Royce Da 5’9″, DJ Premier & Adrian Younge Are In Their PRhyme (Album Review)

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In what felt like the last days of Underground Hip-Hop, a relative unknown named Royce Da 5’9” teamed with DJ Premier to release a 1999 12” single, “Boom.” Although Game Recordings placed their trademark bikini-clad “Hip-Hop Honey” on the picture cover single, no alluring marketing tools were necessary, as the Detroit, Michigan MC and the Gang Starr producer more than seduced ears with an explosive breakout single that took the brag-rap renaissance and joined the elite ranks of Big Daddy Kane, Big L, and Mad Skillz.

It would take nearly two years for “Boom” to belong to anything more than the hearts and headphones of Hip-Hop purists. When Royce’s post-pump-fake debut, Rock City 2.0 hit store shelves in late 2002, two different sets of label executives and internal pressures had taken the highly-confident, sharp cadenced MC and dressed him up in rhinestones, quite literally, and also figuratively in mainstream-aimed production. While marketing promoted the Bad Meets Evil ties of Nickel Nine to Eminem on third single “Rock City,” supporters seemingly gravitated towards the LP’s two Premo collaborations, “Boom” and “My Friend.”

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In the dozen years that followed, a lot has happened to the careers of Royce and Premier. A string of challenging events put Royce at a distance from Em, at odds with Proof, and for a bulk of it, seemingly out to pasture from the major label system. As he today admits, the artist nee Ryan Montgomery existed with a microphone in one hand and a bottle in the other.  It was only music that could get close to him. Supplying a lot of that music, DJ Premier was forever steadfast. In New York City, Premier’s career had also altered in the mid-2000s. Gang Starr, an unbreakable 15-year bond, went on a dramatic hiatus. D&D Studios, NYC’s hardcore Hip-Hop Damascus, would suffer the slings of decimated album budgets, hit du jour producers, and an Internet that demanded its Rap music fast, cheap, and constant. With Christopher Wallace no longer at the top, and Jay Z and Nas looking elsewhere, it was Pop star Christina Aguilera who kept a low-profile Premier in the mainstream. Meanwhile, Preem kept a close circle of hardcore artists who did his gritty scratch and sample-driven tracks justice. Standing tall in the mix was always Royce.

In the form of a nine-song album, PRhyme has fully taken shape. This intersection is the sum of more than a decade of standout interludes in the careers of DJ Premier and Royce Da 5’9”. While “Boom” and “Hip-Hop” stood out as enduring exercises in sticking deliveries and cultural commentary, this effort taps more into 2009’s “Shake This.” Rather than hosting an MC clinic, Royce submitted to the track for his own therapy session. PRhyme’s title track lives more in this world, built around self-confidence in the craft. Nickel’s lyrics explore sobriety, commitment to family, and avoiding temptations of all kinds. Preemo meets the moment with minimalism—a tight arrangement of Adrian Younge’s anachronistic drums, with some crisp scratches in the gaps. “You Should Know” builds on this, speaking to the misguided crop of new rappers, who conveniently lease a tough image to cover up weakness. Royce, an artist who served time in the mid-2000s amplifies the reality of lyrics, while championing the type of talk-it, live-it Hip-Hop that DJ Premier has historically produced. Veteran Motown crooner Dwele loans a handful of vocal riffs to the track that enhances the working relationship the two artists have had since Full Clip was loaded. As they do on every song from the project, Adrian Younge’s elements—strings, in the case of “You Should Know”–cannot be overstated. The California-based producer (Ghostface Killah, Souls Of Mischief, The Dramatics) and record-store owner is the sonic source for Premier’s surgery. Credited as the third member of the group, perhaps it is Younge’s role to set many of the tones for this reflective, open album.

“To Me, To You” celebrates individuality. Since his Bad Meets Evil introduction, Royce Da 5’9” has been many things, at many times. Nickel’s five previous albums have teetered at times, between gun-totin’ Gangsta Rap to B-Boy bravado to diary-style revelations. Effortlessly blended together, this Jay Electronica-assisted moment taps into Royce’s complexities. The guest is the wise choice, given his own intricacies and perceived contradictions, which naturally are stirred in the closing verse. “Wishin’” is pure grit. The way Gang Starr honored 1998’s “The Militia” brilliantly with 2003’s “Capture,” this Common collaboration has “Boom” in clear reference. Sharp as he ever was, Royce shines, with Common making his own Preem reunion. On each of the two last mentioned tracks, the Texas-born DJ/producer utilizes more than one beat, which the listen may interpret as joy in the pocket. In the 1990s, on touted tracks by Guru, Jay, and Jeru The Damaja, Premier over-achieved as the producer who could tease ears with snippets, outdoing others’ best. Although PRhyme is arguably EP-length, its nuances and attention to detail are that of an album.

While centered around Royce, Premier and Adrian, PRhyme is an inviting open house. Whether joined by tight knit band-mates Slaughterhouse on “Microphone Preem” or more distant peer acquaintances Killer Mike and ScHoolboy Q on “Underground Kings,” everything relates. Just as Royce and Premier have maneuvered many circles (and circumstances) in their respective careers, perhaps this album asserts that the walls within Hip-Hop are self-imposed. With a combined 50 years, the PRhyme trio blends with keepers of the art, whether that is Mac Miller’s bendable wordplay or Joe Budden’s vengeful mania on the industry. After years of artists seeking Preem tracks and Nickel features looking to accentuate their albums, these two artists seek out those far-reaching corners of Rap to build upon theirs.

Lyrically, Royce Da 5’9” both sheds some of his skin, as well as thumbs through his personal and professional scrapbook. Speaking in sounds and scratches, one can hear that DJ Premier is doing the same. After a handful of clearly defined stylistic periods in his career, largely traceable through the Gang Starr discography, PRhyme is the next step. These nine tracks uphold the reputation for pounding percussion, no-frills audiophile choruses and precise chops. However, the timing is different than the Livin’ Proof and Moment Of Truth standard that Chris Martin has been tirelessly held up against. Cleverly restricted to Adrian’s sources, the HeadQCourterz producer emerges with fuller tracks featuring dense instrumentation. These “deep concentration” cuts are magically scored to moving trains, sidewalks, and the rhythm of the people. While his competition is ducking paparazzi and topping Forbes lists, DJ Premier has been mourning his legendary partner and sketching his next movement, in a legendary studio that’s said to be closing this month. He’s got good reason to be fiery, emotional, even brazen, and the Works Of Mart sound is vibrant and fiercely competitive in PRhyme.

Back on “Boom,” Royce powerfully stated “Me and Premier, we kinda the same in ways…” As a group and as an album, PRhyme proves that to be more than true. With major parts of their lives afire, both of these men walked out alive—with Hip-Hop in their arms. It was the industry that may have burned out, no longer patient, trusting, or supportive of artistic visionaries. With or without the platform, the studio, or even the potential audience, these two men found the embers in themselves, and were able to share it with the masses on nine smoldering tracks.

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Jake Paine is a veteran music industry professional. Prior to 2008-2012’s post as HipHopDX’s Editor-in-Chief, Paine was AllHipHop’s Features Editor from 2002 to 2007. He has also written for Forbes, XXL, The Source, Mass Appeal, among others. He currently resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Related: Hear All of DJ Premier & Royce Da 5’9″‘s PRhyme EP a Week Early (EP Stream)