Royce 5’9’s Book Of Ryan Is A New Chapter & Proof That He Is 1 Of Hip-Hop’s Greatest MCs
At the top of this decade, Royce 5’9 began tying up loose ends in the interest of personal growth and legacy. Slaughterhouse had recently taken shape, exciting the possibilities for Royce and three MCs with like-minded verbal values. Next, Nickel Nine and Eminem revived Bad Meets Evil, their short-lived duo that had been a high-profile launchpad into Royce’s solo career. Even apart from some of the past misunderstandings between the two Detroit phenoms, B.M.E. seemed relegated to a “what-if” or a pump-fake in a chapter of Rap folklore. By summer of 2011, the EP earned Royce a gold plaque and put all interpersonal Eminem questions to rest for good. The two artists used music as a statement about their bond, their passion for a style of Rap thought bygone and showed that they heard their loudest and staunchest fans from the cheap seats.
It is also during this period that Royce 5’9 became sober. Just as it had for Eminem, the life-changing decision marked a turning point in Ryan Montgomery’s career. The songwriting shifted more than it changed. For an artist who had been trying to “Shake This” for several years, he succeeded. As a result, on the MC’s albums, an impressionism took shape that may not have been the case in the earlier, angrier, and sometimes disjointed previous works.
“When I first got sober, a lot of memories started hitting me. I started thinking about a lot of things from my childhood and I actually went and wrote a lot of stories, a lot of personal, introspective songs that I didn’t use for this album,” Royce told Andres Tardio for Billboard in 2016, regarding Layers. Presumably, those unused songs set a foundation for this month’s Book Of Ryan, marking full deliverance.
At a time when music seems to stream in the cloud, the concept of a book fits Ryan Montgomery at 40. His seventh solo album signifies his life as scripture—written to educate with parables that listeners can relate to, learn from, or both. Moreover, it is this body of work that deserves to be put on display in a career with indelible singles, gold plaques, three groups, and some of the finest artist mixtapes ever given away to fans. This is a memoir, seemingly written as a look back on the journey in a way that is highly-engaging for all. If there is a collection of songs to understand what makes Royce 5’9 great at rapping and making art, Book Of Ryan belongs on the shelf.
The notion of rappers venting from a therapeutic place is not new. However, the act of wise, respected MCs courageously re-examining themselves without feeling guarded is very much in season. Less than one year ago, JAY-Z’s 4:44 songwriting required no Decoded to understand its confessions, and how a then-47-year-old Rap giant had not just learned to live with regrets, but how to mend himself and others. Turning 40 later this year, Phonte Coleman rapped from the heart about the issues facing his family and yours in the exceptional and recent No News Is Good News. Royce has been showing personal vulnerability next to his artistic confidence for nearly 20 years, but he has never opened the curtain as effectively as The Book Of Ryan. He shows his fans that the makings of a man are truly far more interesting than his microphone magic act.
First single “Boblo Boat” travels back to an affordable getaway for the working class Black families of Detroit. J. Cole directs a music video for the collaboration that recaptures a trip to the amusement park as less of an escape than a blunt confrontation of reality. Losing his virginity through unprotected, otherwise meaningless sex, stepping on broken glass bottles in the water-park, and having one’s own damning first sips of alcohol rule a song that can be deceptive in its soothing beat and Cole chorus. Sneaking into the park, Royce and others like him were running away from an innocence that was never going to be lasting.
Family plays an integral part of Ryan. Royce examines “Cocaine” and its effect on his life. While Rap has dealt with powder in verse since the ‘70s, there is pain, not pride, in Royce’s wounded vocal at the chorus. He describes his working-class father using, lying about it, and its plausible impact on Royce’s drinking. The record ends with cathartic clarity, and some of the most potent words Ryan Montgomery has ever spit: “Now let’s talk about how much I respect my pop / He’s been through so much in life, we ain’t never had a lot / We just had each other’s back, that was really all we need / Pop, I love you unconditional and thanks for loving me / More than, cocaine… / My father chose me over cocaine / Cocaine, uh / I’m proud to say that I’m an addict who inherits your pain.” Especially playing after the jarringly real skit “Who Are You,” this song is about more than substance abuse, as Royce shows his father some of the same love and affirmation that he has longed to receive.
From finding grams in the seat of his father’s car to his aunt’s hands-off style of babysitting on “Life Is Fair,” Royce’s memories are vivid and specific. Like a coming of age film, his recollections are specific shots that purposefully serve his evolution. “Amazing” can seem like a whimsical show-tune as Royce remembers bouncing an Isiah Thomas-signed ball down the sidewalks and through the stores of Fair Oak. However, it is moments in passing—like when he longs for an older brother he may not recognize anymore, thanks to a prison stay—that shatter the conventional rose-tinted lenses. Royce is a product of a time, a family, and a set of circumstances that make him a survivor—and put him in a position to be “Legendary.” In passing, he addresses racism, cruelty from cops, and cases of record industry #4080. Those quick but barbed moments stick in a bigger composite.
This album is about Royce sorting out the defining experiences in his life. On “Stay Woke,” he raps, “Paintin’ pictures of this historical war of attrition who’s just, the dopest, the wokest I’m five years sober / Trauma from my childhood, constantly haunts me ’til I finally cry tears over.” On the exceptional interlude “My Parallel,” Royce poetically poses, “The book of Ryan / The untold tale of scandal / All my bars of madness / That are inspired by my childhood, scars and sadness.”
Beyond life and times, Royce looks at the state of Rap music and his role in it. Even after the underdog started getting greater recognition a decade ago, it admittedly has not been enough. “Caterpillar,” featuring Eminem, is more Bad Meets Evil than Ryan and Marshall. If today’s artists will not quickly cite Nickel and Em as influences, these two incensed veteran MCs will do it for them. The maniacal bars are a Rocky V or a Color Of Money-type reminder that it is still their torch to possess, for any contemporary rappers not treating the borrowed piece with care and gratitude.
It was Royce’s deadpan wit and cutting arrogance that made a late ‘90s newcomer feel like an extension of the Big L or Ras Kass school of rhyme. However, this time Royce looks back at his own life as a portrait of the artist as a young man with the same surgical knife. He does not cut as much as he seems driven to make sense of his journey. While there, Royce unpacks the things that led him astray from the typical path and made him who he is: not simply a man in recovery, but a proud Black father, a living success story, a product of the harsh Reagan-era Motor City, and one of the sharpest-tongued MCs in Hip-Hop history.