Royce 5’9’s Allegory Album Sets The Bar Extremely High For 2020. Listen Here
For years, there was an industry adage that Hip-Hop was a young person’s game. While labels may forever seek teenage and early twenty-something talent, the 2010s more than put that notion to bed. More than ever, Hip-Hop Heads showed that balance was needed when it came to perspective. At a time when new artists flooded the market and advanced the sounds and trends of Rap, key artists took their music to new places. A forty-something MC no longer needed nostalgia to stay relevant. JAY-Z’s 4:44 may have been the colorful pace-car of the revelation, but plenty of elite Hip-Hop artists were writing new chapters in legacies long thought to be dried cement.
Royce 5’9 is one such artist. Twenty years after he was one of the most exciting MCs approaching Y2K, Ryan Montgomery proved that his artistic clock was reset in the best possible way. Although 2016’s Layers was a cut above, 2018 illustrated Nickel Nine’s incredible prowess. Royce and longtime collaborator DJ Premier delivered PRhyme 2—filled with intricate wordplay, punchlines, and the kind of chemistry that “Boom” and “Hip Hop” fans dreamed about for decades. Weeks after, 5’9 gave us The Book Of Ryan, his benchmark LP. The music went new places, the gates to vulnerability opened up in new ways, and an artist who was so good at mood music brought a spectrum of emotions under one theme.
In the nearly two years since Ryan, Royce challenged himself in a new way. He made his Heaven Studios into a home. Tucked away in the night, Royce soaked up some game from Mr. Porter and DJ Premier, and the MC began making beats. Those beats organically led Royce to a multi-faceted message. While Heads heard a fervent sermon at the top of 2019 with “Field Negro,” last fall’s “Black Savage” became the first peek at The Allegory. Royce was taking perception and terminology from behind the curtains of American culture, and dressing it up as Black Excellence, alongside T.I., CyHi The Prynce, Sy Ari Da Kid, and White Gold.
Other songs have followed. January’s “Overcomer,” featuring Westside Gunn, had a video that showed the damaging effects of Tekashi 6ix9ine—and all pop-up-rappers like him. In the lyrics, Nickel Nine minced no words for Yelawolf, who he put on warning. “I Don’t Age” may as well have been a clinic on lyricism blended with messaging. Then, “Upside Down” with Benny The Butcher, added to another visual commentary. The lyrics featured more indictments on race in America, including caricatures of the human body, Bill Maher and Louis C.K. using the N-word, and Gucci’s offensive sweater from last year.
Today (February 21), Royce 5’9 hand-delivers his eighth album, The Allegory. Modeled after Plato’s Allegory Of The Cave (something Royce recently read), the LP builds conversations between mentors and seekers, not unlike the text where Socrates and Glaucon discuss nature and nurture. Royce brings in some of the sharpest MCs (with equally sharp minds). Vince Staples, Benny, Conway The Machine, CyHi, Oswin Benjamin, G Perico, and younger brother, Kid Vishis. Together, this cast of truth-seekers shares their message over incredible beats laced by Royce 5’9, and another hour-plus slap in the face to short attention spans and belief that substance is not catchy.
With Royce responsible for the music and orchestration of the album, he takes amazing liberties. In a tradition of Wu-Tang Clan and Prince Paul, The Allegory‘s interludes are the mortar to its musical bricks. Readings and clips deal with the same issues as the album. There are mini songs too. “Rhinestone Doo Rag,” named after Royce’s early 2000s major-label marketing prop, is one of the LP’s most pungent moments. In 80 seconds, the MC spits, “White Jesus taught you heathens cross you just to stone you / Knowledge and power arms you quicker than ignorance disarms you / I hate to see Tee Grizzley going through sh*t he shouldn’t be going through / I hate to see Shady respond to sh*t he shouldn’t respond to / I hate that your Commander-In-Chief is more demander and thief / And it seems like this boy just can’t be impeached / I can’t be under the thumb of one who seems to be attracted to his own daughter / Why should we not set up shop? We Black, we’re our own barbers / But even a jewel from a fool is still a gem A dude’ll put more energy in killing you than healing him.” Like the philosophers he reads, Royce speaks in wisdom while addressing Rap gossip, politics, and Black independence. Before handing the rock to the next generation, he says, “Pac and Biggie died for you rappers so you don’t have to / Martin and Malcolm died for your blackness, pursue your masters / I wore that rhinestone doo-rag so you don’t have to.” An album that attacks the label system (see: the words after Royce’s verse on “Upside Down”), bridges the generation gap for artists on the rise. Royce regrets playing to the record company’s vision, only to find his most celebrated success independently, and working with loved ones.
That conversation between the generations is alive on “Young World.” Honoring Slick Rick, the song travels to L.A., where Vince Staples and G Perico spit phenomenal verses. “You ain’t thuggin’ ’til your mothers know you doin’ wrong / He was a soldier, he can’t come home, she kiss him through the phone / But y’all ain’t ever do what you rappin’ / Yankee fitted, barrel kickin’ like it’s Snoop in Manhattan,” raps Vince. “Comin’ from the ghetto where this ignorance is bliss, yeah / Gunfire sparked the mind now the mind had changed the world / High fashion got me scorin’ big with all the fine girls / It was all a dream, GQ magazines / Hit the Billboard, throwin’ up the 2 when the big G / Young world, young world / Make way for the new progressive gangster with the curl.”
“Tricked,” with Kxng Crooked, is another standout moment. The two seasoned MCs address Industry Rule #4080 in precise terms. “Tricked into thinking we need that, we need this / Tricked into thinkin’ since we rap, we get rich / Trick, trick, my ni**a, it’s a trick / Trick, trick, it’s a trick, we’ve been tricked / Into thinkin’ that the art is a pie to be split / My ni**a, it’s a farce, it’s a lie, we’ve been tricked / If you can name a record label guy takin’ risks / Then I can name a misdirected guy that’s been tricked / Tricked, this is why I don’t f*ck with them / Only thing they takin’ is your publishin’ / Watch you make mistakes in the court of public sin / Got you concentratin’ on hittin’ the club, gettin’ spins / Ballin’ off of your budget, that’s at your expense / Your A&R spendin’ five, they deductin’ 10,” Royce raps. In the second verse, he leaves music to point out mental trickery about health, wellness, family, and more. Crooked I condemns the prison industry from several angles. “Thinkin’ it’s a right of passage for a Black male / Ain’t a real ni**a ’til you enter that jail / It’s a trick, it’s a spell / You’re bewitched, it’s an L / You’re bigger than that prison, like Mandela in the cell.”
Like The Cave dealt with mental slavery, so does The Allegory. Royce and his cohorts are bringing themselves to the light, not to return. Musically, Royce’s journey celebrates sounds varying from 1970s Kenyan Rock to references of Boogie Down Productions, Dana Dane, and Suzanne Vega. For decades, Royce cut gems with legendary producers across Hip-Hop. Now, in one fell swoop, he proves to join the giants as a magnificent double-threat with a unique and dynamic sound. At a time when he could seem preoccupied behind the boards, Nickel Nine steps into the mic booth seemingly to top his best work, again. This album bridges generations; mentoring the comers-up while making it a conversation more than a sermon. It confronts prejudice, and racial inequality in every corner of society, and disseminates the acts for us all to realize. Through it all, this album is an abundant reminder that Royce 5’9 is a best-in-class MC. While his dues were paid years ago, he is one G.O.A.T. contender whose best work is still coming out hot off the presses.