23 July 2018

REVIEW | Royce da 5'9" - Book of Ryan

Royce's career is one that many emcees would kill for: a solid catalog of LPs/EPs/mixtapes that spans (almost) two decades, one fourth of the lyrical Voltron group Slaughterhouse (unfortunately the now extinct group), half of a rap duo with Eminem (Bad Meets Evil), and half of the emcee/producer team with the legendary DJ Premier (PRhyme). If you are one of those people that has Nickel Nine in your top ten, I can't front. I ain't mad at that. Royce not only has a slew of classic bars and tracks in his arsenal, but dude got a few projects that certain circles will stamp with that "classic" tag as well. His second album, Death Is Certain, comes to mind (I might throw in Layers as a possible). As well as his mixtape series The Bar Exam (with the likes of Statik Selektah, DJ Premier, DJ Green Lantern, and DJ Whoo Kid at the helm). So how did Royce da 5'9" do on his seventh solo album? Let's find out.

Let's start with his first single, "Boblo Boat", featuring J Cole. The beat is sampled from Michał Urbaniak's "A Day in Park". Urszula Dudsiak's vocals can be heard throughout the track, mainly taken from her first verse. Her words play like a grocery list of words associated with an amusement park. The track actually starts off with an excerpt from a documentary about Bob-Lo Island. The narrator, Mort Crim, introduces the Canadian amusement park that existed from 1898 to 1993. Royce remembers taking the "Bob-Lo Boats" (S.S. Columbia and the S.S. Ster. Clair) from Detroit, Michigan to Ontario, Canada. Nickel uses this backdrop to paint fond memories at the park and foreshadows events that influenced his upbringing. Moments of happiness are broken by the threat of addiction that ran through his family. His metaphors juxtapose food courts with the aroma of weed, and swimming pools surrounded by broken glass. J Cole takes the baton seamlessly as he gives his tale from his North Carolina upbringing. Cole didn't have trips to Bob-Lo Island, but he vividly recalls his teenage years. Everyone was just worried about being "cool". For Cole and his friends it meant smoking, drinking, and losing your virginity. In these simpler times Cole was most happy joy riding in his mother's Honda Civic with his crew. Times have changed, but Cole assures the listeners that he still hasn't peeked as an emcee. As first singles go, you don't get better than this.

"Cocaine" was a track that stood out from the first listen. It actually comes after a skit. It's a little deep, but the skit ends with Royce's son asking for help with his school paper about "a figure in [his] life that [he] finds inspiring, that [he] looks up to". His son chose to write the paper about his father, Royce. The title for the paper would be "The Book of Ryan". SO DOPE. His son's first question is, "who are you?" Then we enter "Cocaine". Royce skillfully answers his son with a specific anecdote about Royce's father and the first time he found out about his drug use. Royce's battle with addiction is well documented, and this entire album pulls the curtain back on never before seen (or heard) personal stories. A recurring question is: if Royce's father didn't battle addiction, would Royce (and his bother) not have to deal with their own addictions? Royce knows that he lost a lot of time with his family while he was battling addiction. "Cocaine" is meant to explain to his son that addiction runs heavy in their family. By understanding his grandfather's struggle, his son is able to better understand the struggle Royce went through. In the end, both men beat their addictions by using their families as their motivation and strength. This is a beautiful track that also just sounds dope.

We've heard about the concept for the Book of Ryan since 2016. But it wasn't until March (this year), around the release of PRhyme 2that we got a tracklist and cover art for the Book of Ryan. Royce basically pulled a Josh Brolin. Brolin played Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War AND Cable in Deadpool 2. Dude had two blockbusters a month (not even) apart from one another. PRhyme 2 dropped on March 16th, and month and some change later Royce was hitting us up with his seventh solo LP. In Hip Hop head circles, both of these albums definitely garnered a lot of buzz. Any solo album is always a risk. Since it is just you. Good or bad, it's all on you. That risk multiplies when you start getting up there in the tracklist. The Book of Ryan clocks in at 21 tracks (well, 19 if you discount the two skit tracks). We are finally enough removed from "Kanye season" that a 21 track album is a breath of fresh air. That's a drive home from work or a session at the gym. No skips. No repeats. But an hour (almost) listening to a "very personal" project? That's though, but here is the genius. So you got the theme, but you can't "Slippin'" or "Cleanin' Out My Closet" us to death for 21 tracks. Nickel hits you with a stick and move. He distributes where he chooses to go into detail about specific subjects and where he can provide broader perspectives that are relatable to more listeners. And of course there are parts where he can just flex his lyrical muscles for the sake of flexing. Oh, and THE BEATS. As an executive producer (along with Mr. Porter and S1), Royce is able to craft an entire album by hand picking the perfect instrumentals for each section of the album. The range that Nickel is successfully able to hit is crazy. And to make it all cohesive is even more amazing. Songs like "Summer on Lock" shouldn't work in this particular album. But it does. The T-Pain (T-Pain!) assisted "First of the Month" track also stand out as a surprisingly successful addition. Royce adds harmony to his already impressive lyrical repertoire. Not just on the "lighter" songs, but on deep joints like "Anything/Everything". Royce is able to balance an interpersonal album by adding current and relevant subject matter that all can relate to. The Book of Ryan is just that. An autobiographical book on tape. To say this is an introspective album would be an understatement. If you listen to this album for a week straight (or weeks, as I have), you'll have a different favorite track every single day. This project is authentic, vulnerable, and raw. Real rap. I got nothing else. If you a Nickel fan, you better have this in rotation. If you a Hip Hop head, ditto.

Peep video for "Boblo Boat" and the track they sampled, "A Day In The Park", below. AND peep the whole album too! And after you do that, stop being cheap and support Book of Ryan for real. Can't complain there ain't no real rap when you don't support real rap. Truth.

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18 July 2018

REVIEW | PRhyme - PRhyme 2

Man, talk about determination!  Who the fuck does this Royce guy think he is dropping two albums in the same year like this?  The only other name that immediately comes to mind is the dog himself, DMX, who hit us over the head with It's Dark and Hell is Hot in May of '98, then again with Flesh of my Flesh, Blood of my Blood in December of that same year.  The thing is, X was generous enough to let the first album breathe a little bit before jumping onto the next one.  Royce da 5'9", on the other hand, gave zero fucks about flooding the market with heat in the span of just two months.  In March of 2018, he and Preemo kicked things off first with PRhyme 2, the sequel to 2014's universally acclaimed debut project from the super group.

I assume that Royce and DJ Premier were aware of how high the bar was set with PRhyme, so what would their approach be this time around?  Well, without beating around the bush, it's a mixed bag of ideas that sound really good at times, but never quite gel together in any way.  An example of this is a song like "Everyday Struggle."  You can tell Royce was clearly aiming to bridge the gap between old heads and modern rappers on the track, but the problem is that it completely contradicts "Era," one of the earlier tracks on the album that preaches how Royce feels like he's wasting his time making music in the wrong generation.  So what are we really talking about here, bruh?  There are also a couple of questionable features and hooks on PRhyme 2 that make you wonder if Royce just ran out of top-tier rapper friends to collaborate with after the stellar feature list from the first album.  I'm sorry, but Royce has absolutely no business making music with 2 Chainz for ANY reason.  Not only that, but Chainz's contribution is BY FAR the worst verse I've heard from him since his emancipation from Disturbing tha Peace.  This is a problem.  Shit like this tarnishes the PRhyme brand in my opinion.  When DJ Premier attaches his name to something, there's a certain level of quality control expected, and there just wasn't enough of it on this album. 

While PRhyme 2 is certainly a far more thematic project than its predecessor, you rarely ever feel that signature Preemo thunder for more than a couple of tracks successively.  For the most part, it's an album where style takes a backseat to substance.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but with Premier at the helm it's natural to expect his style to be prominent throughout.  Even though he technically had a hand in producing every song, it's evident that Premier leaned a little too hard on AntMan Wonder for production this time around, as a good chunk of this album sounds nothing like what you'd expect from Preem.  Still, Royce's artistry makes it work by making sure nearly every track sticks to a given theme without falling into a pool of shallow-yet-lyrical rappity raps for too long. 

"Black History" ferociously kicks off the album with one half sending you on a journey through Royce's troubled life from birth, while the other half gives you a quick rundown of Premier's career leading up to the inception of Gang Starr, Jeru the Damaja's debut album, and Group Home to name a few.  It's a powerful yet succinct trip down memory lane designed to either educate youngins that ain't ran their Googles yet, or jog the memories of older rap heads who grew up witnessing DJ Premier shape the entire culture of hip-hop on the east coast.  That same energy is maintained into the next song, "1 of the Hardest," which truly lives up to its name as Nickel Nine is on his typical braggadocios shit with an onslaught of nothing but BARS.  The real meat of the album is found right in the middle though, with a mostly consistent streak of standout bangers such as "Streets at Night," "Rock It," and "My Calling" taking center stage.  Sadly though, that streak comes to an end with "Made Man" which is a song that speaks on how despite what anyone thinks about his career, Royce da 5'9" feels like he has been successful and deserves to be respected.  It may end up not being very memorable, but based on the subject matter alone this would have been a good track to end the album on, as the remaining five songs do nothing but weaken the project. 

Overall, PRhyme 2 is certainly an adequate follow-up to the original, but you're gonna find yourself doing a lot of skipping around as it pales in comparison to the consistently raw and aggressive underground vibe of the first album.  It almost makes you wonder if the original PRhyme should have just been left alone as a modern day classic.  Songs like "Rock It," "Streets at Night," and "1 of the Hardest" most definitely fit the premise of PRhyme as a collective.  The major issue is that with so many missteps like "Gotta Love It," and "W.O.W.," as well as tracks whose themes were better than the songs themselves like "Loved Ones," "Flirt," "Everyday Struggle," and even the lead single "Era," it's as if Preem and Royce just dumped a bunch of random shit on us and called it a PRhyme project without it having any notable identity.  Sometimes less is more, and that is certainly the case with PRhyme 2 vs. PRhyme.  I feel like if half of these songs were left on the cutting room floor, PRhyme 2 might be able to compete with its predecessor on a more equal playing field.  It holds up on well enough on its own, but if their goal was to establish some sort of reputation moving forward with PRhyme, this album did little to strengthen the brand.

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03 July 2018


SIX YEARS. It's been six years since Nasir Jones dropped a new project. Y'all remember that DJ Khaled single, "Nas Album Done" (they even made a music video for it!)? That was two years ago. And about this same time last year we got the hashtag #NasAlbumAlmostDone on Instagram from Nas' brother Jungle. Then crickets. So for the better part of two years Nas fans have been fiending for a new full length album. And after all that, somehow, Nas got pulled into the gravitational pull of the Kanye West/GOOD Music "Wyoming Sessions". So off the bat we know NASIR was getting seven tracks. I've been vocal about my aversion to this new accepted length for an LP (his daddy called it an EP, I'm gonna call it an EP). But Illmatic was technically nine tracks (I know it's ten tracks but the intro track is more of a skit). Plus we all know what both artists are capable of (and we saw what Kanye did with Pusha T), so I'm still going into this "LP" pretty excited. Let's go.

The intro track "Not For Radio" features Puff Daddy in another "Hate Me Now" (from the I Am album) role. Puff starts the latter track by saying "Escobar season has returned". On the new track, Nas starts off with "Escobar season begins". Early in his career, one of Nas' monikers was "Nas Escobar". This was of course a reference to Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug kingpin. With almost a decade between these two songs, Nas kicks off the album by letting you know he is still the same lyrical monster he was in his younger days. Kanye lays down a choir-like melody that almost feels like a movie score. Nas attacks the track with all the tools in his repertoire: a smooth flow and cadence, complex subject matter, conscious metaphors, and gritty bars. Nas hits you with powerful lyrics about: Egyptian gods, black pride, divinity, fashion (Goyard, Google it), Cooley high, the presidential election, politics, slavery, longevity, fake friends, divinity, Catholics, Moors, Freemasons, Black Panthers, SWAT, Willie Lynch, crack/Pablo Escobar, American history, fear, and a rack of other themes I'm sure I missed. Nas has been consistent when it comes to ill intro tracks. This is no different. There is a theory (based on Kanye tweeting the definition of the seven deadly sins four days before NASIR dropped), that each Nas track is meant to correlate to a deadly sin. "Not For Radio" would correspond to pride since it is very "pro-black/proud". Even though Nas ends the track acknowledging the downfalls of being "too proud".

"Simple Things" is a very clever track on a more chilled and soulful beat. There is a hint of melody in his cadence that compliments this last track. This song is Nas looking back at his career and life. The spiritual emcee elevates his bars to make sure his place among the greats is undisputed. Nas recognizes his greatest flaw (according to critics) is his production selection. But he takes pride in not sounding like the "top 40". Nas will never follow a fad or passing trend. He will not dumb down his lyrics and subject matter to appease the radio overlords. He states that his lyrics are studied (and taught) by college professors. Like the course “Poetry in America for Teachers: The City from Whitman to Hip Hop" (whose track syllabus includes "It Ain't Hard To Tell") at Harvard. Yeah, that Harvard. The newer generation might not like Nas, or think he is boring. But Nas could care less. His catalog has sold over 25 million units, so "somebody agrees with the music". Nas also references his relationships with the most beautiful women in the world. Most of whom he has kept private. Even though he has enjoyed a luxurious life, he still loves getting in a "spaceship" with his brother and going back to Queensbridge to hang out with his people. And again, if we follow the seven deadly sins theory, we can correspond "Simple Things" to the sin of envy. Nas is aware of the envious (jealous) people who look at him with hate and resentment. From his relationships to his career, Nas knows critics and haters feed off of his downfall. But through all of this, Nas breaks down the essence of the song with his final bar: "I just want my kids to have the same peace I'm blessed with". Nas' daughter, Destiny (little Des got your eyes) started her own lipstick line/brand(?). His youngest son will also have the resources to make a name for himself if he so chooses. Nas wants his kids to enjoy the simple things in life, peace. The way to defeat envy is by finding inner peace and not letting outside influences run your life. Nas has found a peace through all the trials and tribulations (public and private), and all he wants is his kids to find their peace as well.

If you're a Nas fan and a Kanye fan, this mini LP will be everything you expected. But I will get through what I wasn't feeling first. First all the Kanye stuff. Production wise, I can't front. While this album definitely sounds like a "Kanye album", it works for Nas (for the most part). For me though, I think I'm good with the Nas/Kanye whole album thing. Meaning, no más. Gracias. IF Nas is going to do another one producer project, it should ONLY be with DJ Premier. Honestly I would have liked to hear whatever album he had cooking up a few years ago before Kanye took the reigns. And if I'm comparing this with DAYTONA, I think overall the production worked better for Pusha T than Nas. I don't think Nas was as involved as Push was with Kanye in that department. At least it doesn't sound like he was to me. And then there is the "Kanye" thing. I REALLY wanted to separate Kanye the producer with Kanye the person. But while Nas is dropping these socially conscious gems, all I can think of is all the ignorant and wild shit Kanye's been saying. So there you go. I didn't want this to happen. But it did. And the more we get away from his last TMZ rant (which he recently recanted), the more everyone seems to be cool with Kanye again. My brain just isn't wired like that. *END RANT* Now onto the Nas portion of the review. Overall I would have liked more consistency in quality and quantity. There were moments of GREATNESS. No surprise there. And I am not talking about the whole seven track nonsense. For example, "Everything" is probably one of my favorite tracks. It is the longest track, clocking in at 7:33. But Nas' verses go for just over 2:30. This joint has The-Dream AND Kanye giving us two overlapping (why?) choruses. The song "Bonjour" is a grown man "Change Clothes"-type track. I actually like this track too, but this is definitely an example of those "Kanye featuring Nas" complaints I've seen floating around. Lyrically there are few missteps from the mature poet. For the most part we get politically and socially conscious themes that we expect from one of Hip Hop's elder statesman. Songs like "Adam and Eve" make you yearn for more. Nas and Kanye both compliment each others musical genius perfectly here. Almost effortlessly, Nas uses his experiences to school young and old heads. Sprinkled with braggadocio bars, Nas makes sure that he connects with this swing. From a Nas fan, this is a really good album. But I think I might be caught in that "what if" moment. What if we had 12-15 tracks (like we are accustomed to getting from Nas)? What if Large Professor produced a track? Preem? My expectations for this album were different I guess. But don't get it twisted. This album is better than 90% of what is out now. I'd normally say 99%, but man, we've had some DOPE SHIT this year. But if I compare this to the rest of his catalog, it would be on the lower half. But a lot of the style points I deducted were because of Kanye. This whole "seven is a magic number" thing ain't working for me. And a couple of arrangements seemed off. And the biggest "what if" is, what if we got that pre/non-Kanye album? I don't know. But this joint still gonna be in my rotation for the foreseeable future. I got the vinyl coming, so you know this will still go on my top albums of 2018 so far. If anything, this album gives me hope for the next chapter in Nas' career. With all the business ventures he's been making lately, you feel something really special is on the horizon.

Peep the NASIR album listening party and that DJ Khaled "Nas Album Done" video below.

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