On ‘Book of Ryan’, the rap veteran sends a defiant message to the young pretenders
Over the span of his 20-year career, Royce da 5’9″, real name Ryan Montgomery, has always occupied a curious space within the music industry. His association with fellow Detroit vet Eminem, for example, has been something of a double-edged sword from day one. On one hand, it gave him a truly global platform that he may not otherwise have had. On the other, it has meant, unfairly, that he has been viewed as being in Marshall’s shadow.
However, judging by Em’s feature on Caterpillar, this is not something that Royce feels at all self-conscious about. In fact, Royce allows him to rip over 44 bars, rather than the usual 16, stealing the limelight from King Green in the process. The track goes hard, musically and lyrically, and is the first instance that The Book of Ryan is standing on both feet as a record.
The late great Gil Scott-Heron, who is sampled heavily on Caterpillar, was a huge influence on hip hop, and his personal influence on Royce becomes even more apparent over the rest of the album, particularly pertaining to brutal realism of his lyrics. Who Are You is an emotionally raw spoken word track that flows over melancholy piano chords, and flows perfectly into Cocaine, a genuinely moving portrayal of inter-generational struggles with substance abuse and addiction. Half-rapped and half-sung, the track achieves more depth in 3 and a half minutes than a lot of rappers manage throughout their whole careers.
As will be clear by this point, Book of Ryan is Royce’s life story in musical form. What’s remarkable about this is that it doesn’t feel at all self-indulgent. Instead of lazily recounting the stories of his youth and young manhood, he takes you there with him, painting vivid pictures that one can’t help but get fully immersed in.
He’s not just stuck in the past, though. On lead single Dumb, he launches a blistering attack on the modern-day music industry, delivered with a righteous scorn that one would expect from a man who has garnered so much critical acclaim, yet never been given the spotlight he deserves. If he sounds bitter on this track, that’s probably because he is, but it doesn’t make his statements any less accurate.
Royce drafted in almost a dozen different producers for this record, all of whom perform at the top of their ability. A special mention should go to to Slaughterhouse stablemate Mr Porter, formerly known as Kon Artis of D-12, who produces the bulk of the tracks.
Amazing is a particular highlight, documenting Ryan’s return to the hood once he’s made it in the industry. It’s a perfect marriage of lyrics and beat, and provides a welcome upswing in the overall mood of the record, which spends a lot of time in dark places.
Almost immediately, we find ourselves back in one of those dark places – on Power, Royce details his father’s destructive relationship with the rest of his family over the backdrop of a simplistic piano beat that Dr Dre would be proud of. It’s a tough listen, but a rewarding one nonetheless.
The record is not without its flaws – it does feel slightly too long, for one thing. There are a few parts which you’ll wish lasted longer, and some skits which seem superfluous, but such is the depth and vision of the record, these blips barely make a mark on the overall listening experience.
Book of Ryan is grown-man rap, but is by no means tired or jaded – quite the opposite. After holding a bittersweet funeral ceremony for his past life, Royce is set to embark on a potentially glorious new chapter. As the man himself says on the opening track, “There is no such thing as me being in my prime (…) I can always improve”.
Words to live by.
Standout tracks: Cocaine, God Speed, Amazing
For fans of: Common, Joe Budden, Nas
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