Heaven Studios, Inc / Entertainment One U.S.
Heaven Studios, Inc / Entertainment One U.S.

Royce 5'9" is an old dog teaching hip-hop new tricks. Having released more than two decades of music both as a solo artist and in groups like Slaughterhouse and Bad Meets Evil, Royce has become a familiar, reliable presence for rap fans. Yet after making a career relating his experience through hard-nosed, deft lyrics, the Detroit MC still has layers of his life that have gone virtually untouched. Until now. 

Book of Ryan, Royce's seventh studio solo album and second overall project of 2018 after March's PRhyme 2 with DJ Premier, posits that not even those closest to Royce truly know him. On the album skit "Who Are You," Royce's son James interrupts him having a dream about his own father to ask him questions—he's working on a report about an inspirational figure and has chosen his dad as the subject. "How can I write the paper of my father when I don't know who he is?" James asks.

Royce's latest work is a frank response to that inquiry. Through the album's 21 tracks, the 40-year-old rapper relays his life experiences—especially his low points—to his son, through masterful storytelling and lyricism that weaves heartbreaking stories peppered with wisdom, advice and reflection.

On the mellow "Outside," Royce unloads some of his greatest fears, especially the idea that James will fall victim to a generational curse of addiction. The powerful "Strong Friend" is an important reminder to check up on loved ones who appear to be doing well on the surface but may be secretly dealing with trauma, depression or suicidal thoughts. Over morose strings, his vocals grow in intensity: "And this message is to Denaun and to Shady, you say we friends?/Well take care of Lyric, 80 and baby Quinn like they Hailie, then/Well shit is my funeral, y'all should play all of my songs too/Hope my body look beautiful, while I lay in my strong suit/Rumors spread about me that ain't true, that's how the fake do/If I'm the strong friend, then what the fuck do that make you?!"

Royce's most powerful stories and advice come when he talks about his family and childhood. On "Cocaine," he reflects on his father's coke habit, questioning whether it impacted his own later struggles with alcoholism and ultimately praising his father for going to rehab. The Boi-1da-produced "Power" is the album's emotional centerpiece, though. Over solemn piano keys and a hiccuping vocal sample, Royce spends nearly seven minutes telling stories of family gathering during the holidays: Royce knocking out his brother Greg at Thanksgiving, his dad escorted out in handcuffs after abusing his mother during Christmas. Yet at the end, Royce tells James that even those bad memories shaped him and his life experiences, especially now that he's a father himself.

The album isn't all about these complex family issues and fatherly advice, though. On multiple occasions, Royce simply focuses on bars. He spits swiftly on "Legendary," utilizes an extraterrestrial, synth-powered instrumental courtesy of Mr. Porter. "Caterpillar" is a tough-as-nails lyrical showcase on which he and Eminem warn newer rappers to respect the old guard. "Summer on Lock" is a posse cut from some of the hardest-hitting rappers around, boasting guest turns from Fabolous, Jadakiss, Pusha T and Agent Sasco as they all decimate a beat by StreetRunner and Tarik Azzouz. Cool & Dre and 808-Ray's mystical beat on the nostalgic "Boblo Boat" fits J. Cole's flow like a glove; the two rappers swap stories of adolescent mischief. Boogie shows why Eminem signed him to Shady Records with an effortless verse on "Dumb" over keys kissed by the California sun.

None of these guest turns or the solid production from the likes of DJ Khalil, Mr. Porter and S1 distract from the fact that this is Royce's story. He comes off as the star first and foremost. The emotional heft of Royce's bars keeps the attention on him, as he constantly turns his rich life experiences into thought-provoking lyrics. The album does start to feel the weight of having 21 tracks at times, but little overstays its welcome. Even 20 years into his career, Royce maintains his reputation as one of hip-hop's premier rappers by releasing his most affecting work yet.

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