Landing on top of Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart with his sixth studio LP Layers gave Detroit rapper Royce Da 5’9” further assurance that his life was heading down a different path. Dethroning pop chanteuse Rihanna’s ANTI from the top slot, the multi-dimensional emcee born Ryan Daniel Montgomery penned and sequenced together 17 tracks that are equal parts autobiographical as they are self-reflecting and transparent.
It impressed Royce to receive the news about his chart-topping album from his manager, and he admits that he was completely caught off-guard. The accomplishment didn’t really hit Royce until Forbes magazine covered him. Soon after, masses of congratulatory calls were causing his phone to ring off the hook.
“That put it into a different perspective for me,” the crisp, raspy-voiced rapper says resting comfortably in the lobby of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis. “I’m so used to things being bad. When that happened, it was one of those moments I felt I needed to just thank God and keep on pushing. Don’t stop and smell the roses. Continue to stay focused, stay sharp and just keep moving forward.”
Now two decades into his recording career as one of hip-hop’s most astute voices and sought after ghostwriters, Layers is Royce’s concept album that allows him to unapologetically confront his past and remain optimistic about his future. The quick-witted wordsmith has overcome a decade marked by alcoholism, and has been sober for four years now. Releasing Layers via his own recording imprint, Bad Half Entertainment, the set is comprised of conversational, syllable-laden bars themed around subjects including love, death, addiction, faith (“Pray”), perseverance (“Hard”), ambition (“Wait” and “Shine”), his relationships with women (“Flash” and “Hello”) and his life story (“Tabernacle” and “Startercoat”).
Living life one day at a time, Royce declares his weekly therapy sessions are cathartic. He’s fully aware that he has the tendency to hold things in. “My Wednesday is always great,” says a tatted-up, ocean blue Adidas suit-wearing Royce. “It’s always the highlight of my week. I feel like I get everything off my chest. We talk about everything, and it’s not limited to just sobriety. It’s whatever we want to talk about.”
What’s not discussed with Royce’s therapist filters over into studio time. The diligent fire spitter writes and records from time-to-time beyond his normal session blocks. Royce’s work ethic, he says, has taught him patience. “I start pushing myself more,” he says. “When I push myself, I always end up coming up with something that ends up putting me in a better position all around. That’s a gift that helps me weather all kinds of storms and get through shit.”
Catching a performance of the Broadway hit Hamilton rubbed off on Royce’s craft. Far from being a fan of musical theatre, the artist known as Nickel Nine was caught off-guard by the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning production filled with complex syllables, rhyme schemes, flows, melodies, cadences and history. Now Royce aspires to write his own play and screenplay.
“I learned all of these things that I didn’t know,” recalls Royce fidgeting with his iPhone. “I’m learning in a way that is interesting to me and keeping my attention. It was genius how [Hamilton creator] [Lin-Manuel] Miranda was able to combine all of these different crowds to enjoy this body of work. It looked like some hip-hop shit. We haven’t been able to create that in hip-hop at all.”
The sharp, veteran battle rapper synonymous with releasing a canon of lyrically stellar LPs like Rock City (2002), Death is Certain (2004), Independent’s Day (2005), Street Hop (2009), and Success is Certain (2009) continues to be prolific. Royce intends to drop another solo album but doesn’t have an exact timetable mapped out just yet. “I have the meat-and-potato base of it,” reveals Royce, “an all-star cast with songs I want to build an entire team around in order to make what I feel is the perfect album for my next step after Layers.”
He plans to reunite with veteran producer DJ Premier to release a sophomore PRhyme effort. The duo typically embarks on a beat and idea exchange during the creative process. Acknowledging how meticulous Premo can be about chopping and layering vocals over his signature boom-bap tracks, Royce appreciates his mentor’s constructive criticism.
“Premo’s presence is inspiring,” utters a now tranquil-voiced Royce. “Whenever he’s around, hip-hop is around. When we work, he lets me do my thing. The only thing he’s nit-picky about is takes.” Also one-fourth of the supergroup Slaughterhouse alongside Joe Budden, Joell Ortiz and Crooked I, Royce anticipates recording the quartet’s fourth album at some point over the next three years. He points out how their live performances and recording sessions enhance his craft.
“They bring something out of me that I can’t dig down and find myself,” declares Royce. “We all do things that the other doesn’t do. One of the key goals in being a creative is aligning yourself with people who inspire you and bring stuff out of you that you can’t yourself. That’s all a part of collaborating.”
Royce continues, “That’s what happens every time I record with them. It’s about going to each market, touching people and putting on the best performance possible.” Releasing Layers has made Royce’s two-decade friendship with Eminem stronger than ever, too. The pair conjoined as rap duo Bad Meets Evil continues to peer review each other’s music. Royce says the best-selling, multiple Grammy winner finds his friend’s music refreshing and revealing, recognizing that he’s just now being exposed to things about Royce he didn’t know.
What fuels the synergy between Royce and Eminem is their passion for explicating and deconstructing hip-hop. “Me and Marshall [Mathers] have a lot of conversations about technique all the time,” shares Royce further mentioning producers Mr. Porter and The Alchemist as part of those chats.
“We get real nerdy about rapping. We play each other’s music before it comes out. We give each other that kind of input when we play each other’s music. It’s always creative forwardness.”
Royce’s methodology for recording hasn’t changed. He doesn’t have any guilt trips about past mistakes, continuing to turn those flaws and faults into new music. His ability to adapt, he says, is his greatest strength. “I have an elastic soul, man (chuckles),” shares Royce. “I can stretch and bend myself. I’m durable. I can push myself when it’s not anything wrong.”
More importantly, Royce hopes his life and career can empower and motivate the next wave of hip-hop artists to take their craft seriously. As he concludes his 20-minute conversation in the hotel lobby, he drops what he normally tells younger talent. “Consistency is key,” advises Royce.
“Stay sharp. You can waste a lot of years drinking and doing all of that shit. I have way more to say. All of those memories just naturally started hitting me. Normally, I just do a lot of reflecting now.”
Royce Da 5’9”’s Top Albums of All Time:
- Dr. Dre | 2001 (1999)
- Michael Jackson | Thriller (1982) – “That’s probably my favorite album of all-time, but it doesn’t inspire me to make music. It’s one of the only albums I can just listen to as a fan with no criticism.”
- Jay-Z | The Blueprint (2001)
- Nas | Illmatic (1994)
- Nas | It Was Written (1996)
- The Notorious B.I.G. | Life After Death (1997)