Sobriety is a bitch -- just ask Royce da 5'9". The Detroit rapper has only been on the wagon for about four years, but ever since he stopped drinking, the memories of his life have come flooding back to him. That's why he's been able to drop songs like the nostalgic “Tabernacle,” the first track he wrote when he got sober. Judging by the song, thank god Royce put the bottle down.

“Tabernacle” is the first single from his upcoming album, Layers, due April 15, his first solo LP in almost five years. It looks to be an encapsulation of Royce’s many sides -- battle rapper, punchline specialist, quick-witted wordsmith, humorous misfit -- while also bringing a clear-eyed clarity to his own personal past. On the single, he details meeting his manager in ’97, listening to Redman and Heltah Skeltah at Detroit’s legendary Shelter venue and the day he met Eminem.

What’s most obvious about Royce is that though he’s been rapping for almost 20 years, he might be in the best lyrical shape of his life right now. Fresh off the success that was PRhyme with DJ Premier (yes, they have more music on the way) last year, Royce sounds energized, and when XXL spoke to him on the phone, not only did we talk about Layers, but the album he has coming after that -- and the EP before it, too.

During our conversation, Nickel reminisced about his early days on the battle circuit and told us about the first time he met Marshall. He didn’t bite his tongue on the crisis in Flint, Mich. and rappers who say “All Lives Matter.” In a sense, Royce is done holding back. It’s time to get to know the real Ryan Daniel Montgomery.

XXL: How’re you feelin’ today?

Royce da 5'9": I’m good. I’m glad to be finally getting some music back out. I know it’s been a minute since PRhyme but I’ve been taking my time slowly crafting it together. I’ve actually spent this time and made two albums. I got another album that I’m putting out right after Layers, so I’m definitely excited about that.

“Tabernacle” is a beautiful record on every level -- the songwriting, the narrative, the production. Why did you decide to go in such a personal route and tell these personal stories on the album’s first single? 

Well, when I got sober almost four years ago a whole lotta memories just started hitting me, like a whole lotta things from my childhood and a whole lotta reflecting started to happen. And obviously it started to show in my music. “Tabernacle” was the first record I wrote when I got sober, the very first record I recorded.

Sometimes on your single you got somethin’ to say, you got somethin’ you gotta get off your chest. You got something you want to let people know, let people in on. And that’s pretty much where I’m at in my career. I’m not really focused on how many radio spins I can get or how many clubs my music is playing in. I really just wanna do cool shit and put shit out that means something. So that’s why I decided to go in this direction.

The album is called Layers. What are some of the layers fans can expect from you on the album?

I’ll be peeling back all of them. One of my layers is PRhyme, another is Slaughterhouse, another is Bad Meets Evil. All of these different styles and sides of my creativity come out in different ways and different groups, and this is basically me peeling back all the layers and giving you every side of me as Royce da 5’9” the solo artist in 2016. This is the complete artist.

You mentioned all these memories flooding back to you after getting sober. You spent a lot of time on the battle circuit early in your career. What’s one memory that sticks out to you from that period?

We had a battle at the Ebony Showcase. My crew back then was called Wall Street and we had this big battle with a crew called the Clinic and it ended up turning into a huge fight at the Ebony Showcase. And we tore the whole club up.

It started because one of the rappers in the Clinic got up and did a diss record about me, so when he got off the stage I got up to do my diss record about him and all of us were on the stage. Some of his people wanted to come up on stage and get in my face while I was rapping. And then it just turned into a big ass fight. I’ll never forget that.

Layers is executive produced by you and Denaun Porter. What made you go with Denaun? 

Well, I was working alongside a lot of producers and there’s something about when me and Porter get together, it’s a chemistry there that I don’t have with a lot of other producers. Even when I’m putting on my producer hat and there are certain ideas I have about music in between songs, he’s one of the people that can bring it to life because he’s so like-minded. It’s a certain comfort zone that I have when I’m working with him, so I figured if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. So he was in L.A. and I asked him to fly home and help me finish off the album because I still needed to work on sequencing and lining everything up. And we ended up recording actually a whole new song and he helped me do all the sequencing, so if I got someone who’ll do that for me I gotta put ‘em to good use.

You’ve got a couple beats from Khalil on the album too.

Khalil’s another one I’m always trying to work with as much as I can whenever I can. He’s always busy with different projects he’s working on, different stuff he’s cooking up for artists, so anytime I have the opportunity to work with Khalil I try to jump at it.

Is there one song you’re really excited for people to hear from Layers specifically?

I don’t mean to sound cliché but the album as a whole is my best work to date. I can’t wait for people to hear it just so I can get feedback on what people think about it once they start picking apart and dissecting songs. I can’t wait to read the comments and hear what everybody has to say. I’m excited about the whole process.

You mentioned playing Layers for some people. Have you played Eminem the album?

I haven’t had a chance to play him this album. I played him some of my other album, but not this one because I’ve been real busy running around, doing a lot of traveling. He’s been traveling. We normally travel together because I’m usually in his traveling party but I haven’t been able to travel with him the last couple times he’s left Detroit, so I haven’t really got a chance to see him and play it for him.

Did he have any thoughts on the other album?

Yeah, yeah… he loved that one. He said a whole lot of good shit about that one. He was definitely taken aback by that one. He was real surprised. He said he didn’t expect it to be that good even though he expected it to be good. He said I opened up a new chamber, a new part of myself that even he didn’t know about. Songs like “Tabernacle” he was like, “Yo, you said shit in that song I didn’t even know, and I’ve been knowing you for 20 years.”

I know you and your manager Kino go back a long time, and Kino was actually the one who introduced you to Eminem right? 

Yup, Kino introduced us. We were at the show and I was performing on stage and Marshall was at the show. He had his Slim Shady EP that he was selling at the show. He had a booth set up. And we all knew who Eminem was, he was making a lot of noise lyrically. Everybody in the hip-hop scene knew who he was.

So Kino was talking to him and when I got off stage Kino was like, “Let me introduce you. This is Eminem.” So I was like, “Waddup, man? How you doing? I like your shit.” And he was like, “Dog. Did you just say, ‘I’m iller than standing in front of a gorilla holding a banana’?” [Laughs] That’s a line that I said when I was on stage, I said it a cappella. I was on my Canibus shit back then [laughs]. So I was like “Yeah” and he was like, “Yo, man, that’s fucking ill.” I was like, “Thanks, man.”

So we ended up getting on the phone, having some conversations and that led to getting in the studio in Detroit and recording this song called “Bad Meets Evil.” When he eventually signed his deal with Dre, he reached back out to me because he wanted to put that song on his first album. So when I flew out to L.A. to re-record the vocals, that’s when we got like super tight.

I also want to talk to you about “Dead Presidents.” That’s not on the album, correct?

Yeah, that’s gonna be on a project called Trust the Shooter that I’m doing, it’s a little EP that I’m gonna release very soon before the album. You’ll hear that EP before the album. I recorded that song because originally I was trying to write something that I could memorize and spit on Sway’s show. So I was in there writing it and feeling it and it ended up getting to almost seven minutes and ended up being a whole song.

So I said you know what man, I’m just gon’ mix this and make it a song and tell Sway next time I come through, I’ll spit something. Because I didn’t have any other raps memorized, so that’s why I played a piece of it on his show. That’s how a little bit of it got out, but there are still a couple more minutes left on that song. I’m just gon’ go in there, adlib it a little and put it out.

You mention a lot of things on “Dead Presidents,” including rappers who say "All Lives Matter." What’s your take on that?

Black Lives Matter. I think it’s just something that was basically formed to say, “Stop killing our kids.” It’s not to say all lives don’t matter. It’s just to say stop treating our communities like our lives don’t matter. We matter too. Our lives are just as important as anybody else’s. It’s not saying only our lives matter. It’s saying our lives matter too.

So when you try to douse that flame by saying, “It’s not about black lives. It’s about all lives,” you’re taking away our ability to fight for what we believe in, and that’s not cool. So when you got a fellow black artist, especially a hip-hop artist, talking about that like that, you’re trying to be a little too politically correct. And this ain’t really no time to be politically correct. This is time for the truth to come out. This is time for awareness to be raised. So I get somewhat offended when I hear artists talk like that, I take it a little personally because this is a time for us to be together, to unify.

What’s your take on the crisis in Flint, Mich.?

Nothing short of an act of terrorism. It’s a testament to young black lives being treated like guinea pigs. Our lives don’t matter. All of these things aren’t coincidence. There are ulterior motives, like moving people out of these communities. It’s always some greater power move aligned with these types of situations, and the lives that are lost during that shit just shows how disposable we can be. So we gotta stand up and fight that shit. We gotta raise the awareness and make statements like Black Lives Matter. That’s not to offend white people or anybody. It means we’re standing up for ourselves.

Look what’s happening to us. Put yourself in our shoes. I got a son that’s 18 years old. I don’t want my son to die from lead poisoning, and I for sure don’t want no police officer blowing his fuckin’ head off because he got Skittles in his pocket. That’s what it is.

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