Royce Da 5'9's self-produced "The Allegory" finds the Detroit rapper waxing philosophical, his confidence at an all-time high.
Royce Da 5’9” has never been a stranger to self-expression. He famously scoured the darkest depths of his soul like Detroit’s Edgar Allan Poe on Death Is Certain. He penned his own autobiography sans filter on Book Of Ryan -- an album many deem to be his masterpiece. Songs like “Tabernacle” and “Startercoat” are chapters of a living breathing story. He shares and he draws his own conclusions. It’s been that way for over two decades now, rising from the Rock City sewer smoke and wreaking havoc on “Game Radio FM.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that Royce decided to soundtrack his eighth studio album. Even if it meant taking up a trade and effectively starting on a blank slate. Royce is undisputedly one of the game’s lyrical elites; a one-percenter. In the production sphere he's simply a dreamer looking to make an honest living. It serves to imbue his work with a charming sort of DIY ruggedness. Many samples are flipped and some arrangements are more intricate than others. Royce sets himself up to deliver a rapper’s album, unpretentious and economical. His efforts shine brightest on the hypnotic “Thou Shall” and the heavily Primo-inspired “I Play Forever.” For better or worse it never feels like he’s overthinking. Even when questionable choices are made there’s comfort in knowing that the one making them is doing so on his own accord.
Agency is a major theme across The Allegory. The willingness to control one’s own destiny and retain artistic freedom. As he explains on “Rhinestone Doo Rag,” he wore one so younger artists "won’t have to.” There’s an aura of triumph achieved through sacrifice, a process of trial and error that molded an eager student into a wizened teacher. Royce doesn’t deal in didacticism; his lessons are often left open to interpretation. Taking to a dissonant and feverish guitar loop on “Pendulum,” Royce fires off so many gems it’s impossible to unearth them all without repeat listens. Refreshingly embracing the comedic subgenre of “dad-rap,” Royce’s playful sense of humor never undercuts the impact of his insight. “Now, I'm falling in a downward spiral, my main ho is Bow Wow's side ho with "model" in the bio,” he laments. “I'm starting to sound dated, 'Cause I ain't paid attention to the climate since the Nae-Nae.”
As a craftsman, Royce’s confidence is at an all-time high. He’s proven time and again that his prowess is second to none. But The Allegory is not about putting on a masterclass in flow through select moments might suggest otherwise. “I Play Forever” is one of them, in which Royce connects with fellow veteran Grafh for a pair of murderous verses. “FUBU” is another, with Royce absolutely refusing to be outdone by Conway; no easy feat as doing so requires a Herculean performance. Despite these moments of technical brilliance, The Allegory is more so about the message Royce is looking to convey -- either to the listener or to himself. In the introductory “Mr. Grace,” Royce likens the album to Plato’s “Allegory Of The Cave,” hinting at the album’s conceptual narrative; in its simplest interpretation, the idea of perception vs. reality. Perhaps Royce’s Allegory is not in itself an allegory to be unpacked, but rather a direct allusion to the ideas presented in Plato’s theory.
Through that lens, there are times where Royce knows exactly what lies behind the curtain. Or in keeping with Plato’s imagery, the tangible forms standing behind the row of ignorant prisoners. When speaking on topics like the nefarious elements of the record industry, Royce’s voice carries authority; there’s a reason he’s still thriving twenty-years down the line, the proud owner of his own masters and publishing. It’s all too easy to imagine nameless suits standing behind a row of young rappers making shadow puppets on the wall. Songs like “Tricked” and “Upside Down” find Royce seeking to expose the truth as he sees it. To unchain the proverbial prisoners and force them to address their status as pawns. The water darkens when he wades into topics on which his research process holds a confirmation bias. Much has been made of anti-vaxx sentiments and perhaps not enough has been made about the circumstances that might have led to such an empirically disprovable conclusion. Though it does feel like The Allegory has been designed to convert those willing to see the light, it also speaks to the fallibility of man on a variety of levels -- alas, not all of them intentional.
This sort of complexity is a quality that Royce himself has experienced first hand, chiefly explored through his relationship with his father on "Hero." A force can be at once destructive and inspirational, wrong in the name of righteousness. While The Allegory is not Royce’s best album, there’s a certain transcendental quality that cannot be denied. It’s certainly his most dense body of work; bars fly overhead packed with hidden meaning and double entendres, don’t even ask him how. Whether his messages land will depend wholly on the listener's willingness to respect the source. Those expecting Royce to concoct something en vogue or trendy will leave disappointed. He’s earned the right to stay within his comfort zone -- but damned if he hasn’t been steadily renovating it over the years.