"I woke up this morning / And decided there's no such thing as me being in my prime. / You go ahead and be in yours, I can always improve." These are the first words spoken by Royce Da 5'9" on his new album Book of Ryan. It's a bold statement given all of the things Royce has accomplished in his career. He has been a standard-bearer for lyricism throughout his career, both as a solo artist and as a member of three groups: Slaughterhouse, Bad Meets Evil and PRhyme. And in the past few years, Royce has expanded his content to address the spaces he occupies—from the music industry to the world at large.
But if there's one area in which Royce can improve, it's introspection. His prowess on the mic has been obvious for years, but the man behind the bars has been a mystery. In a recent interview, Royce himself said that he has spent much of his career rapping about his gun and his dick. Granted, he began to open up more on his 2016 album Layers. But Royce evolves into a full-fledged author on his new album, sharing one of the more compelling autobiographies you'll come across.
Book of Ryan is filled with stories stitched together by lineage. Royce recounts the family experiences that have molded him and ponders how they will affect his own children. He shares his memories not just through his rhymes, but also through well-crafted skits. The tales told on the album are harrowing, but Royce relives them with a sense of triumph rather than defeat.
He opens with the intro, on which he says, "With all the shit that I've been through in my life, I'm just thankful / to God that I even woke up this morning." This gratitude is linked to Royce's struggle with alcoholism, which has led to Royce being sober for six years. But as the album continues, it becomes clear that he has many reasons to be thankful.
The following song is "Woke" and it starts as the gut-punching rap that fans expect from Royce. Over a belligerent beat, Royce bears down on his peers and calls them "hoteps." Yet, Royce ends the song by saying, "Papa used to beat on me often for not being perfect / Thots used to call me tar baby, cops taught that I'd be worthless / Mama gave birth to only one dark child like Rodney Jerkins / That taught me to focus on what's inside y'all and not the surface."
By including these digs at his self-esteem, Royce shifts the song's tone. This sharp turn on the song mirrors the sharp turn in Royce's artistry that manifests across Book of Ryan. Both the final bars on "Woke" and the entire album usher fans into a new level of honesty from Royce.
The content on Book of Ryan is heavy, so Royce lightens the mood before diving deep into his past. He offers a trio of songs—"Caterpillar," "God Speed" and "Dumb"—that are mainly lyrical displays. "Caterpillar" features Eminem and becomes a sparring match between two of hip-hop's heavyweights. "God Speed" is also impressive, largely because of a beat from Mr. Porter that thumps harder than a Donovan Mitchell dunk. And it should be criminal to attack a track the way Royce does on "Dumb."
As the barrage of bars comes to a close, Royce begins a cathartic journey through his past. On "Who Are You (Skit)," Royce recalls a dream in which he asks his father about his mistakes and their consequences. Royce's questions can only be answered if he doesn't blink. But Royce does eventually blink and suddenly the person that he's speaking to is now his son. Royce's son ultimately asks him, "Who are you," and the answer plays out in each song thereafter.
Royce follows the skit with "Cocaine," a gripping song that explains how he learned about his father's drug addiction at a young age. Royce uses the word "cocaine" as a refrain and his voice drifts each time he sings it, denoting the sorrow that the word represents for him. He questions whether his father's addiction is the root of his own struggles with alcohol and crime. But Royce ends by praising his father for going to rehab for the sake of his family.
Another striking song is a soulful collaboration with Marsha Ambrosius called "Outside." Royce continues the conversation with his son that began earlier in the album. He admits the fears he has by saying, "You know what I'm about to say next, right? I'm afraid of you drinkin' / Though I never taught you to swim, I'm afraid of you sinkin' / I know I taught you to fight, you ain't in condition to win this / You wired different / You just ain't the n***a your friends is, it's scientific."
Royce knows what it's like to be genetically predisposed to addiction, so he hopes to steer his son away from the pitfalls he's endured. But while Royce's memory makes "Outside" a sentimental song, it also turns "Power" into a distressful listen. Royce details a drunken altercation between his father and his brother Greg that crosses the line between discipline and abuse. The story may make listeners grimace, but it doesn't faze Royce's appreciation for his family. He asserts that his family needed therapy and praises the fact that they remained together despite their trials.
Book of Ryan conveys a lot of pain, but Royce balances it with moments of nostalgia and encouragement. The gravity in his words is matched by the sound of the production. He shows dexterity in how he approaches the songs, frequently switching his cadence and delivery. And Royce uses his singing to establish the sentiment of certain songs. The candid nature of the album can make it feel as if we're invading Royce's privacy. But his honesty is intentional and it's bound to deepen the connection between Royce and his fans.
Notable Tracks: “Cocaine” | “God Speed” | “Outside” | “Power”