Royce da 5'9"'s Book of Ryan offers vulnerability on family and addiction, but never sacrifices its energy to deliver the message.
Book of Ryan
Royce da 5'9"
Heaven Studios / eOne
4 May 2018
Last year, Jay-Z proved on 4:44 that 40-plus-year-old rappers still have something to say, and still have something to learn. Vulnerability is not always something that becomes easier with age, but what Jay did on that album was focus on his family and his own missteps, and he delivered a masterpiece. It's in that same vein that Detroit rapper Royce da 5'9" delivers his seventh studio album, Book of Ryan.
Having already put out a solid set of bangers this year on his collaboration with DJ Premier, PRhyme 2, Royce turns to his own solo release to open-heartedly discusses family, addiction, and his childhood in a semi-concept album format. The main premise of the concept centers around Royce's son James asking his dad questions about his life for a school assignment "to go in depth about a figure in our lives that you find inspiring." However, that idea doesn't come into play until track seven of the lengthy 20 songs on Book of Ryan. What's found in the tracks prior to this storyline though is an excellent display of East Coast energy. After the intro, Royce dives in on "Woke" over booming 808s and a sample of The Sopranos theme song which set the tone for the hard-hitting, bare production heard throughout the album.
"Caterpillar" is the highlight of these opening tracks. Featuring Eminem, the Bad Meets Evil duo trade verses demanding respect from the young generation of rappers, as Royce condescends, "All you niggas my little rapper babies / Y'all my children, y'all bit my shit and contracted rabies." Eminem continues the young vs. old beef, declaring, "The boom bap is back with an axe to mumble rap." Whatever you think of the debate between rap generations, there's no denying the lyrical power of a Royce or an Eminem.
For Royce, that lyrical power most often comes in the form of vivid storytelling, which here is truly film-like. His voice quivers as he questions, "How did I inherit so much pain / I drink a lot of alcohol, problems with the law / Would I have done better or the same / If Daddy never tried cocaine?" Royce is unconditionally thankful to his father despite the drug abuse since he went to rehab and cleaned up "because he didn't want to lose us / Whew, strong man." Royce continues the discussion of his relationship with his father on the outro of "Power" when his son asks if his father was a good father to him.
In hindsight, he answers, "Absolutely. All my friend's daddies was walking out on them left and right. Y'know he never left us…I understand and appreciate him so much more now as a man 'cause he taught me respect and discipline and consequences for your acts." It takes a lot to look at someone who has a drug history and is prone to domestic violence as is laid out honestly on "Power" and pull out the good, respectable lessons learned from that person in our lives. But here, Royce shows the maturity to acknowledge the good impact people can have in our lives despite the wrong. The wrongs aren't excused by any means, but there must always be room for forgiveness and reconciliation.
This type of wisdom is why the older generation of rappers must still have a place in the game. While the tracklist drags on a bit on Book of Ryan, the discussions of dysfunctional family life ("Power") and mental illness ("Strong Friend") are heavy and worthwhile topics. Royce doesn't sacrifice energy for message either. "Summer on Lock", "Caterpillar", "Legendary", and others are fiery bursts of boom bap and trap which show that at nearly 41, Royce is not slowing down.