Layers (to be released April 15, 2016)
At this point it’s downright cliche to call Royce 5’9 “underrated.”
His career spans nearly 15 years, he’s spit magma-laced verses while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with titans like Eminem and Slaughterhouse and he’s been cosigned by arguably the greatest producer of all time, DJ Premier.
The more he’s overlooked, the more ferocious he gets — and that’s why Layers, his sixth solo effort, is one of his greatest outings to date.
In eight months, when y’all start compiling those “Best Songs of 2016” lists, they won’t be complete without a mention of “Tabernacle.” Royce’s strongest attribute is his storytelling and this autobiographical single plays out almost cinematically. Royce emotionally details one fateful night that brought him the birth of his son, the death of his grandmother and the beginning of his ascension into rap. Joy, pain and hope are intertwined in the realest five minutes of rap you’ll hear all year.
In an industry that loves to glorify false bravado, Royce’s authenticity shines much brighter than your favorite rapper’s fool’s gold.
Royce’s passion — and overwhelming confidence — is the rocket fuel for the first half of Layers.
Nickle-Nine has a chip on his shoulder the size of a boulder on “Hard,” dropping his typically defiant bars…
I’m flyer than Mos Def in a Trump tower surrounded by four chefs
Fixing him some slamon croquettes with Kendrick, Cole and Kweli
In their dinner clothes, try me, you and your crew will bleed
Y’all bums ain’t shot for the stars – just New Years Eve
Nothing was given to me
…While launching rapid-fire punchlines like Floyd on the speedbag on “Shine.”
Hip-hop is my house, watch my philosophies win
Around artists I stand out like I locked my keys in
I forgot my goal to 21 was make a classic
Walk away like Tiger with my nine iron then take the master’s
Still, Royce is always at his best when he uses his wicked wordplay to impart wisdom. The impassioned “Pray” is just as much a plea for protection as it is as a warning against life’s pitfalls:
Don’t pray for me, pray for Paris
Pray for Nigeria, pray for peace
Pray for your marriage
Pray your horse don’t sway far away from your carriage
Why you put all your eggs in one basket?
Blowin’ dumb cash on Wraiths and karats
Your daughter ain’t an heiress, I hope she’s taken care of
The second half of Layers, thought still strong, slows slightly. “Misses” is an intricate tale of love filled with twists and turns, but lacks the bite of Royce’s previous jaunts like “Part of Me.” Loren W. Oden’s hook winds up stealing the show on “Dope!,” though Royce does find time to sucker punch your ears with a few jabs (“I could sell Harriet Tubman a railroad/I’m the flower with the thorn rising out the concrete, y’all just born on Melrose”). And while Royce and Pusha T exhibit incredible chemistry on the albums’ title track, Rick Ross’ verse seems really tacked on, with the same boring “I’m richer than you” boasts we’ve heard a billion times before.
It’s fitting that the album closes with “Off,” where Royce simply unpacks his soul on wax — no hook, no cute features, just a man, a microphone and his mind. Layers isn’t fancy but it’s forceful, the type of album any authentic wordsmith would love to have on his or her resume.
I’m sure when those “best of” lists get posted later this year, Layers will be slapped with the underrated tag.
It’s cool, keep calling Royce underrated. It only fuels his fire
Best tracks: “Tabernacle,” “Pray,” “Shine”
4 stars out of 5