Layers challenges the frontrunners of contemporary hip-hop with inspired storytelling and top-notch MCing.
Royce Da 5’9 is a rapper from cracked pavement of Detroit, Michigan, a rapper who has made a name for himself in the hip-hop community by consistently providing thought provoking bars, palpable rap narratives, and a unique style of delivery that differentiates him from the stylistics of many contemporary rappers. Royce’s take on the hip-hop aesthetic is reminiscent of the street dialogues of Nas, Eminem, and Pusha T: hard, abrasive, and quick-witted verses that flaunt the lyrical finesse of the MC, a style of MCing which has generated an ongoing debate as to who holds the crown for top dog MC. Royce has collaborated with Eminem, DJ Premier, and numerous other artists who deeply value the art of the lyrical MC, an artform which many argue, particularly Royce himself, has dissipated from the forefront of the hip-hop conscience. On Layers, Royce seems highly critical of the Billboard stars of today’s hip-hop scene, and the quality of his storytelling reveals a deep seated desire to bring hip-hop back to the competitiveness of its lyrical past, if that past can ever be reobtained. On Layers, Royce begs his listeners to keep a close ear to every line of his lyrics as he peels back the layers of his street psychology, his earnest artistic ruminations, and his intellect, presenting his newest project as a challenge to the intrepid hip-hop novices and stoic, overconfident old heads of hip-hop’s past.
Layers begins with a lengthy, sincere rap monologue entitled “Tabernacle” that harkens back to a moment of sheer cliffs and soaring ascensions, a moment of trial that was overcome through hip-hop and sincerity. On the track, Royce raps over a simplistic beat with piano chords, choir notes, and a pleasant medley acoustic percussion. Royce introduces his verse with a confident authenticity, dispelling all doubt about the sincerity of his poetics, as he raps “Like I’m standing inside of a Tabernacle/ I promised not to lie in not one of these verses.” Royce opens up a chapter from his ongoing lyrical biography, extinguishing his weaknesses by airing them with the gusto of his delivery: “My name is Ryan Daniel Montgomery/ Recovering alcoholic, I grew up on 9 Mile/ I’m not a gangster, drug deal or thug nigga/ Just an MC who made a name with his rhyme style.” In this song, Royce even refuses to draw the veil of his alias, simply stating his name, his home, and his vice.
On this single and throughout the rest of the album, Royce draws power from the depravity of his lowest moments, as he raps “My daddy taught me consistency with his fucking patterns/ Hallelujah I’m the son of an addict/ My addiction was music.” Royce channels his addictive nature into something productive, using hip-hop as a platform to vent and find meaning. Royce continues in the following verses to tell the story of December 29, the day that his son was born and the day that his grandmother was lost. The candor of Royce’s story is a reminder of the urgency with which some rappers deliver their lyrics to their audience. For Royce and many other MCs, hip-hop is not just a popular music genre, but a community of artists, fighters, and thinkers, a platform to explore and develop the lost narratives of the street life, and a cultural landscape that considers the livelihood of all peoples, locally and internationally.
"Startercoat" is another song on the album which showcases Royce’s tenacity for consistent rhymes and unconventional honesty. In this song, Royce makes a reference to “Brenda’s Got a Baby” by 2Pac, a heartbreaking tale of love and shame, regret and loss. This hip-hop allusion seems incredibly pertinent for Royce, as he tries situate himself with the kings of hip-hop’s lyrical legacy. On this song, Royce lays into the Billboard “The 10 Best Rappers of All Time” list, rapping “But the Billboard list was kinda comical/ How the fuck was it designed and chronicled.” Royce explains the debt that he owes to Shakur in his verse, as he spits “If ‘Pac ain’t on your list then you ain’t fuckin’ logical/ I’m talkin’ up the shit, not no fuckin’ 5 or 4.” Royce’s indictment of Billboard is strengthened by the consistency of his lines, as he impeccably flows a rapid “abca” rhyme scheme. The production on this track is excellent as well, as Mr. Porter, a well known producer from Shady Record’s D12 or Dirty Dozen, provides a track that features a hectic acoustic drum pattern and a sinister synth and bass line. The acoustic qualities of this production leaves plenty of room for Royce to flaunt his lyrical skill, a great pairing that allows for the talents of both musicians to shine.
While Layers is not filled with party bangers or catchy, memorable hooks, Royce uses his album as a platform to create a dialogue with his audience. The lyricism of his music leaves hip-hop fanatics with a few unanswered questions: what happened to the art of the MC, what happened to the authenticity that hip-hop was expected to entail? Although Royce is undoubtedly a virtuous rapper and a unquestionable lyricist, is Royce’s style of hip-hop outdated or irrelevant? Even though Royce’s music is not aligned with the obsession of aesthetics in contemporary rap music, such as Young Thug, Future, or the intrepid Lil Yachty, his work is still touching, honest, and meaningful.
Despite the trends of today’s hip-hop scenes, despite the popularity of the trap movement, Royce remains true to himself and unabashedly true to his understanding of hip-hop. As the genre that is hip-hop expands, the elements of sound that spell hip-hop will undoubtedly change as well. Therefore, although Royce’s aesthetic may not make him a best seller, it is unquestionably hip-hop, and great hip-hop at that. As his music shows, Royce is dead set on telling his story, and the surge of trendy rap will not stop him from doing so. I find Royce’s work touching, powerful, and refreshing, and I look forward to hearing the continuation of his powerful sonic narratives.