If you aren't aware that Royce Da 5'9" is dropping Book Of Ryan on May 4th, you'd be wise to get informed. The legendary Detroit rapper has been putting in work for a minute, solidifying himself as one of the game's most impeccable lyricists. Those who have followed his journey from the start understand that there's been remarkable growth throughout, both as a man and an artist. From Rock City to Death Is Certain. From Independent's Day to Street Hop to Success Is Certain. From The Bar Exam series to Build & Destroy. Bad Meets Evil to Layers to PRhyme. Everything has led to this moment. The defining chapter of a storied career. Book Of Ryan.

I had the honor to speak with Royce, who I've followed since the days of bumping "We Live" in Grand Theft Auto III. Over a decade later, Royce seems to be improving with time, sounding focused and dedicated to completing his most ambitious vision to date. It might be hard to fathom, but even after six studio albums, Royce still has stories to tell. Suffice it to say, the surface has yet to be scratched. We're looking at an writer at his pinnacle; an author on the cusp of delivering his magnum opus. 

It's evident that Royce was determined to deliver something his core fans can truly appreciate. We've come this far, but there's still so much we don't know. Rest assured, Book Of Ryan is about to change your perception. 

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HNHH: How you doing Royce?

Royce: Hey, what’s up brother, how you doing?

I just heard the “Stay Woke,” and I’m wondering, what made you decide to choose that song as your new single? It feels like a statement, you know?

I hate that word, “single”, I really do. As a creative person, it’s the worst word ever. “Stay Woke” is more like an excerpt off the album. When you listen to the album in its entirety, “Stay Woke” serves as a commercial. Like a small gap in the story, just for you to hear some bars for a second.

It’s actually pretty refreshing to hear you talk about “the album” in that way. As a big fan of the artform, of telling a cohesive story through sequencing, it feels like it’s becoming a lost art these days. But you’ve always held onto that throughout your records.

It’s kinda like the only way I know how to do it. It’s the way I prefer to do it the most. Obviously, I’ve worked with groups, in Slaughterhouse. I’ve been in positions where it’s like ‘yo, let’s just record eleven songs and put it out,” but I find I get more out of doing it this way.

When it comes down to making that one album, looking back at your whole life and career, saying to yourself, “damn man, I never actually put out that album that shows who I am, that embodies who I am as a person, why I am how I am, where I came from...That album that personifies me as an artist and a person, I still haven’t given that out.

It’s largely due to the fact that I came into the game, and started drinking and doing all types of wild shit. I never gave myself the opportunity to think, and reflect, and you know, be introspective….This is that album. The only way to do it is to tell the story.

You’ve previously spoken about how alcoholism robbed you of nostalgia, and once you got sober, you began experiencing all sorts of new memories. The nostalgic vibes were definitely present on Layers. Is it going to be a primary theme on Book Of Ryan?

The very first thing I wrote when I got sober was “Tabernacle.” That was the very first song...Every now and then, man, I would think about my granny. That’s as far as my mind would take me. I would think about my granny every now and then, and then I’d just continue drinking. As far as really thinking about anything that happened that day, it wasn’t till I got sober. Those memories came crashing down like a ton of bricks, to the point where I was damn near emotional.

The only thing I could do was try to express it through pen. I just told the story, but I didn’t even say how I was feeling, you know what I mean? Doing The Book Of Ryan, I talk about my feelings.

Musically, based on “Boblo Boat” and “Stay Woke” alone, I immediately thought back to Rock City. Songs like “King Of Kings,” and “What Would You Do.” It kind of felt nostalgic right off the bat, at least musically, you know what I mean?

I know exactly what you mean. I automatically went back to all those places, as soon as I got sober.

It sounds like it’s going to be a new side of you. You’ve already proven your worth as one of the game’s best storytellers, so to hear that added emotional layer should be really powerful for those who have been following you for a while.

One of the important intangibles, is that it’s going to help people. It’s going to make people feel like you are not alone. You are not the only one who went through this, or had this type of childhood. There are a lot of us. It’s like that with addiction, it’s like that with upbringing. All of it comes together. It’s a cool thing man.

I learned a lot of this just by going through therapy. It made me want to start paying attention to myself and learning myself a little bit more. Realizing that there are answers to why I am who I am. Why I deal with certain things the way I do.

Did anything change about your writing process on such a personal album?

It’s all feel. If you feel right, it goes. No overthinking. No super lyrical-myrical. I already showed that I can do that. I’m almost at a point in my life and my career where I’m done having a rap contest. You know what I’m sayin? Nobody can beat me, and I still won’t get the credit for that. I’m on to the next thing...I just want to do what feels right, man. I want everything to mean something. Every song. Every message. I want it to stick with you.

You mentioned not getting the credit. Those who really listen to your music comfortably place you among the elites. Top tier lyrically, top tier in the game. Do you really feel like you’re still underrated?

I don’t want you to misunderstand what I meant when I said that. It’s not that I feel like I’m underrated, cause I do get props for being top tier for those who choose to pay attention. I’m in a weird space man. A lot of my peers, they give me props behind closed doors, and it’s like everybody’s waiting to see what I’m turning into. It’s like, everybody know how great Chris Paul is, but they don’t have to publicly give him the props they give LeBron, cause he doesn’t put the same numbers on the board. Now, it’s like they’re waiting for me to put up the numbers.

I hear a Pusha T verse, or an Em verse, or a verse from somebody I think is a monster, and I’m like “damn, I don’t know if I’m as good as I thought I was!”  Some days I feel like I’m the best, sometimes I feel like I’m great. Sometimes I feel like I’m just good. Sometimes I feel like man that was a bad day in the studio, I hope I didn’t lose it.” I’m a human being. I go up and down.  But some days, bro, some days I feel like I can beat everybody.

You don’t have to put me in a category with Jay-Z, cause I don’t have the same accolades. But there’s people who really wanna keep it real, lyrically, they’re going to put me in the same category.

I think that’s fair.

It’s fair to me, but until I can accomplish what I’m looking to accomplish, it’s always going to be arguable. Jay-Z sits in the spot he sits in because he made it to where you can’t argue it. Big, Pac, Nas, Hov, Em. Even Black Thought man, I put him in a whole other hemisphere. I put him on a whole other part of the planet than any other emcee.

Royce Da 5'9" & J Cole - Boblo Boat

Right now, it seems like everybody like everybody is discussing the dichotomy of the young man and the veteran in hip-hop. Do you feel like you’ve improved as you got older? What are the advantages of being a newcomer in hip-hop, versus looking at the game from a seasoned, experienced position?

As a young’n, one of the advantages you have is that the bar is not set very high. You don’t really have to do as much as you used to have to do in order to get your name out there, develop a fanbase, and build a platform. As a veteran, since we’ve been around, we’ve learned how to do things that can create longevity.

When I came into the game, the album they were talking about were Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt, Life After Death, I Am…, It Was Written, Chronic, 2001. These were the albums that people had in regular, everyday conversation. First time I went to New York, NORE’s “Banned From TV” was on the radio all day. Cam’Ron & DMX’ “Pull It.” We’re talking about classic records playing on the radio all day.

When I started trying to get a record deal, Canibus was the number one emcee in the game. When I was doing meetings, trying to get a deal and trying to convince executives, I had to go in there and rap my ass off. I didn’t go in there with views. I had to convince people I was worthy. I was automatically put in the mindframe where I had to do things that were actually good. Everything started with the music first.

Now, you can do things that are contingent upon viewership and image. The music can be thing people care about as it pertains to you, and you can still be a big star. With us, it was always the music first. I’m definitely not knocking the state of things now. I think it’s great that they can make a lot of money...I just wish there were more things in place to give these youngins information, man. To give them health insurance, life insurance.

We watched a lot  of heroes get gunned down through this hip-hop shit....Why is there not something in place? I wish every record deal came with a straight up-and-down business manager. Somebody automatically put in place to put your funds in place.

Other than that, there are a few artists taking it there. Making albums, as opposed to worrying singles. I always use Kendrick and Cole as an example - I know they’re not considered too young now, but yo, those guys were the last I’ve seen to take it there. They took a page out of my generation’s book. I love seeing those guys carry on tradition.

Taking it back for a second, I want to ask about Rock City, where it all began. The album initially leaked, correct?

Rock City is the album I turned in to Sony, but it got bootlegged. That’s when bootlegging was a thing. People would steal it from the label or the manufacturer, and next thing you know you have vendors on the streets selling it illegally before it comes out. That used to kill artists back in the day.

It’s crazy. A bunch of albums were essentially dead on arrival. Knoc-Turn’al’s Knoc’s Landing. Ras KassVan Gogh. Those albums completely disappeared from the history books cause of bootlegging. These days, artists releasing music for free, previewing things on SoundCloud and Instagram...It’s almost as if the game embraces leaks.

It’s because of the way the music is distributed. The leak is almost like a preview now. Especially if your music is good. Back then, when the bootleggers got it, that stopped people from physically going to stand in line and get it. People were able to get it right on the corner, and it didn’t count as a sale for you.

Now it’s like, nobody has to physically stand in line anymore. Everybody has every kind of music you can think of at their fingertips. If it leaks out, if anything, it just drives people to want to go buy a clear version of it. That’s why artists do advance streams through a media partner.

It comes down to what we were talking about before. The importance of “the album.”

You can still get the streams and do a great album. If you put doing a great album first, anything is possible from there. Think about how you listen. If you throw an album in, you’re not immediately jumping to the single. You listen to Life After Death, you not listening to the singles, you’re listening to “N***z Bleed,” you know?  The meat and potatoes of the album. That’s the soundtrack to your day.

Absolutely. You called Book Of Ryan your greatest piece of work. Can you elaborate on your criteria for greatness, especially with regards to an album?

It’s complete. Showing versatility. Me being able to say I have a good understanding of who I just listened to. These are all the things I believe people are going to get out of listening to this album. It’s really an album that I did for my core base.

I think a lot of the kids that aren’t familiar with who I am, or maybe just heard my name and never cared to dig into who I am or follow me on any level, I think even when they stop and listen, they gon’ get all these things out of it. That’s very important.

I think most artists should aim to do that on their first album, but unfortunately I wasn’t mature enough to go that introspective...All I wanted to do was just rap. I fell in love with rapping at the open mics. All I wanted to do was shred other emcees. All of the other facets of being a creative person and being a complete artist, I had to develop into that through making mistakes in the business.

Everything that I’ve learned, that I went through in life up to this point, I put that all into this album. Along with everything from my childhood that made me the kind of person I am. You’ll get a sense of why it took so long to develop on that level, why I started drinking, everything. I pretty much put everything. I financially exhausted myself. Physically exhausted myself. Mentally exhausted myself.

I finished this album, and damn near banged my fist against the track board, in tears. This shit is finally out of me. It was that type of feeling.

Image via HNHH