The last six years have been quite the journey for Royce Da 5’9″. Since getting sober around that time, the Detroit hip-hop veteran has taken fans on a personal quest from surface-level raps about his genitals and firearms to the deepest parts of his memory, psyche, and even his soul. It’s not the emo-rap you’d expect from some other hip-hop artists, but rather the musings of a grown man completely comfortable with himself and his career.
It would be a stretch to say that Royce was inspired by the likes of Phonte with this album, but it’s interesting to see different emcees taking their music in similar directions. Much like No News Is Good News, Book of Ryan features a very mature rhyme writer that just as interested in what’s going on inside himself as what’s going on in the outside world. What makes Book of Ryan one of his (if not the) strongest albums is the fact that Royce is able to give both ample attention.
Royce Da 5’9″ has always been a skilled rapper, but the last few years have seen him rap about becoming more reclusive and anti-industry (see “Dumb,” where Royce raps, “Welcome to the Grammy’s where your likeness is used/For promos, hypeness and views, okay, I hope that you knowin’/That if you voted, you might as well not voted for no one/They knew when they made that category where that trophy was goin’”). As his songs travel further inward, his storytelling abilities have seen to grow in equal measure. Almost every track contains some kind of memory or anecdote, but never the same ones over multiple songs. The fan-favorite “Boblo Boat” is a reflection on good times during the coming-of-age periods in Royce and J. Cole’s lives. It’s the kind of song that seems tailor-made for Jermaine, but Royce outdoes him with lines like “I came across my identity on the Bob-Lo boat/That’s where I lost my virginity, no condom, though/That’s when paranoia hit me like when superstition does/Left my inhibitions I guess where my supervision was.” The same reminiscing can be seen on songs like “Life is Fair,” where Royce raps, “Summertime were the funnest times/Momma used to had to say come inside like a hunnid times/Flat booty, big titty b*****s just on they grind/My n***a Moody used to say they was built like the number nine.”
It’s not just the past with that Royce is concerned, however. On “Outside,” he raps about the present–about the concerns and fears he has now. The song features a verse dedicated to his oldest son, who recently dropped out of college to pursue a career in music. “You just ain’t the n***a you friends is, it’s scientific/Not my opinion so you know you genetically predisposed/To more than just eating soul food, so I’m afraid of you to try to risk it/You in a gene pool with a lot of sick fish/And I’m the sickest of them all, alcoholics die when they stop from the symptoms of withdrawal.” Book of Ryan is honest not so much in the way a Catholic confession is, but, as hinted at in the skit “Who Are You,” in the way a biographical novel is.
That novel, of course, needs a setting, and Royce not only vividly paints the picture of Detroit over the last 30 years, but also the plight of the average black man and hip-hop artist. “So many men shopping the women’s section, it ain’t no ladies left/These n****s crazy? Yes/They playin’ crazy like the Chappelle sketch, Wayne Brady ep/I’m what you get when Freeway Rick and Cocaine 80’s met.” The first full track on the album is titled “Woke,” and Royce starts the song off by rapping, “This one’s for those of you just ain’t woke yet, hotep/You rich but you broke n***a just don’t know yet, hotep/These rappers ain’t woke yet, security back ’em, hotep/Hotep, come to Detroit with that, oh yes, that’s a toe tag” (“hotep” is an Egyptian phrase that means “to be at peace”).
In case any old Royce fans might get concerned with the album’s content or style, the veteran manages to pack in plenty of hard-hitting punchlines, such as on “Caterpillar,” which includes a classic Eminem feature, or on “Summer On Lock,” featuring solid verses from Jadakiss and Pusha T. He is still just as comfortable staring the genre in the face and saying “Outrap Me,” as he is looking lookin at his children in the back seat of his car and asking them how they feel.
Even for listeners that don’t consider themselves Royce Da 5’9″ fans, Book of Ryan is worth multiple listens. The complexity, storytelling, and skill of a sober and mature Royce means that not only do audiences get a glimpse into his mind, but makes it seem as though he’s gotten a glimpse into theirs.