top of a new millennium, at a time when the R&B genre was evolving and fracturing in ways that R&B and soul purists are still lamenting today (Hi, it’s me. I’m lamenting). In 1999, TLC’s Fanmail and Destiny’s Child’s Writing’s on the Wall signaled the pop-leaning, bounce and tempo-driven, slickly-produced direction R&B was heading toward to maintain a presence on hip-hop dominated airwaves. Voodoo was a collective resistance, a labor of love from some of the finest artists of the era. A harkening back to musical foundations. Rolling Stone dubbed it “an ambitious record that seeks nothing less than to unstick black music from commercial considerations and leave it free to seek its muse.” Questlove wrote of the album effort shortly before release, It was a love for the dead state of black music, a love to show our idols how much they taught us. (T)his was the love movement. (A)nd this was the beginning.”

“We have come in the name of Jimi, Sly, Marvin, Stevie, all artists formerly known as spirits and all spirits formerly known as stars. We have come in the tradition of burning bushes, burning ghettos, burning splifs, and the ever-burning candles of our bedrooms and silent chambers. We have come bearing instruments and our voices: Falsetto and baritone, percussion and horns…We speak of darkness, not as ignorance, but as the unknown and the mysterious of the unseen.”  - Saul Williams

The Avengers-esque origin story of Voodoo is part of the album’s power and mythology. The project inspired the formation of the Soulquarians collective, a superhero music taskforce that began with D’Angelo, Questlove, J. Dilla and James Poyser (all Aquarians), taking over the long-dormant Electric Lady Studios – former studio home of Jimi Hendrix – to create something new and real. The crew expanded as Common and Erykah also camped out at Electric Lady to work on their upcoming projects, and other collaborators including Q-Tip and Raphael Saadiq fell through in regular rotation. Quest, D and camp went full music nerd, using the studio’s vintage equipment and keeping everything as organic and analog as possible to create a retro energy and sound. They studied old performances of Prince, Stevie Wonder and other Yodas -  their name for the masters - obsessively, channeling the spirits of their heroes. Voodoo was the start of a legacy.

Famed music critic Robert Christgau said Voodoo is “widely regarded as the greatest R&B album of the post-Prince era.” And it is…but are we puttin’ too much on it? I do believe D’s lack of visibility and minimal output since Voodoo adds a preciousness to the album (not unlike Miseducation, which might be discussed differently if there was more work to talk about).  But also, Voodoo is not an R&B album; it’s some unnamed sh*t (calling it neo-soul is reductive) that the Soulquarians pioneered and mastered. You can’t approach it casually; you’re not gonna just throw this joint on while cleaning the house. Quest additionally said of Voodoo in his (admittedly biased) review, “Music lovers come under 2 umbrellas. (N)umber one: those who use it for growth and spiritual fulfillment and number two: those who use it for mere background music. (T)he thing is, this record is too extreme to play the middle of the fence. (T)his record is the litmus test that will reveal the most for your personality.”

“Here is a peer that is focused wholly on his craft and has given himself the challenge of bettering himself. I mean really, D could have come out with any ol’ follow-up album after Brown Sugar dropped so that he could double his sales “While he’s still hot.” You know, an album that sounds just like Brown Sugar, uses all the same formulas, so that audiences don’t have to think….or grow, they just keep liking the same shit. He could even sample songs that you’re already familiar with so that you don’t have to go through the “hard work” of getting used to a new melody or bass line. Y’all don’t hear me.” – Saul Williams

Voodoo is without question a superior album to Brown Sugar, technically and sonically. It takes the formula D’Angelo created in his mama’s Virginia home, blending soul, funk and a dash of hip-hop, and elevates it. Late trumpeter Roy Hargrove added jazz’s controlled chaos. J. Dilla’s beat alchemy and Premier’s deft precision rendered the few samples used almost unrecognizable. Pino Palladino contributed his legendary bass lines. Rounded out with Tip and Ray Ray, plus Quest steering the ship as co-captain along with D’Angelo – it was a soul fantasy league. Yes, Voodoo is a stronger album, but I’d argue Brown Sugar is more focused (though some would say it’s just more formulaic). It’s definitely a more accessible work. The New York Times, examining how the Soulquarians brought Voodoo together, said the process was “vague, halting, nonlinear.” Voodoo is a long jam session – literally. They approached much of the completely original material through retro engineering: long jam sessions of hero material - Prince, Curtis, etc - would evolve into a new song. You can especially pick this up in “The Line,” which feels like it was maybe going to be an interlude and just kept going, and “Chicken Grease.”

The transitions between songs can be jarring, and the songs are so gritty and raw that some give a bootleg or demo feel – undoubtedly intentional, as Questlove and D’Angelo were studying bootlegs of their faves. Rolling Stones reviewer declared the album sounded “loose and unfinished” (but worth noting that it was No. 4 on their top albums of the year list later). The highest praise for a single universally went to “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” D’Angelo’s outstanding homage to his and Questlove’s most esteemed Yoda, Prince. It’s one of the more familiar-sounding tracks, along with “Send it On,” “Feel Like Making Love” and “Left and Right,” which feel the most like Brown Sugar follow-ups.

Those aside, Voodoo is to Brown Sugar what Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly is to Good Kid m.A.A.d City in terms of expansion and departure from the sound fans originally fell in love with. Some embraced it, some couldn’t get all the way with it. I can testify firsthand that when D’Angelo brought that jam session energy to Essence Fest in 2012 to launch his first tour in over ten years, folks were less than thrilled that after waiting so long to see him on stage again, he was prioritizing the un-danceable, less melodic cuts like “Devil’s Pie” and “Chicken Grease” on the setlist, and then didn’t play the album versions of the hits so they could hit a two-step and sing along.

What Voodoo is, is grown. As hell. Not only is it not music for a casual fan, it’s not music for a casual love thing, either. Brown Sugar is adoration expressed publicly; let me tell folks how much I’m digging you. Brown Sugar is dating. You can let it rock at a kick back with a crew. Voodoo is intimate. It’s a relationship. You don’t play “How Does It Feel” or “Send it On” in a house full of people (and if you do, I have questions).

Which brings us to the gift and curse of Voodoo: D’Angelo becoming a sex symbol. The 20-year old, lip licking, possibly blunted D’Angelo was sexy in a dude-off-the-block way with his baggy jeans, Avirex coats, and timbs. But 25-year old D’Angelo took the baggy clothes off, and had cut abs, a v-line, and the bold audacity to showcase it, on the album cover and in the visual for the project’s third single…and nobody knew how to act. This is where Voodoo simultaneously goes left and becomes legend all at once. Also, why we can’t have nice things.

Twenty years ago, there were no blogs, no social media and no such thing as going viral. Music video channels still specialized in… music videos. And D’Angelo’s manager Dominique Trenier, and director Paul Hunter conceptualized a visual for “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” that The New York Times called “the most controversial video to air in years.” The clip, eventually referred to in conversation as simply “the video,” was a four and a half minute-long, single shot of D’Angelo wearing nothing but a gold chain and cornrows. And sweat. There were no shiny suits, no dancers, no fish-eye lenses. Just Michael Archer staring into our souls through the camera.

The success and notoriety of the video propelled Voodoo to a No. 1 debut on the Billboard Top 200. The plan was to break D’Angelo out of the R&B/neo-soul space to a broader audience, and it worked. Too well. By the time D launched the Voodoo tour in the Spring of 2000, the attention, grabbing, catcalling and screaming were overwhelming. As an artist, he’d put painstaking time and effort into creating the greatest piece of work possible; art that would impact hearts and minds. Spent grueling hours preparing a live show that would measure up to James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic -  and fans were just yelling incessantly for him to take his shirt off. “It feels good, actually, when I do it,” D ‘Angelo told Rolling Stone near the beginning of the tour. “But I don’t want it to turn into a thing where that’s what it’s all about. I don’t want it to turn things away from the music and what we doin’ up there…I’m not no stripper. I’m up there doin’ somethin’ I strongly believe in.”

(Shout out to Anthony Hamilton’s background vocals coming through all loud and clear)

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened, and D grew so self-conscious and uncomfortable he eventually suspended the tour three weeks early, and retreated from the public eye. Over the next several years there were multiple arrests (with bloated mugshots looking kind of like Thor when he took his hammer and went home in Endgame), at least one trip to rehab, and several tentative returns before he surprised the world with Black Messiah in December of 2014 – almost 15 years later.

“Untitled (How Does it Feel)” is still a highlight in Voodoo conversations, it still evokes immediate remarks about D’s body and sex (I’m guilty of this), and it’s still a sore spot for the artist. So much so that when he reemerged in the public eye in 2012, he and Paul Hunter insisted the video’s inspiration was D’Angelo’s grandmother’s cooking and the Holy Ghost. (Insert side-eye gif here.)

But this is the challenge of a great artist: put everything you have into the work, then give that work to the world, and by doing so relinquish control over what the world does with it. So is Voodoo the millennial answer to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme? Is it the centerpiece of the neo-soul movement? Is it the Soulquarian stone? Is it just an outstanding groove? Is it just D’Angelo in leather pants and no shirt and you really don’t care about all that other stuff? The answer, according to our original Voodoo guide, Saul Williams, depends on us.

“D’Angelo has made his choices, carefully weaving them into his character, and has courageously stepped into the void bearing these sonic offerings to be delivered to the beckoning goddess of the new age. I do not wish to overly dissect this album. It’s true dissection occurs in how it seeps into your life shapes your moments. What you were doing when you realized he was saying this or that? How it played softly in the back ground when you first saw him or her. How you kept it on repeat on that special night. You’ll see. These songs are incantations” – Saul Williams

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(L-R) Siobhan Francis, Tasha Dougé and Amneris Alvarado with piece “This Land is OUR Land” aka Justice
Photo By: Kay Hickman

In Celebration Of Juneteenth: Read 'we them people,' A New Poem By Kevin Powell

dream on

dreamer

the way Alvin Ailey

and Maya Angelou

and George Floyd

and Breonna Taylor

dreamed of

southern-baked

pilgrims

dancing and

slow marching

their sorrows

down the yellow

brick roads

of

second-line members

humming from

the heels of their dirt-kissed feet:

i wanna be ready/to put on my long white robe....

we are survivors

we are survivors

we are survivors

of people

who were free

and became slaves

of people

who were slaves

and became free

we know why the caged bird sings

we know what a redemption song brings

we them people

we the people

we are those people

who shall never forget

our ancestors all up in us as we sleep

our grandmother all up in us as we weep

because we are

native american

black irish welsh french german polish italian

jewish puerto rican mexican greek russian

dominican chinese japanese vietnamese

filipino korean arab middle eastern

we are biracial and we are multicultural

we are bicentennial and we are new millennial

we are essential and we are frontline we are everyday people and we are people everyday

we are #metoo we are #metoo we are #metoo

we are muslim christian hebrew too

we are bible torah koran atheist agnostic truer than true

we are rabbis and imams and preachers and yoruba priests

tap-dancing with buddhists and hindus and rastafarians

as the Nicholas Brothers

jump and jive and split the earth in half

while Chloe and Maud Arnold

them syncopated ladies

twist and shout and stomp and trump

hate

again—

again—

again—

yeah

still we rise still we surprise

like we got Judith Jamison’s crying solo in our eyes

every hello ain’t alone every good-bye ain’t gone

we are every tongue every nose every skin every color every face mask

we are mattered lives paint it black

we are mattered lives paint it black

we are mattered lives paint it black

we are every tattoo every piercing every drop of blood

every global flood

we are straight queer trans non-gender conforming

we are she/he/they

we are disabled abled poor rich

big people little people in between people

we are protesters pepper-sprayed with knees on our necks

we are protesters pepper-sprayed with knees on our necks

we are protesters pepper-sprayed with knees on our necks

we them people

we the people

we are those people

who will survive

these times

because we done

survived

those times

where pandemics were

trail of tears and lynchings and holocausts

where pandemics were

no hope and no vote and no freedom spoke

we them people

we the people

we are those people

while our planet gently weeps

we bob and bop

like hip-hop

across the tender bones

of those tear-stained photographs

to hand to

this generation

the next generation

those revelations

yeah

that blues suite

yeah

that peaceful dance

inside a raging tornado

we call

love

 

Saturday, June 6, 2020

5:37am

 

-

This poem is an exclusive excerpt from Kevin Powell’s new book When We Free The World, published by Apple Books. Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, civil and human rights activist, and the author of 14 books. His next will be a biography of Tupac Shakur.

Photography by Kay Hickman

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Jay Electronica backstage at Brooklyn Bowl on May 31, 2018 in New York City.
Johnny Nunez

The Curious Case Of Jay Electronica

A year before Jay Electronica’s momentous 2010 Roc Nation signing, the hoopla surrounding his mystique was nearly deafening, but online music junkies, tastemakers and refined rap connoisseurs had already been intrigued by his persona and music for some time. His grand introduction came by way of Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), a 2007 Myspace release spanning 15 minutes over the course of one track. As if the novelty of rapping over drum free selections from Jon Brion’s film score of the same title wasn’t startling enough, listeners found heavy cosigns from Erykah Badu and Just Blaze that stressed this arrival as that of a pivotal juggernaut.

The greatest press release a mildly buzzing rapper could ask for at the time, voicemails from Roc-A-Fella’s production mastermind and Jay Electronica’s one-time romantic interest made him seem larger than life, with a mind greater than anything we had previously been exposed to. Contextualizing him as a pure-hearted artist capable of becoming a savior figure, it felt like we were being introduced to an extraterrestrial superhuman from Marvel’s cinematic universe. Left with the impression that we were lucky to even know about him via their reflections, this rollout was an organic dash of marketing genius that set the upstart’s career in motion before Twitter and other technological resources advanced hip-hop careers.

Though Jay Electronica went over a decade without releasing a full-length body of work until his recent formal debut A Written Testimony, invested fans were fortunate enough to discover older material through unofficial compilations found on blogs and file-sharing services. Many of his earliest musical visions were demo quality recordings that appeared to be unfinished though sporadically impressive, considering his performances were accentuated by production from Detroit guru Denaun Porter on top of hand-chosen recognizable beats from the late J. Dilla. Paying clear homage to the likes of Jay Z, Notorious B.I.G. and Nas, Jay Elec’s command of the microphone was enough for many to believe that his novelty would manifest into something special once he settled into a groove.

With the help of his well-established benefactor Just Blaze, the two years following Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge)  made Jay Electronica one of the more widely touted and anticipated emcees since Canibus a decade prior. A deep dive into his earliest music uncovers a bit of untapped potential, but much of the work was haphazard and conceptually aimless until the earth-shattering “Exhibit A.” Initially released in conjunction with Guitar Center, the song felt like an apocalyptic harbinger that validated the praise that had been heaped upon the newcomer.

Dark and futuristic in nature, familiar followers were elated as this was a fully-realized production with improved audio quality. The song’s remix featured a latter-day Mos Def who was still sharp as ever, this collaboration bringing Jay even closer to acceptance and a place at the table with rap’s elite Jedi fold.

October 27, 2009, started the fateful chain of events that elevated Jay Electronica’s myth beyond reasonable expectations. Just Blaze premiered “Exhibit C” on Shade 45 and while it wasn’t a far stretch from the producer’s trademark sound (a classic soul loop accompanied by hyperactive drum patterns i.e. Jay-Z’s “Hovi Baby” and “Show Me What You Got”), it caught instant wildfire. Released as social media was beginning to sprout wings, the song became a moment forever etched in hip-hop’s ethos, setting a new standard and perhaps unfairly redefining how he’s been received since. Looking back, this was a perfect storm moment where preparation met opportunity, as the hook free barrage of upper echelon quasi-autobiographical rhymes (complete with mentions of encouragement from Nas and Diddy) sparked a frenzy in traditionalists already aggravated by autotune and Drake’s fusing the genre with R&B.

At a moment when the fervor surrounding him being spiked and hit a feverish peak, Jay Electronica’s next steps (or lack thereof) would throw his audience for a confounding loop while holding them entranced in the palm of his hand. Accustomed to a business model where record labels rush to capitalize on hot names and mold new stars out of clay, it became evident this was a one of a kind nomadic enigma who moved at his own pace. Unlike storied names such as Kid Hood, whose untimely passing came after impressing the world on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” remix, Jay Elec engaged the world in a tug of war between frustration and excitement making brief cameo appearances on songs or dropping a song intermittently before disappearing again. The past decade also found him in a short-lived love affair with an heiress to the UK’s upper-class Rothschild family, only adding to the culture’s confusion surrounding his mystique and every move.

Album done .

— J A Y E L E C T R O N I C A (@JayElectronica) February 7, 2020

“...my debut album featuring Hov man this is highway robbery”

— J A Y E L E C T R O N I C A (@JayElectronica) February 7, 2020

Recorded over 40 days and 40 nights, starting from Dec 26

— J A Y E L E C T R O N I C A (@JayElectronica) February 7, 2020

Releasing in 40 days

— J A Y E L E C T R O N I C A (@JayElectronica) February 7, 2020

Salivation and hunger for a full-length Jay Electronica project would spawn eventual restlessness and doubt, with his backstory remaining largely untold short of going down intricate internet rabbit holes and taking context clues from his music. Attention to detail uncovers his roots in New Orleans, residencies including Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and his steadfast devotion as a practicing follower under Louis Farrakhan’s Nation Of Islam, but the question remained: Would we ever be introduced to his fully fleshed-out visions, grounding philosophies and principles the way legends like Nas and Jay Z so expertly did with Illmatic and Reasonable Doubt? To everyone’s surprise, last month Jay Electronica exited seclusion to inform Twitter that an album had in fact been completed, this revelation even met with a bit of well-deserved skepticism.

In the short time since A Written Testimony world premiered on Instagram and Youtube via a studio session and its subsequent release to digital streaming platforms, the long-awaited release has already been met with passionate debate akin to “Ether” vs. “The Takeover” or any other topic rap passionates devote energy to. Stylistically a bridge between the influences of Five Percenter legends such as Rakim and New Orleans hometown heroes not limited to Soulja Slim, it would serve well to remember that Jay Electronica has rendered himself a magician, as his initial 2007 greetings displayed a fascination with the film The Prestige. By this logic, one could assume he initially set out to be an idea, a concept or a spectacle designed to inspire and exist outside of the conventional confines of the music industry.

With mixed reviews of his debut in mind, we’re left with new questions to consider: Did the initial hype and excitement amount to smoke and mirrors? With him still having Just Blaze’s public support, why is the album mostly made up of underdeveloped self-produced beats? Is Jay Electronica a hot business commodity and an investment for Roc Nation or is there an actual kinship with Jay-Z who guest stars throughout the effort?

Without question, Jay Electronica is one of the more complex personas we’ve come across in ages. There’s a noteworthy delivery and a sharp knack for writing in his newest verses, but the extended hesitation to develop into a polished act and deliver output suggests he may have never wanted this level of attention, to begin with. Though he remains shrouded in mystery, it’s a pretty safe bet that we’ll be watching his next act – that is, if he ever chooses to resurface in the public eye.

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Tremaine Edwards / @kardiakfilms

The Allegory Of Ryan Montgomery

The hook to Royce da 5’9”’s “Hard,” from his 2016 album Layers, has to be talked about. It’s almost like a Rosetta Stone into the current thought process that undergirds his current output. But, before that’s done, the song itself has to be taken into context. It’s pure superhero music—triumphant horn blasts and defiant autobiographical rhyme bursts with a quasi spoken-word opening verse. It’s a stylistic extension of what he had been doing for years—breaking rap bars into uneven run-on pieces with entangled and elongated metaphors and complicated punchlines that are impossible to get on the first (or fourth) listen. In the beginning, he’s back in grade school, speaking to a teacher in what’s probably a monologue courtesy of l’esprit de l’escalier. “Look around you: Do I look like anything like the rest of your class?” he asks. “Can’t you see that I’m special? I don’t act like these f***in’ crumbsnatchers. I don’t even breathe like ‘em’. I was born with my lungs collapsin’.”

It’s not pure braggadocio—on Trust The Shooter, the mixtape he released before Layers, he shared that he was born at “four-pound, dark purple, couldn’t even breathe on my own/ Shakin’ baby in the incubator, breathing machine for my lung.” He then obliquely spoke on dysfunctional families, drug addiction, a broken medical insurance system, major label disasters, the prison industrial complex, idol worship, and ADHD treatment—all within the first minute of the first song. “I learned everything I need to know at day one in the hospital.”

It was the introduction to an artistic explosion and growth spurt that may be unprecedented in the annals of hip-hop. Sure, there’s maybe another artist who has evolved in the ways that Royce has over the past half-decade—going from rapping about rapping to rapping about the ills of the world and exposing the raw nerves of his life—but it’s hard to think of one. And it’s hard to think of anyone who has the poetical focus of a member of a group as rhyme-driven as Slaughterhouse, who literally and lyrically hangs with Eminem, who doesn’t care about marketplace success so much that he constantly talks about his commercial achievements and shortcomings at almost every turn.

He begins the second verse of "Hard" bombastically: "My finest hour is here/This what I see in my prayers/ This is me, though I'm facin' all of my fears/ Making all my enemies look in the mirror/ And see the face to the Jordan meme of the Jordan face with all of the tears…" and he goes on, dropping intertwined bars about his skillset, a brush with divorce, what may or may not be physical or sexual assault on "your whore," and how the song was inspired by watching Hamilton on Broadway (a slight flex in of itself). So it almost makes sense when he breaks out into a Lin-Manuel Miranda-esque semi-song:

I said f***in’ the baddest bi**hes around wasn’t hard as I thought/ Man, what the f**k was I thinkin’? (get money)/Jewelry and cars/ Achievin’ the highest level of success ain’t as hard as I thought (top of the world)/ What the f**k was I thinkin’?/ I was drunk or I was lost/ My people said it would be hard/ My teacher said it would be hard/ What the f**k was she thinking’?/ Why did I listen to y’all?

***

The obligatory Infinity Saga analogy says that Royce is Thanos between movies; the one who acquired all the Stones—wealth (he brags about designer jeans and driving an Aston Martin), marketplace recognition (his Bad Meets Evil project with Eminem went gold and debuted a number one on the Billboard 200 a decade ago), peer respect (he's quickly replacing Black Thought as the "most underrated" rapper in spaces where those discussions take place), and whatever the other three Stones would be in this analogy. But somewhere offscreen, he realized that such things only served as temptation and he destroyed them. It's a neat analogy, but not perfect. We don’t know if Royce ever achieved what he wanted—he equates himself with Leonardo DiCaprio ("all they have on me is the awards") in a way that suggests he wouldn't mind winning a Grammy. What we know is he came close enough to those things to not want them. And, even though he compares himself to the Mad Titan on "Upside Down" from his latest album, The Allegory ("to the genre, I'm Thanos"), he’s actually Vision.

Despite his claims, Royce isn't the one who has the conviction to destroy half the universe; he's the one who used the Mind Stone properly, in ways that Marshall Ultron never imagined; the one who surpassed Dr. Dre Stark and Paul Banner’s expectations. His last two studio albums—2018's Book of Ryan and the recently released The Allegory–are all about building connections and showcasing emotional vulnerability in a way that someone as stoic as Thanos only revealed when alone with his daughter.

***

All "they" got on Royce is the awards, but if there were blind justice in this world, he would have been nominated for one for Book of Ryan. It's an album that spiritually began on a song that isn't on the album. "Tabernacle," the first song on Layers and nestled in the middle of Trust The Shooter, is the song. It's the one you play for people who don't get Royce, the one you play for people who don't listen to hip-hop because they think rap doesn't have depth, the one you listen to when you need to be inspired by the meaning of the chaos of your own life story. There's really no way to encapsulate the song without listening to it.

"Tabernacle" is the Sankofa song; the one where Royce looks back to move forward. And Book of Ryan is an astounding album-length look back at Ryan Montgomery and the Montgomery family. Full of domestic violence, humor, drugs, love, and dark and light moments in equal measure, it's a black Black comedy that is a coming to terms story masquerading as a coming of age tale. It's as if Lemonade, 4:44, and EVERYTHING IS LOVE were put into the blender of one mind and shredded by rap skills and spoken narrative. And, for good measure, there are a few songs that are about nothing but rhyming. One of them features Pusha T, Jadakiss, and Fabolous and feels like something that was erroneously leftover from a DJ's compilation; the other, "Caterpillar," featuring Eminem, could be construed as a callout against Kendrick Lamar ("remember when you praisin' the butterfly, don't you ever disrespect the f**kin' caterpillar"). "Caterpillar" isn't a dis—Royce too regularly praises Kendrick for such a thing to be taken seriously. He's also too direct in his conflict (he goes straight at Yealowolf's neck for a not fully-disclosed reason). But he's also so cut-throat that reading lines like,"Guess what I'ma never do?/ Show so much respect to you/ That I feel like we friends so now we no longer competitors/ That could be the death of you" is the kind of camaraderie as bloodsport the game needs. (But don't think too much about it. Royce's following lines—"Never let someone who's not as smart as you gas you up and tell you something that you never knew/Always stay professional"—feels like a preemptive subconscious strike against people who read too much in between the lines of rap lines.)

For the most part, Royce uses Book of Ryan to eschew well-worn rap roads and travels to the past to talk about his dad's addiction, his brother's incarceration, family outings, and his eccentric elders. The album also goes inward to talk about depression, alcoholism, and recovery. And Royce goes back to his old neighborhood to talk about his love affair with a lucky basketball signed by Isiah Thomas and buying snacks at a local store. He also talks to his son about his fears—the greatest being his shortcomings as a father and passing on his alcoholic tendencies: "You in a gene pool with a lot of sick fish/ And I’m the sickest of them all." It's hard to quantify things like "heart," and talking about them in regards to music is so subjective. But Book of Ryan is full of heart. There's really no better way to say it.

***

Royce wore a rhinestone du-rag so you don't have to. He tells you to Google it, as he does a few things on The Allegory. He's not willing to break down things for the listener all the time, but he presents the donning of the headpiece as a symbol of the sacrifices he made following commercial success early on in his career. And it makes sense. The first time I heard of Royce was while working in the Source offices from Riggs Morales, who was one of Eminem's first industry advocates (and would go on work at Paul Rosenberg's Goliath Artists amongst other industry positions). At the time, Source co-founder Jonathan Shecter was no longer with the magazine, but was running a small label called Game Recordings that released vinyl records with sexy girls on the cover. It was a bit ahead of the curve—since then, selling things hamburgers and beers via women in bikinis has become mainstream, but back then Riggs had a 12" of Bad Meets Evil that he was exceptionally fond of. Riggs had good taste in music and assured that the two emcees were amongst the best he'd ever heard. I never listened to it, but I kept it in mind.

At the time Royce released his debut, Rock City in 2002, I remembered that this was the kid Riggs was championing and listened. I was unimpressed. The lyrics were good, but the music and message felt too indistinct and trendy. And dude was running around with a rhinestone du-rag. This is why, now on "Upside Down," Royce announces: "Whoever think I'm here to make some corny-ass radio Viacom jingle got my whole diatribe tangled."

He's no longer making music for mass consumption. He's no longer after those stones.

***

A few things have to be said about The Allegory. Firstly—and this can't be understated—it's entirely produced by Royce, who wasn't making beats two years ago when he made Book of Ryan. It's important because while these aren't "superproducer"-level tracks, they're incredibly accomplished album cuts. The sounds aren't one-note, the arrangements aren't regular, and he often makes space for singers to come in on hooks and mini-verses. Moreover, it doesn't come off as an insular, navel-gazing vanity project. It's an album that stands on its own as a collection of music, stripping funk, warning basslines, sprinkling keys, and interpolating Dana Dane with a reserve that surpasses his position as a novitiate.

The rhymes are often amazing and every guest appearance by a rapper is spectacular. Griselda's Benny the Butcher, Conway, and Westside Gunn show up individually, as does fellow Slaughterhouse alum, KXNG Crooked. T.I and Cyhi da Prince gang up on "Black Savages." His brother and longtime collaborator Kid Vishis shows up, as does Grafh. Oddly enough, Eminem shows up on an interlude to make the most cohesive observation of race on the album, which is both confusing and not.

It's not confusing, because—through beefs and dis records and death and reconciliation—Eminem and Royce have emerged as an amazing mixed-race bromance. And, with his past few records, Royce's transparency about his upcoming explains his bond with Em in ways that are pretty opaque until now. They're not just rappers who came up together, they're products of tumultuous families, addicts who have leaned on one another, men who found sobriety, artists who genuinely use the recording booth as therapeutic havens. In the past, Royce spoke and rapped drunkenly on record; now he's making hour-long meditations on society and has motivational hustler Derrick Grace running through flash quizzes with Grace's daughter in between songs—distinguishing bullet calibers and reciting Black empowerment lessons.

It's confusing because The Allegory presents itself as Royce's "woke" project. In the beginning, he compares it to Homer's Illiad and Plato's Allegory of the Cave—two references that guarantee that this is not a project that will make itself known plainly or with ease. It's part To Pimp A Butterfly and part DAMN. And, like those projects, as much as it seeks to be progressive in terms of race, it remains shockingly regressive on sexual politics. On the opening of “Upside Down,” Royce begins: “Why the gay ni**as tryna f**k the straight ni**as that's tryna f**k the gay bi**hes that look just like the straight ni**as?/ Why the straight ni**as that the gay bi**hes tryna look just like the gay ni**as?” It’s a confusing bit of nothing—something that Royce routinely does with such verve that how it sounds trumps what it means. But, it’s troubling and manages to wave away the realities of multiple gender identities unnecessarily. Though it marries to the title of the song, it’s divorced from the rest of his verse and there’s no exploration of what he means beyond thought-twisting. While The Allegory is great on many levels, it's definitely misogynistic and often transphobic and homophobic on others. Royce still seems to be cheating on his wife and saying so publicly—or at least willing to allude to infidelity for a punchline. He's still under the spells of capitalism and bars violence. He outs himself as an anti-vaxxer. In short, it's a mess.

It's a mess, but it's a beautiful one because it's honest. "Pendulum" alone is disturbing in its dismissal of women. Royce confesses that he's "too narcissistic to be lickin' carpet, too artistic to nut/ This a catharsis" before going on to add that "my side chick is still burnin', now my dick is scorchin'/ Talkin' bout 'I think I'm pregnant; I'm not with abortion'/ Any child that slides out you is an instant orphan." The song's hook doesn't add any clarity: "We gon' rob the rich and leave them with the f**kin' bill." It's a thinking person's album that becomes uncomfortable if you think about it too intensely. And that’s a shame.

But The Allegory is also an album that speaks on growing old in rap, living and dying in Black America, the importance of owning your masters as a recording artists, and contains an apology to Royce's father for bringing up his dad's past without talking to him about it first. Yet, what the "allegory" is isn't quite clear. And it may be too meta and too lazy to say that that's the point. What's clear is that Ryan Montgomery, after 20 years as a professional rapper, is making the best music of his career and expanding his arsenal in profound ways. And that's going to have to be enough. He's learned that f**king the baddest bi**hes around and achieving the highest levels of success aren't as hard as he thought. He's still learning. If he continues to release music—or follow on his plans to "screenwriter a movie or write a play"—the caterpillar may do things with the Mind Stone that Thanos never imagined.

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