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.)
Ryan Montgomery, after 20 years as a professional rapper, is making the best music of his career and expanding his arsenal in profound ways.
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.