Royce Da 5'9"s "Book Of Ryan" is a triumph in storytelling, lyricism, and self-reflection.
When I spoke with Royce Da 5’9” in April, he described the catharsis he felt upon finishing Book Of Ryan. “I finished this album, and damn near banged my fist against the track board, in tears,” said Royce, hours prior to the release of “Stay Woke,” the album’s penultimate chapter. Even before hearing it, the emotional weight imbued within the project was evident. This was set to be the unmasking of 5’9”, a rapper who has spent over a decade cultivating his own mythological narrative.
Milestones came and went. From dominating Liberty City airwaves in Grand Theft Auto III, to the violent and self-destructive philosopher quietly foretelling his doom on Death Is Certain, day one fans can rattle them off in spades. Yet behind the music was a dark backstory. Seeped in alcohol, driven by anger, lust, and hedonism, Royce spent a number of years entrenched in beefs with friend and foe alike; to this day, he’ll jokingly allude to years spent rapping about his “gun and his dick.”
While his reputation as a lyrical elite never faltered, his battle with addiction was deep rooted, taking an unexpected toll on his faculties; his sense of nostalgia was among the early casualties. Luckily, Royce managed to turn it around and regain control of his trajectory. Currently six years sober, the Detroit rapper has undeniably improved with age, developing and honing a sense of confidence becoming of a hip-hop legend. While Layers seemed to indicate a step in the autobiographical direction, Book Of Ryan is a full blown biopic.
It’s crazy. Book Of Ryan is Royce’s seventh studio album, which arrived the same year he turned forty. Yet somehow, it feels like a coming of age story. To borrow an old cliche, it feels as if everything came full circle this time around; from the opening drums of “Woke,” even the sonic aesthetic harkens back to the Rock Cityera, with gritty mixes and sample-centric instrumentals. Setting things off with a bout of free-verse, Royce slyly slips in the album’s dominant thesis statement within the opening stanzas. “I'm here for blessings sent my direction, no less,” he raps. “This one's for those who don't know they pops not invincible yet.”
Fatherhood remains Book Of Ryan’s dominant thematic anchor. The theme materializes in several different ways, from Royce’s son interviewing his father, ostensibly as the subject of a school paper, to the prominent focus on Royce’s own father on standouts “Cocaine” and “Power.” The latter is a particularly poignant character study; at once horror film and familial drama, Royce proves once and for all that he is among the game’s most accomplished storytellers. Painting a nightmarish picture of “Thanksgiving at the Montgomery home,” Royce’s father springs from the page as a larger-than-life, fully-developed character, as seen through the eyes of an impressionable child.
In truth, I could probably spend pages talking about the triumphs of “Power,” which rivals Bad Meets Evil colleague Eminem’s most brilliant authorial moments. While the harrowing tale of abuse and complicated family dynamics resonates on multiple levels, the development allotted to both Royce’s pops and older brother Greggy is refreshingly three dimensional. While it might be hard to walk away from “Power” feeling uplifted, consider Royce’s parting message to his son. “All my friend's daddy's was walking out on them left and right,” he explains .”Y'know he never left us, he was always there for us.” As is often the case, the truth can be more complicated than a surface picture reveals. Suffice it to say, “Power” is a triumph, and may very well go down as Royce Da 5’9”s most defining piece of work to date.
While “Power” emerges as the album’s thematic anchor, several chapters work in tandem to flesh out the narrative. “Amazing” is another highlight, and Royce expertly weaves down memory lane over an infectious, bittersweet instrumental; there’s something undeniably wistful about the experience, and hearing Royce reflect on his childhood with such evocative clarity is a testament to his skill as a writer. God, I miss my big brother so much, he went to prison so much that I don't think I'd recognize him these days much,” raps Royce, referring to the aforementioned Greg. “But I'ma always know what to get him from the ice cream truck.”
The T-Pain assisted “First Of The Month” is another strong chapter, with both rappers flexing their melodic prowess over a triumphant instrumental. It’s hard not to reflect on Royce’s line on “Lighters,” in which he rapped “I remember when T-Pain ain't wanna work with me, my car starts itself, parks itself, and autotunes.” In that regard, Teddy’s inclusion feels like a testament to Royce’s upper mobility, and there’s something refreshing about hearing T-Pain sing “I’m rolling with Royce.” He’s but one of many welcome guests, from Eminem’s mumble-rap murdering “Caterpillar,” to Freddy and Jason alike on “Summer On Lock,” to J. Cole’s verse of the year contender on “Boblo Boat.” While an abundance of features can serve to bog down projects, rest assured that Royce has chosen his associates wisely.
At this point, we’re already well aware that Royce can rap; if that wasn’t clear, look no further than The Bar Exam 4, where he proceeds to run effortless circles around the game. For the skeptics, worry not. Book Of Ryan is not without lyrical prowess; selections like “Stay Woke,” “Legendary,” and “Summer On Lock” should satisfy those leaning toward that particular side of the spectrum. Yet while they are appreciated, Book Of Ryan’s personal nature leaves the more lyrically focused tracks feeling slightly superfluous; revisiting familiar territory is all well-and-good, but it’s the new, intimate frontiers that keep the album so engaging.
For those who have been following Royce since day one, Book Of Ryan will surely resonate on a deeper level than it might with a casual fan. It’s evident that crafting this project was a meaningful endeavor, a meditation on fatherhood, equal parts photo album and time capsule. Royce leaves nothing on the table; you can hear the pain in his voice as he leaves his comfort zone on “Cocaine’s” falsetto, or the largely sung “Power” outro. While it’s still too early to tell whether Book Of Ryan is Royce’s strongest album (as Death Is Certain and Layers are excellent bodies of work in their own right), it certainly stands as his most definitive. And like any timeless book, this one will no doubt prove all the more rewarding upon the re-read.